Rebuilding the future

Syria’s political landscape has dramatically changed in the last fifteen months and so has its business environment.

A few weeks before the uprisings began in March 2011, the Syrian government had announced its five-year economic plan running from 2011 to 2015, which was supposed to serve as a guide and a broad strategic framework for economic policy in the coming years.

The plan confirmed the continued liberalization of the economy, the gradual cancellation of all forms of subsidies on energy products and a return to focusing on manufacturing and other “productive” sectors.

For many in Syria’s business community, which had already benefited from a step-by-step transformation of the economy into a market-led system since the early 2000s, the prospects looked promising. Syrian expatriates returned home to benefit from the new employment and investment opportunities. Regional investors were banking on the opening of a new frontier market, while locally-based investors saw their decades of patience bearing fruit at last.

Few could have imagined what the following months would entail. When a few children were detained in Daraa, their families went out to demonstrate to request their freedom and everything changed forever in Syria.

In the following months, the economy would contract significantly and security would deteriorate, causing many businesses to close and lay off staff, expatriates to return to their place of exile, investors and tourists to flee.

The question now is on how, when and with what means Syria is to be rebuilt. For many, it’s probably already too late. The shaky reconstruction of neighboring countries — such as Iraq or Lebanon — has convinced them that it will take far too long for Syria to return to normalcy or for potential investments to start generating returns to justify the risk of staying. They have left the country — or are planning to do so during the summer — and will probably not return anytime soon, leaving that possibility to their children. Investors in this category generally have most of their capital safe in bank accounts abroad and have limited fixed investment in Syria proper, while executives in top management positions will easily find opportunities in the Gulf and possibly further afield, in the United States or Canada.

For others, leaving is simply too costly and/or complicated. Investors that have put at stake much of their capital or savings in a project, bankers that have deployed across the country at the cost of millions of dollars, expatriates that have cut off almost all links with their previous host country, or people simply too attached emotionally to Syria, will try to stick it out as long as physically possible. Others will relocate to nearby places, such as Lebanon or Dubai, from where they will be able to continue to manage their investments, or temporarily find a new job in the hope that the conflict will end soon.

It is this category of investors and highly qualified individuals that Syria will need to rely on when reconstruction begins. The size of their involvement and experience in the country, as well as their commitment to it, will be an invaluable asset when the time for rebuilding arrives.

Much, however, remains to be clarified before this takes place. Not only must the political crisis gripping the country end, the economic policies of the future must also take into account the calls for change that are coming from large segments of the population. In other words, investors must understand the underlying causes of the current uprising if they want to contribute positively to the new Syria. Syrians taking to the street are, in the words of a Syrian intellectual, from “the working world.” These are the people who have suffered in the last two decades from the rising income disparity, decreasing state investment in infrastructure and social services, and unregulated liberalization that has shed thousands of jobs.

While those with financial capital and wherewithal need to continue to lobby for their interests as investors and champion the cause of good governance and of a sound legal and business environment, they must also take into account the fact that the state must continue to have a role in the economy — albeit redefined — and that solidarity between the haves and the have-nots needs to prevail. This will be a requirement for Syria to change for good and for the stability they cherish to hold, whenever it may return.

Note: This article appeared first in the June 2012 edition of Executive Magazine