WEATHERING THE STORM – Syrians are quickly realising that the impact of the global financial crisis will be larger than first thought. In an age of globalisation, no country is an island

Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on December 13, 2008

Issue: December 2008

by Brooke Anderson


Despite government assurances that their country will weather the storm engulfing markets around the world, Syrians are quickly realising that in the 21st century, no country is immune from a global economic meltdown.

“No country can say it’s unaffected,” Samira al-Masalmeh, managing editor of local affairs at the independent Syrian daily newspaper Al-Watan and the economic weekly Al-Iqtissadiya, said. “It’s true, we don’t have direct economic relations with the United States, but the crisis is affecting Europe. We work with Europe and Asia, so there is an indirect effect on Syria.”

Syria will, however, weather the storm better than most countries, Masalmeh said. “For the most part, 70 percent of investment in Syria is from inside the country,” she said. “Syria has a strong and diversified internal economy that doesn’t depend on oil. We don’t have a stock market.”

The global financial crisis, which originated in the US banking system, hits Syria at a time when the country is opening up its economy after more than 40 years of socialist rule. Many in Syria now believe the country needs to quickly learn the lessons emerging from more developed economies now battling recession. “I hope Syria will learn a lesson from America and it will put into place better laws protecting investment,” Masalmeh said.

Far from the epicentre

To date, the Syrian government has taken a cautious view of the crisis. “The Syrian economy is stable and solid and the Syrian pound is strong and protected,” Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdullah al-Dardari said in October. “Syria has an independent banking system. In addition, the Syrian pound has a higher interest rate than other currencies.”

Dardari also said deposits in Syrian banks have increased since the beginning of the crisis because of the stability of the local banking sector. “The government is working day and night for the stability of the economy and to serve the nation and the citizen,” he said, adding there is “no reason at all to be scared or worried”.

Likewise, Syrian Minister of Finance Muhammad al-Hussein has emphasised the limited impact the global financial crisis will have on Syria. “The worldwide financial crisis could have an effect on Syria, but the government- is working with President Bashar al-Assad to make sure the effect is limited,” Hussein told the state daily newspaper Al-Thawra. He said Syria was “far away from the epicentre of the earthquake”.

Indirect impact

One government official striking a different note is Duraid Dargham, head of the government-run Commercial Bank of Syria, the country’s largest bank. In a full-page article published in the Tishreen newspaper in early October, Dargham said the danger posed to Syria by the global financial crisis was real and significant. “The economic crisis will have a big effect on Syria,” he wrote.

Dargham said Syria’s economy would take two main hits. The first will come in a decline in both the price and global demand for oil. Since the crisis erupted, the price of oil has fallen from a record SYP 6,510 (USD 140) per barrel to around SYP 2,557 (USD 55) a barrel and the slide is expected to continue. It’s a drop which could now make growth estimates for 2009 optimistic and will further widen the country’s budget deficit, a fact Hussein pointed out at a recent banking conference.

The second blow will come from remittances from Syrians living abroad who now number a massive 18m; Syria’s internal population is little more than 19m. On average, Syrian expatriates, many of whom earn high wages in the Gulf, inject SYP 37.2bn (USD 800m) annually in remittances into the Syrian economy. With many parts of the world entering recession and unemployment rising, this stream of foreign funds is expected to slow.

Jihad Yazigi, editor of the English-language economic newsletter The Syria Report, said Syria’s links to the Gulf markets make it vulnerable to the ongoing global economic turmoil. “A lot of money comes [to Syria] from the Gulf,” he said. “Some Syrians could be made redundant in the Gulf so we could see a slower pace of remittances and that could lead to more unemployment here.”

Yazigi also points to the possibility of foreign direct investment flows slowing over the next year. Rather than the dramatic blows being landed on the world’s leading economies like the US and Japan, Yazigi said the impact on Syria would come incrementally. “We haven’t seen anything yet, because the impact is indirect,” he said. “It won’t be as dramatic as the price of stocks. It will be an interesting sign if we see the delay of one to two big Gulf investments in Syria. Investors have to prioritise when they want to invest and Syria is not a priority for them. We haven’t felt it yet, but we will. It won’t be a big impact, but there will be an impact.”

Masalmeh points to tourism, an increasingly important money spinner in Syria, as another area likely to be negatively impacted as people around the world tighten their spending habits and cancel overseas holiday plans. “The crisis will affect tourism because there’ll be less money to spend,” she said. “If there’s no money, there’s no tourism.”

Feeling the squeeze

One Syrian company is already seeing the impact of the global financial crisis firsthand. At Muhanna for Sweets, a Damascus-based family sweets business founded in 1935, chief executive officer Mahmoud Muhanna said the global financial crisis could not come at a worse time. The company is already battling the impact of a cut in fuel subsidies which has seen the price of raw materials rise. As a result, the company has had to increase the prices of its goods – 30 to 40 percent for some sweets and 100 percent for others – at a time when foreign buyers in America and Europe are looking to save money. “All of the prices of raw materials – sugar, fat, and pistachios – have increased,” Muhanna said.

Three years ago, exports made up 40 percent of all sales at Muhanna for Sweets. Now they account for just 25 percent of business. Twenty-five percent of total exports go to the US, 5 to 10 percent go to the Gulf, while the rest go to Europe.

Muhanna does not expect any growth in his exports to US and European markets in the short term. As such the Gulf and local market will become all the more important. He said his company has been helped by the steady flow of tourists in the past several years, business travellers from the Gulf and the opening of new hotels such as the Four Seasons. But it’s a customer base that might not be so reliable in the coming months, he admits.

To counter a decline in exports, Muhanna is already thinking of a plan B: creating a line of less expensive sweets. Still, he doesn’t appear to be too worried about the financial turmoil creating a crisis in sweets consumption. “No matter what happens, people always buy Arab sweets,” he said.



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