Dithering in Damascus

The Syrian government’s September 22 decision to impose a ban on all imports carrying a tariff rate of 5 percent or more — and the reversal of that measure less than two weeks later — have created a crisis of confidence across the local business community and a sense that the authorities have little idea how to handle the country’s economic woes.

Seven months of popular protests across Syria have taken a significant toll on business activity, frightening off investors and tourists, enticing locals to stash their savings and leading to international sanctions on key sectors and actors in the economy. The confusion over the import restrictions has only reinforced a general feeling of malaise and darkened the prospects for the near future.  This partial ban, Syrians were initially told, would help save scarce foreign currency reserves and support local manufacturers who had been negatively affected by the free trade policies of the past decade. In press statements, Adib Mayaleh, governor of the central bank, claimed that the ban would generate $6 billion in annual foreign currency savings, $4.5 billion of which would come from car imports alone.

However, the government acted hurriedly and with little consultation, leading to a general outcry that forced it to reverse the measure on October 4. The strength of the opposition from the business community and the fact that it managed to deal a blow to the government and its credibility — already much affected by its dismal management of the economy in recent months — are a reflection of the changes that have taken place in the Syrian economy in the last decade.

While until the late 1990s Syria relied on local production and was largely closed to international trade, the need to attract foreign investors and to integrate more with the outside world saw a gradual easing of the country’s protectionist policies from the early 2000s.

The Greater Arab Free Trade Area agreement, which liberalized trade among the 18 member countries, came into force in 2005 and a free trade deal with Turkey was established in 2007. Tariff duties on imports from countries around the globe were also lowered, including for consumer items such as cars and garments.

This policy had a direct consequence on the structure of the economy: in 2000, imports represented the equivalent of 18 percent of GDP, rising to 26 percent by 2009; exclude inflation over the past decade and this number would be 46 percent. Meanwhile, bilateral trade with Turkey tripled in less than four years, from $800 million in 2006 to $2.5 billion in 2010. This boom in imports helped spur the development of broad sectors of the economy — including retail trade, banking, insurance, transport and logistics and commercial real estate — which were among the main contributors of economic growth in the last decade. A whole new category of businessmen, from wholesalers to local agents of international brands, saw their wealth jump and their influence increase.

Thus, it is not surprising that among the list of more than a dozen businessmen that have been put under sanctions by the European Union and the United States in the last few months one will find Emad Ghraiwati, the agent for Kia, Ford and Jaguar cars and for LG Electronics, Samir Hassan, partner of Lebanon’s Fattal Group in the consumer goods distribution company UniSyria and Tarif al-Akhras, one of the country’s largest importers of food commodities.

Still, the confusion over the import ban has raised all sorts of questions. Until now the government had claimed that its foreign currency position was stable and had not been affected by the political turmoil. If this is the case then why did it decide to impose a cap on imports in the first place? Now that import taxes have been liberalized again, where is the government going to find the $6 billion in savings? Also, if the measure was initially aimed at helping local manufacturers does its reversal mean that the priorities have changed?

The only certainty that has come out of this debacle is that the government has no strategic plan to rescue Syria’s floundering economy.

 

Note: This article appeared first in the November 2011 edition of Executive Magazine

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