Skip to main content


Published in 2A Magazine Issue #15&16 Autumn 2010 Winter  2011


Keller Easterling

is an architect and writer from New York City. Her book, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades (MIT, 2005) researches familiar spatial products that have landed in difficult or hyperbolic political situations around the world. A previous book Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways and Houses in America applies network theory to a discussion of American infrastructure and development formats. A forthcoming book, Extrastatecraft, examines global infrastructure networks as a medium of polity. Easterling has lectured and published widely in the United States and internationally. She is a professor at Yale University.


Filmmaker Ursula Biemann has traveled to some of the most extreme and divergent places in the world to discover the same thing. In Performing the Border, she shot valuable footage of young women employed in Maquiladoras on the US-Mexico border. They are seen going to work on foot or in a bus, carrying lunch boxes, talking and laughing. But for changes in costume, Biemann captures similar images in a segment of her new film, X-Mission titled The Refugee Industrial Complex. Young Middle Eastern workers wearing jilbab and head scarves are employed in another sort of factory. They talk and laugh as they walk to work or wait for buses. They deftly sew nude colored girdles and racerback sports bras in fluorescently lit factories that are part of a Qualifying Industrial Zones or QIZ.

The zone—Free Trade Zones, Export Processing Zones or Special Economic Zones among scores of other zone variants—has evolved from a fenced in enclave for warehousing and manufacturing to a primary organ of global urbanism and world city paradigm. In 1934, the US legislated it first zone format, the Foreign Trade Zone, largely as a warehousing district. One of the most wide-spread forms of the zone, like the Export Processing Zone or EPZ, became popular beginning in the 1960s introduced manufacturing and therefore workers into the zone. Designed to operate as manageable economic instruments, or incentivized urbanism of the classic neoliberal cliché, they were promoted by intergovernmental organizations like UNIDO or The World Bank and touted among economists and global financial consultants as one means by which developing countries might enter the global marketplace and attract foreign direct investment. The basic EPZ template prescribes special infrastructures, business incentives like tax exemptions, foreign ownership of property, streamlined customs, cheap labor and relaxed labor or environmental regulations. Since an authority independent from the domestic sovereignty of its host state usually governs the zone enclave, the zone can become a parliament for independent global players. UNIDO as well as other independent business organizations gathered data on early EPZs like Kaohsiung or Shannon, using it to prove  economic efficacy and tutor the rest of the world in zone protocols.

Despite everything learned from EPZs in their first forty years of explosive growth—that they often exploit low-paying, largely female labor, that they often do not lead to technology transfers and often do not contribute to infrastructural assets outside of their discrete enclave—the zone continues to be treated as a durable economic instrument. Indeed, Some of the same experts who invented the zone have declared the zone to be a suboptimal instrument of economic growth, inferior to simple nation-building investment in new technologies and infrastructures.  Yet, in the meantime global business has become addicted to the incentives. Incentivized urbanism has become a permanent desire and a new service industry, of sorts. The independent authority of the zone has been given the freedom to perpetuate itself in global networks within which the zone may be anything from a tiny enclave to a world city on the Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong model. In face, the zone is the model for most new global cities, and it is even adopted as the template for a doppelganger of the national capital or, indeed, the national capital itself.

In 1996, The United States Congress, once again, legislated a zone instrument, the QIZ, this time for both economic and political dividends. The QIZ can be established between Israel and Jordan or between Israel and Egypt, and they allow products from either Egypt or Jordan to be exported to the United States duty free as long as Israel has contributed a percentage of their value—8% for Israel-Jordan and 11.7% for Israel-Egypt.  Moreover 35% of the entire value of the product must be derived from work in the actual zone in either Egypt or Jordan. Portions of each zone must be in both partnering countries, but they need not be contiguous. Although there are other sectors in play, in most cases the QIZ protocol applies to industries that import fabric from Israel, often at a relatively high price within the global fabric market, and export garments to the United States. Many companies from all over the world might operate in the QIZ, and decide to take advantage of the protocol that allows for duty free access to the United States market.

Biemann’s film turns the camera on anthropologist Orub El Abed, who, with only a flicker of restrained judgment, describes the way in which QIZ was created as a “gift” from the United States to Jordan and Israel, rewarding them for making a peace agreement. She explains that in the case of Jordan, the country was anxious to relieve unemployment and rehearse a broader range of technologies and industries. In the end, the most sophisticated technologies used in the manufacturing process remain on the Israeli side of the equation, while the largely unskilled repetitive tasks are outsourced to Jordan. In 1998, Al-Hassan Industrial Estate in Irbid already established in 1991, was designated as the first QIZ.

