The Lebanese can benefit from Syria’s chaos

Syria’s ongoing destruction has impacted the Lebanese economy in various ways, but its eventual reconstruction could bring rich opportunities to its smaller neighbor.

The first two years of the Syrian conflict have seen a massive influx of refugees who have added to the large, existing Syrian workforce. According to Lebanese government estimates, more than 1 million Syrians resided in the country at the beginning of 2013 (both refugees and non-refugees) — the equivalent of a staggering 25 percent of the Lebanese population — while estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have documented 486,000 refugees as of May 22, both registered and waiting to be registered.

This flow has had, and will continue to have, a significant impact on the weak Lebanese state and its physical infrastructure. The number of Syrian children that will require schooling in Lebanese state institutions in September 2013 is expected to rise significantly, with some analysts forecasting their enrollment to be on par with the current number of Lebanese pupils. The water and electricity networks will not be spared, particularly during the summer, while traffic congestion is already on the increase.

Negative effects have also been felt by Lebanese businesses. The conflict in Syria has frightened off tourists and dipped confidence in the economy. Demand from Lebanese households has declined and so has investment, according to Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank. The conflict has also significantly increased the cost to insure and transport exports to Lebanon’s traditional trade partners, such as Iraq and the Gulf. Meanwhile, Lebanese investors in Syria, particularly those in the financial services industry, have taken major losses.

This is not, however, the full picture. In the summer of 2012, the expansion of violence to Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, drove thousands of urban dwellers from the Syrian middle class and business community to Lebanon. This led to a surge in demand for rented housing across the country and to a rise in consumption. The presence of Syrian patrons at restaurants in Beirut’s Hamra district and beyond is ample proof of that. Investment is still lagging, though by the spring of 2013 an increasing number of Syrian investors were reportedly starting to establish offices or set up shop in and around Beirut.

More relevant to the longer term, however, is the effect of the war and of the Syrian economy’s disintegration on the often-complicated relations between Lebanon and Syria

Already, the decline in Syria’s economic output has improved Lebanon’s trade balance with its eastern neighbor. According to Lebanese customs, Lebanese exports stood at $296 million in the first four months of 2013 — more than the total of 2012, which reached $294 million. While this is partly due to transit trade of energy products to the sanctions-hit Syrian government, there is also evidence that this is the consequence of a massive decline in Syria’s output, especially in the farming sector, creating intense demand for essential goods and commodities from abroad. This represents a reversal of a historic trend; Syria’s more competitive agricultural products used to regularly flood Lebanese markets.

Even if the conflict were to end today, the Syrian economy would need years before it recovers. Replacing destroyed infrastructure and housing alone is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars. The UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia forecasts, for instance, that when reconstruction begins, demand for cement in Syria will be at some 30 million tons per annum, or three times the level of demand prior to the conflict — a rise in demand that will benefit the Lebanese building materials industry.

After a decade during which Lebanese financial sector capital and know-how benefited from Syria’s economic liberalization, it’s now likely that the country’s smaller industrial and agricultural sectors will find strong new opportunities in post-conflict Syria.

It is still too early to make a comprehensive assessment of the impact of the war on bilateral relations, but there is little doubt that Lebanese investors, across all business sectors, are going to be major beneficiaries of Syria’s reconstruction effort. This will be a strong incentive for solid ties between the two countries, but whether politicians have a grasp of the importance of nurturing these ties is, obviously, a different story.

Note: This article appeared first in the June 2013 edition of Executive Magazine

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