From Silk Road to Textile Hub

Will the MENA region transform itself into the world’s leading textile manufacturing center?

The Arab world was once part of the fabled Silk Road, with many towns and cities across present-day Iraq, Syria and Lebanon operating as important silk trading and manufacturing centers. Fast forward a few hundred years, and the MENA region is again an important center of textile manufacturing. Seven countries in particular are developing their textile sectors to become global producers of clothes and fabrics.

Jordan Fashion Design Graphic

Jordan is one of the MENA region’s great textile hubs. In two separate regions – Amman’s Industrial City and Zarqa – FTA has identified nearly 50 textile manufacturing plants that export merchandise to markets far and wide across the globe. Those plants produce various types of clothing for some of the world’s best-known brands, giving Jordan an edge over its Middle Eastern manufacturing rivals.

The Hashemite Kingdom’s textile industry has been growing steadily since 2010, and its garment exports now account for 20% of the country’s GDP. In Amman’s desert surroundings, industrial parks are home to garment factories producing clothes for some of America’s most recognized brands, including Calvin Klein, Gap, Hanes, Eddie Bauer, Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger and Victoria’s Secret. Large US chains – Macy’s, Sears, Kmart and Walmart – have also singled out Jordan as a primary manufacturing hub for their products.

According to the Jordan Garments, Accessories & Textiles Exporter’s Association (JGATE), exports of textiles and textile products totaled $1.52 billion in 2020, with 90% of exports going to the United States.

Syria Fashion Design Graphic

Prior to the onset of the Civil War, Syria was one of the world’s great textile manufacturing hubs. Aleppo – once Syria’s largest city and its former economic engine – was a great producer of cotton textiles and home to over 500 textile establishments. In 2009, two years before the onset of the Civil War, Syria’s official statistics reported that the country’s textile industry constituted 45% of non-oil exports and employed 30% of the labor force. At the time, the value of Syrian textile production ran about $2 billion.

While the country’s textile industry survived the first few years of the war, it was eventually dealt a nearly fatal blow with the destruction of countless businesses and the subsequent dismissal of thousands of workers – it is estimated that about 70% of Syria’s 24,000 registered textile facilities had to close as a result of the war. In Aleppo specifically, many establishments that survived the constant bombing campaigns had to close in 2018 due to a lack of raw materials. “Aleppo factories and markets suffer from a serious lack of a number of productive, commercial and industrial materials, especially textiles, fabrics, dying and yarn,” Fares al-Shihabi, head of the Federation of Chambers of Industry and of the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce, reportedly said.

The future of the Syrian textile industry remains unclear. With the country’s manufacturing facilities in shambles and half its population now either refugees in foreign lands or internally displaced, it’s hard to imagine how Syria will ever rebuild its once thriving textile sector.

UAE United Arab Emirates Fashion Design Graphic

UAE’s economy is often associated with oil and tourism. Yet the textile sector is a major pillar of the economy – the Emirates’ textile industry is its second largest sector after oil in terms of income and employment.

The main manufacturing facilities are divided between two locations, the first being Dubai Textile City. The second location, the Emirate of Fujairah, has the Middle East’s largest textile factory and is one of the biggest textile hubs in the world, producing 10,000 tons of cotton yarn per year. The factories are set within the Fujairah Free Zone, which offers a tax-free environment for companies operating in the Emirate. Additionally, the nearby Port of Fujairah offers easy access to the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean, allowing for quick export of the various textile goods produced in the free zone.

The largest selling UAE textile product is knitwear fabric, accounting for nearly half of production, followed by woven fabrics. The fabrics are exported to over 50 countries worldwide and also benefit from a strong domestic market.

Algeria Fashion Design Graphic

Algeria is an important player in the textile market. The vast North African country prides itself on being the gateway to Europe for exporters. In addition, its population of over 42 million provides a large domestic market for the clothes and fabrics the country produces.

Tayal, a joint venture between the Algerian government and Turkey’s Taypa textile company, is building a major new factory in the Sidi Khettap industrial zone east of Oran. This textile manufacturing facility will be the largest of its kind in all of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. The first phase of the factory has recently been completed, and it currently employs 2,000 workers of 10 different nationalities. Once construction of all facilities is completed – sometime in 2021 – the factory is expected to employ 25,000 workers, with plans to export roughly half of all production. Tayal’s main production purpose is to transform “cotton from fiber to denim, non-denim, knitted, shirting fabric and garments.”

Morocco Fashion Design Graphic

Morocco has one of the most developed and successful textile sectors in the MENA region. The country is particularly well-known for its denim products, which alone generate an impressive annual revenue of about $600 million. The North African country’s textile sector currently accounts for 25% of its exports and 7% of its GDP, making it a key driver of the Moroccan economic engine. The country produces a jaw-dropping one billion pieces of clothing per year.

Spain is Morocco’s main textile market, accounting for 61% of all clothing exports, followed by France, which accounts for 20% of such exports. Other important export markets include Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Free-trade agreements and a convenient location just across the Mediterranean from Spain give Morocco an edge over other textile producers, while low labor costs make it a more attractive investment destination than EU textile production rivals such as Poland.

Over 1,600 textile manufacturers operate in Morocco, including Spanish powerhouse Inditex, parent company of Zara, Mango and Bershka. In 2018, Morocco’s textile sector generated over $4 billion and employed nearly 80,000 workers, but the sector was negatively impacted by the pandemic, generating nearly 25% less income in 2020.

Tunisia Fashion Design Graphic

The Tunisian textile sector has experienced dramatic growth over the past few years and has become one of the top 15 such sectors in the world. Similarly to its Moroccan neighbor, Tunisia benefits from a close geographical proximity to Europe. The country is the fifth largest supplier of textiles to the EU, which imports a staggering 96% of Tunisia’s textile output. Tunisia is also the single largest provider of pants to the European market. Other notable exports include lingerie and work wear.

The importance of the Tunisian textile sector cannot be underestimated. Currently, over 1,600 textile-related businesses operate in Tunisia, providing over 160,000 jobs, generating more than $2.6 billion in revenue and contributing over 20% to the country’s GDP. Tunisian textile expertise ranges from thread-making and fabric weaving to spinning, hosiery, finishing and knitting.

Textiles constitute Egypt’s primary industrial sector. The country has over 7,000 garment and textile factories that produce an incredible 500 million pieces every single day and employ 1.5 million workers, about 50% of whom are women. Egypt is particularly well-known for its cotton, dubbed “white gold” by industry insiders. This extra-long staple cotton is highly sought after and purported to be the best of its kind in the world.

The Egyptian textile industry is vertically integrated, and it’s characterized by a comprehensive process that begins with cotton cultivation and then encompasses the production of yarn, fabric and ready-made apparel.

The Government of Sweden, under the MENATEX program, and the Government of Switzerland, under the Global Textiles and Clothing (GTEX) program, have co-funded a technical assistance project to help boost the textile sector’s international competitiveness. The initial phase of the three-year project is scheduled to run until the end of 2021 and is being implemented by the International Trade Center (ITC).

The United States is Egypt’s main export market, purchasing anywhere from 50% to 80% of the country’s textile production. The remaining output is exported mainly to EU and Arab markets. Egyptian textile and apparel exports totaled $2.3 billion in 2020 according to Fibre2Fashion.