UNIDO and the World Bank originally conceived of the zone as a temporary condition that would successively roll out in the next poorest country waiting to enter the global market while the previous zone countries upgraded their technology and learned to leverage foreign direct investment with new nation-building enterprises. That was the idea. Countries like Taiwan have indeed upgraded their industries to include, for instance high tech, in part because of the EPZ in Kaohsiung were taking advantage of rather than propelling the mostly female labor that country contributed to the deal. Nevertheless, Taiwan has maintained the zone concept. Within the original economic formula wherein the countries lowest on the totem pole would provide the cheapest labor, the QIZ seem to indicate that it is time for the poorer areas of the Middle East to become the world’s Kaohsiung. This bizarre model of a globally ranked economy in which the most powerful devise a “helpful” economic instrument to exploit the less powerful countries becomes even more bizarre as the zone becomes a permanent condition. And in many zone networks of served and servants, a great deal of diplomatic effort is expended to maintain the servant in place. The Israel-Jordan and Israel Egyptian zone relationship like the relationship between the US and Mexico or the relationship between the Emirates and some South Asian countries are perfect examples of these unequal partnerships.

The Jordanian QIZ also demonstrated that while the zone has been both the hidden secret of the host state as well as the sparkling new city that it advertises to the world, it has also, given its juridical independence, simply become a more formalized instrument of the recent explosion of extraterritorial urbanism. The real cross-national network is no longer confined to the immediate region. Other countries can be stakeholders in the zone. And any component in the manufacturing process including the labor can be sourced from any part of the world. In the Al-Hassan Industrial Estate Chinese, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi manufacturers imported their own workers from their own home countries so that the workers dormitories were filled with young Chinese and South Asian women.

In an added twist that surpasses irony, many of the factory owners and managers in Al-Hassan also hire young women from the nearby Palestinian refugee camps.  In Biemann’s interview, Orub El Abed describes the scenes in which these young refugee women are at once needed to bring income to a settlement with a limited economy and also often confronted at the bus stops by men from their camp who want to prevent them from contributing their labor to an Israeli economy. Biemann concludes that, “…the poorest and most marginalized segments of the population, the Palestinian refugees find themselves, ironically tied to into an economic agreement that normalizes the very relations that segregates them.”

As of 2010 the QIZs, sometimes called “specialized investment compounds,” that had been established in Jordan included the Al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah II Industrial Estate in Al Karak and the Aqaba Industrial International Estate in Aqaba, Al-Tajamouat Industrial City in Amman, Ad-Dulayl Industrial Park near Zarqa, Cyber City in Irbid, Al-Mushatta and Hallabat Industrial Park in Zarqa. Egypt did not enter the QIZ program until 2005, but has since, established 15 industrial sites for over 700 companies qualify for the QIZ treatment.  Egypt anticipates hundred of thousands of jobs, and while Jordan doubled its garment exports, Egypt expects to do even better. While the protocol as stated is to create an area devoted solely to export to the United States, Egyptian investment authorities state that the QIZ protocol does not have to be used for every product and that other non-QIZ investors may be sited in the same zone. An American observer is stationed in the zone, and the products are carefully monitored for the various percentages of production that must be met. For Jordan, imports have increased and while they also gained jobs, half of these jobs have been filled by workers from southern Asia. There have also been further allegations of sweatshop conditions and trafficking.

With over forty years of evidence about the performance of free zones, the QIZ that the US awarded to Jordan and Egypt appear to be a relatively transparent swindle. Still more difficult to understand is the consistent desire of states over the same forty year period for the zone. States negotiate for their women, cast as economic pawns, a chance to be laborers rather than a chance to receive an education. Zones have become many things—a wild urban mongrel that is impossible to classify. Still, from the earliest cases of EPZs in Kaohsiung to the more recent cases in the QIZs, the zone, in some of its incarnations, continues to function as a stable form of exploitation. It remains to be seen whether Jordan and Egypt leverage anything like the benefits that their partners receive from QIZ negotiation.

Meanwhile in Biemann’s film, the young women in the factory wearing work smocks and head scarves, smile a bit because they are embarrassed to be filmed and hold up the finished product:  the nude-colored girdle for Victoria’s Secret stamped “Made in Israel.


Leave a Reply