Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Syria's liberal space

By Ahmed Abu Shadi

Barely 10 days before celebrating the 29th anniversary of President Hafez Al-Assad's coming to power in November 1970, Syria received an unusually valuable gift. On 7 November, The New York Times, one of the most influential papers in the United States, carried a story devoted to the "hidden wonders" of Syria. Three smaller articles, with photographs and tips for would-be tourists, advertised the country's ancient attractions and modern-day pleasures in a move that represents Syria's definite re-admittance to the international community.

However, though The New York Times report must have come as a pleasant surprise to the Syrian government, it is not the only pleasing recent development. For years Syrian diplomats have worked to remove the country from the US State Department's list of countries proscribed for allegedly supporting terrorism, and recently they saw their wish realised when the Americans dropped Syria from the list. The State Department, which updates this list annually, noted that Syria has not been linked to any act of terrorism since 1986.

A recent visit to Syria found the mood in the country upbeat on almost all fronts. Despite the present stalemate in the Syrian-Israeli peace process, and as Syrian and Israeli officials continue to lock horns over terms, construction activity in both public and private sectors abounds. Officials speak glowingly of the economy's improving prospects led by a resilient private sector, and against this background of construction boom, only the town of Kuneitra, the largest near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has been left out as a deliberate reminder of the 1973 war.

Private-sector activity and wealth is growing in all areas of the economy except banking, which remains weak and off limits since the sector's nationalisation in 1963. Elsewhere, the private sector leads in agriculture, manufacturing and trade, and it dominates the country's growing tourism industry.

The country's electricity and water supply have been modernised, the capacity of airports and ports such as Latakia and Tartus, expanded, and a modern railway and road system links the country's major cities. Large blue-and-white signs in Arabic and English clearly mark the exits to towns, villages and tourist sites along busy motorways.

The Syrian legal system is also changing, following complaints that current laws and regulations have to be circumvented since they are no longer appropriate. "Our economic and financial laws are presently being changed," Mohamed Al-Imadi, Syria's minister of economy and foreign trade told a group of visiting journalists last week, while Rateb Al-Shallah, president of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce, said that the business community continues to lobby hard for legal change, and that the government was listening.

Banners in the streets of Damascus proclaim support for President Al-Assad and hail his policy of "economic pluralism," a reference to the gradual liberalisation of the economy in recent years in a series of piecemeal reforms.

However, while all these things are encouraging, there are still some oft-heard criticisms. Syria has yet to address economic policy constraints in a comprehensive manner. Incentives are still lacking for increased domestic and foreign investment to spur higher rates of growth, and exports remain a long way below their potential despite the country's low production costs.

The most urgent tasks, according to Syrian business leaders, are the introduction of a unified and competitive exchange regime free of cumbersome state controls and of a modern banking sector open to private participation, as well as more equitable taxes and ultimately the opening of a Syrian stock exchange.

For Al-Imadi, Syria's external debt, while large, does not represent a problem. Refusing to put a value on the total debt, he said that half of it was owed to Russia and that the rest was negotiable.

Estimated by independent analysts at $21-24 billion, or about 120 per cent of Syrian GDP, less than 10 per cent of the value of the country's exports went in servicing the debt in 1998.

But if incomplete in terms of economic reforms, it is in political reform that the agenda has yet to take off. Though entrepreneurial Syrians seem to be winning the day, at least in the reform of the economy, rhetoric in the state-run media still reflects official Baath Party socialism, and keeping a low political profile and staying out of harm's way remain essential.

Most Syrians interviewed by the Weekly therefore pay lip-service to Baathist ideology while going about improving their businesses and building their wealth. Many are constructing luxury new homes, eating very well, but driving modest cars due to the steep customs duties. At about three per cent per annum, Syria has one of the highest population growth rates in the region.

The issue of President Al-Assad's successor remains the really central question for foreign and local political observers alike. No one doubts that for the moment Syria is Al-Assad and Al-Assad is Syria, but who will be the next president and with what agenda?

According to western diplomats in Damascus, the army may hold the answer to this question, and they are keeping a close watch on promotions and transfers within the military. With Syria still technically at war with Israel, the army wields considerable power and annually absorbs some seven per cent of Syria's GDP which is, according to World Bank estimates, one of the highest recorded.

Pictures of President Al-Assad's son Bashar, who is a physician by training, are to be found all over Syria, and many believe he is being groomed to succeed his father. Bashar's images now outnumber those of his more popular brother, Basel, who was killed in a car accident in 1994.

Highly visible in the Syrian official media and elsewhere, Bashar's activities range from sensitive diplomatic missions to meetings with various heads of state to leading his country's efforts at technological modernisation. Bashar's meeting with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris earlier this month was the first significant visit he has made on the international level, while his visits to Lebanon, Jordan and Arab Gulf countries have became familiar events.

According to the minister of information, Syria's constitution deals squarely with the issue of succession, and the visibility accorded to the president's son is not unusual, given the nature of his many concerns.

However, a visit to Qirdaha, the Assad family birthplace near Latakia, a minority Alawite community stronghold, left no doubt as to the strength of the president's grip on power and his possible dynastic ambitions. President Al-Assad comes from the country's Alawite community, and a huge mausoleum worthy of Saladin is being built at unknown cost for his late son Basel. Saladin, however, who defeated the Crusades, is modestly buried in Damascus.

While analysts point out that perhaps one of Al-Assad's most remarkable achievements has been to defuse religious sectarianism in Syria, in the process, he may have released a wave of Baathist and Alawite power that presently dominates Syria's political landscape, but may provoke a reaction in future. At the very least the focus of present reform is the economy, with politics left largely undiscussed.

Leaving Damascus Airport, the attractiveness and variety of the shopping facilities impress visitors. The latest electronic gadgets are neatly displayed side by side with smart garments, low-priced alcoholic beverages, a variety of French and European wines, tobacco and cosmetics. An Irish manager was discreetly watching over business.

It seems that the Syrian authorities have assigned the management of duty-free shops to successful European companies. The Irish company that runs those in Damascus is headquartered at Shannon Airport and also runs shops in Bahrain and elsewhere. Perhaps this is yet another sign of Syria's increasing rapprochement with the Western world.

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