Jordan is vying to break Israel’s dominance of a major cosmetics industry based on Dead Sea minerals famous for their therapeutic qualities but, despite an abundance of mud, still has far to go.
Two decades after production first started, the industry on the Jordanian side still has a turnover of just US$30 million a year and accounts for only 0.5 percent of the kingdom’s annual exports of about US$6 billion.
Israel’s Ahava, which markets its moisturizing lotions and a range of other Dead Sea products in 30 countries, alone earns more than US$150 million a year, five times more than all of the Jordanian companies.
Some 50 Jordanian firms produce Dead Sea cosmetics, but only 15 have a global presence in markets across the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the US.
“The kingdom is rich in materials and its Dead Sea shoreline is muddy, in contrast to Israel’s rocky shoreline,” said Osama Qutaishat, head of Jordan’s association of manufacturers of Dead Sea products and owner of one of its largest cosmetics companies.
Israel’s rocky shoreline has meant it has even imported raw materials from Jordan since the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994.
“Many studies have shown that Dead Sea minerals including potassium, magnesium, silicon, sodium and calcium are effective in treating and preventing illnesses like psoriasis, eczema and acne,” Qutaishat said.
Landlocked between Jordan, Israel and the occupied West Bank, the Dead Sea is the world’s lowest and saltiest body of water.
Legend says the Queen of Sheba believed in its healing powers, and Egypt’s Cleopatra built a spa on its shores.
Lack of cooperation and the small size of the companies in the sector are the major problems of the industry, said Yarub Qudah, head of the state-owned Jordan Enterprise Development Corp.
“Their capabilities are limited. One of the solutions is systemized cooperation between the companies and the establishment of a consortium for exports,” he said.
“If the companies work properly, exports could reach 100 to 120 million dollars annually in five years,” he said, adding that if a plan to transform Dead Sea products into clinical products bears fruit, prices could jump “four or five times.”
Poor quality output by some firms has also been to blame, giving Jordanian products a bad name, the owners of some of the largest companies said.
Both Israel and Jordan are exploiting the Dead Sea tourist trade, with luxury hotels on either shore.
Both have also set up massive evaporation pools that harvest Dead Sea minerals like potash, or potassium carbonate, used to produce soap, glass, baking soda and fertilizers.
The Dead Sea, however, so named because virtually no life can tolerate its heavily salty waters, may be facing another kind of death — the sea’s surface level is plunging by a meter a year.
For centuries, the sea’s delicate balance was maintained by the Jordan river, its only year-round water source, but in recent decades Israel and Jordan have been diverting its waters into large irrigation projects.
The Dead Sea shoreline has receded by more than a kilometer in some places and the world-famous body of water could dry out completely by 2050, some calculations show.