Resilient business community the key to Syria’s – eventual – rebirth

The cost of massive reconstruction is impossible to estimate, but Syria’s traditionally diverse economy will help when the time comes

Civilians shop for vegetables and fruits displayed in front of a damaged building in Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, Syria. Photograph: REUTERS/Hosam Katan

Civilians shop for vegetables and fruits displayed in front of a damaged building in Aleppo’s Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood, Syria. Photograph: REUTERS/Hosam Katan

 

Hope has been in scant supply in Syria for a long time, but members of the country’s business community say they stand ready to rebuild the country – with bricks and mortar as well as strategic nous – when the war finally ends.

Before the 2011 uprising turned into all-out war, Syria’s economy was well- placed for growth. The capital, Damascus, was awarded a place on the New York Times’ “31 places to go” in 2011. By the government’s own account, 2010 tourism revenue beat all expectations, backed by an economy growing 5 per cent year-on-year.

But while adventurous visitors flocked to Syria, a cut-throat state policy of economic liberalisation combined with a drought in Syria’s eastern agricultural regions squeezed the country’s rural poor and forced them off the land and into city slums.

At the same time, those city residents armed with degrees and salaried jobs found they had easy access to loans and mortgages for the first time as international banks entered the market.

Since those heady days, hundreds of thousands of people have died and economic output has shrunk by a massive 60 per cent. Oil production in government- controlled territory has collapsed from 387,000 barrels a day in 2011 to 10,000 today. Hundreds of companies, particularly in the northern city of Aleppo – Syria’s industrial centre – have seen their factories and infrastructure destroyed and looted, leaving behind concrete carcasses.

Head start

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Today, with industry all but dead inside the country, Syria’s business community can be found in the boardrooms and hotels of Beirut, Dubai and Istanbul, carving out new ways to stay afloat.

Hassan Daaboul’s aluminium production company, Daaboul Industrial Group, employed 1,800 people in 2011. He soon found his business caught up in the centre of an emerging war: the company headquarters were situated south of Damascus, where government checkpoints made it impossible for employees living in the countryside to make it to work.

“Things started to go really bad by the end of 2011, when most of our export customers started to cancel orders as they were scared that we may not be able to continue deliveries,” he says. “Another big obstacle was transportation of goods. It became unsafe and very expensive.”

Today, Daaboul shuttles between Dubai and Cairo, and less than 10 per cent of his work is located in Syria.

Still, at just 39 he is young enough to maintain ambitions for rebuilding Syria. In the meantime, Daaboul’s company, which produces aluminium sheets for both industrial and home appliances, is opening branches in Cairo and Beirut, just a three-hour drive from Damascus.

Mohammad Ali fled Syria in early 2013 after building a firm importing generators and solar energy products with a Damascene partner. For Ali, the falling value of the Syrian lira against the dollar in 2011 was crippling. In addition, business owners known to have cash were being kidnapped with increasing frequency.

“Business became very hard also because of new government rules and customs issues,” Ali says. The climate, he adds, has today changed into one dominated by warlords and criminal opportunists.

After the war

Jihad Yazigi, founder of business journal the Syria Report, says accurate information estimating the full cost of reconstruction is impossible to ascertain. But a huge asset, he says, will be Syria’s economic diversity.

“Restoring agricultural output will be very important because it will enable the provision of cheap food to the population and help them return to their villages,” Yazigi says. “So will transport, because it is important to reconnect the various Syrian regions between each other. Oil will also be important in order to help increase government revenues.”

Another difficult challenge will be securing financing for reconstruction because the cost is likely be high. But more than this, he says, “the return of the business community will be important, as will the middle class, which has largely left Syria”.

Others see the work of the Lebanese magnate Rafik Hariri, who paid $20 each evening to anyone who had spent the day clearing rubble from the streets of Beirut in the 1980s following a 15-year civil war, as a template for recovery and for forging national unity.

And in a revolt-turned-war that has divided the country into pro- and anti-government factions, Syria’s business leaders hold another critical trump card.

For the most part, they never openly supported either the regime or the opposition. This means that when the war ends, even many years from now, they will be seen as being clean and not affiliated to elements involved in wrongdoing during the conflict.

“Anything is possible when the war stops,” says Daaboul. “Syrians love their country, and the business community is eager to go back and rebuild it.

“Syrian businessmen are working hard outside of Syria so they can go back strong to their country when the situation allows.”

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