Egyptian gas supplies to Jordan remain stable and have not been stopped, confirms Khaled Tharwat, Egyptian Ambassador to Jordan, adding that Jordan and Egypt remain strategic political and economic allies.
In an exclusive interview with Daily News Egypt, Tharwat also notes that Jordan represents one of the Arab world’s largest employers of Egyptians. He added that there is excellent cooperation between both countries to reconcile the status of Egyptian workers in Jordan, as many remain at near-constant risk of deportation because they are working informally.
Aside from its support for Egypt’s new political system, the ambassador stressed that Jordan is also a reliable and promising market for the export of Egyptian goods, particularly in terms of servicing needs once imported from Syria.
What is the current situation for Egyptian workers in Jordan?
Official figures indicate that there are 300,000 Egyptian workers, but informal figures suggest a number between 600,000 and 700,000 workers employed primarily in agriculture, construction, cleaning services, restaurants, and hotels.
Why are Egyptian workers always at risk of deportation?
Most of the problems for Egyptian labour are in the agricultural sector. Egyptians make up a majority of the labour in this field, but the work comes with contracts including low salaries. Workers hope to leave this work, and their sponsorship with it, and move over to construction, or any other activity, in order to attain a higher wage. This violates the Jordanian labour law, and those who break the law are put at risk of being deported. We are working with our Jordanian counterparts to open the possibility of allowing workers in the agricultural sector to transfer to other activities after the first year of their work contract, or continue on the condition of increased salary.
What efforts are being made by the embassy to solve this problem?
When I assumed my position at the end of 2012, there was a major crackdown on labour violations in Jordan, and a large number of deportations. After tough negotiations, the Jordanian side agreed to allow Egyptian workers a two-month period to correct their status. This reconciled the statuses of about 70,000 workers, but this number was far below the target.
Last February, the Joint Higher Jordanian-Egyptian Committee, headed by the Egyptian and Jordanian prime ministers, got together in Cairo and agreed to grant workers a new two-month correction period, which expired at the end of May. This led to the reconciliation of approximately 60,000 workers’ statuses.
Does this mean the problem is resolved?
No. The problem has not been resolved because a large number of people have still not come forward to correct their statuses despite facilities granted to workers to ease the correction process. For those applying in the first month of the correction period, for example, the fine is being waived and they are only paying fees to renew the license. Applicants who come forward during the second month will only pay a one-year fine. The embassy is looking into the phenomenon of workers abstaining from correcting their statuses. The real problem is that offenders will be subjected to arrest campaigns from the Jordanian authorities, who want to exercise their right in ensuring the residential status of those living in the country. In Jordan it is their right to guarantee that everyone residing in the country is doing so legally, particularly in light of the turmoil in its neighbouring countries, Syria and Iraq.
Are Egyptian workers competing with Jordanians? Where do Egyptian workers stand after the influx of Syrian refugees?
Egyptian workers do not compete with Jordanian labour in agricultural and service sector activities, but there is some competition in restaurants and hotels with Syrians, who offer to work for low wages. But Egyptian works have a good reputation in Jordan, and take on hard working conditions and are not politicised.
How can Egypt exploit the opportunity to increase exports to Jordan after Jordan stopped importing from Syria?
The Egyptian Commercial Office in Jordan prepared a list of goods needed by Jordan. I also met the President of the Amman Chamber of Commerce to better understand their needs, and we sent these requests to the responsible bodies in Egypt. We are currently working on increasing the meetings between businessmen and traders of the two countries and we have also established exhibitions for Egyptian products in Amman. We have participated in exhibitions in Jordan like the yearly Mother’s Day exhibition, which last year preceded an exhibition of traditional Egyptian products and handicrafts held in the ambassador’s house. The exhibition was attended by senior personalities and princes in Jordan, and they enjoyed it very much. The products with the highest demand in Jordan form Egypt are food products, agricultural crops, and chemicals.
What is the current status of Egyptian gas exports to Jordan?
There is a formal contract between Egypt and Jordan that goes back to the era of former President Hosni Mubarak, at the same time in which there were contracts made for the export of gas to Israel, Jordan and Spain. The problems Egypt is exposed to in terms of its energy shortage has led to a decline in the quantities exported to Jordan, and shipments have become volatile. The quantities contracted for are 235m cubic feet per day, but what arrives sometimes is 50m, 100m, or 120m cubic feet of gas, and irregularly at that.
Jordan relies on gas for 80% of its energy sources and all of its power stations work off it. Egyptian gas to Jordan however has never stopped, except in instances of pipeline explosions or technical stoppages at stations being repaired, and gas returns immediately.
How was Jordan affected by the reduction in gas supplied from Egypt?
Jordan suffered heavy losses to its public treasury, which had to spend between $4bn and $5bn as a result of importing more expensive diesel to run power plants. In the end it was forced to resort to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loans and to follow the economic measures required to meet the IMF’s terms.
Are there any solutions or joint ventures between Jordan and Egypt to offer more gas?
Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Nasur is an Arab nationalist and loves Egypt. Thus, when Jordan agreed with Iraq to extend the oil pipeline between Basra and Aqaba, and next to it a small line of gas, Al-Nasur thought to connect this line from Aqaba to Egypt and thus export oil to Africa through Egypt. This project enjoys Egyptian and Iraqi support and there are currently delegations from the three countries studying the project. Iraq and Jordan began choosing companies to extend the lines and implement the project. There is also another project proposed by the Jordanian side for Jordan to establish a terminal to receive liquefied gas in Aqaba. This might present an opportunity to export a part of this gas to Egypt. This is being looked into currently.
What is your assessment of political cooperation between Egypt and Jordan?
There is strategic cooperation between Egypt and Jordan. Jordan is one of the countries that supported Egypt after June 30. King Abdullah II’s visit to Egypt was the first for an official on this level after the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi, recognizing the new system and supporting it. Jordanian diplomacy stood beside Egypt in a big way, and helped, in coordination with Egyptian diplomacy, to correct the picture among Western countries about what happened in Egypt through their ambassadors and their Foreign Ministers. I expect more cooperation and coordination between Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states, all of which are facing the same challenges and risks.