Syria’s devastated economy

The middle class stood by Assad because he delivered stability and prosperity. Then the uprisings began

Topics: GlobalPost, Syria,

Syria's devastated economyA woman walks in a street market downtown of Idlib, north Syria, Wednesday, March 7, 2012. (Credit: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost. It was written and reported by a GlobalPost correspondent in Damascus, whose name has been withheld for security reasons.

DAMASCUS, Syria — After a 20 percent pay raise took his monthly salary to about $500 at a state-run company here, Abu Bassam was doing better than your average Syrian employee.

Global PostThen began the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Now, state oil revenues have been slashed under crippling international sanctions. Tourism is nonexistent, and confidence in the economy is at an all-time low. As a result, the Syrian pound (SYP) has lost a full 50 percent of its value, falling to the psychologically hard-to-stomach yardstick of SYP100 to $1, compared with SYP48 when the crisis began.

“So now my salary is actually $250: In a year, I lost half my monthly salary while prices of commodities doubled,” said the 50-year-old, a father with four children in school and a three-room home in the struggling Damascus suburb of Hajar al-Aswad.

On his way into work, he said, the usually tight-lipped passengers on the minibus now all chat away about money and prices. And when he returns home ready to enjoy the traditional, leisurely mid-afternoon lunch, Abu Bassam now often finds his wife driven to distraction by pressures on the family purse.

“Usually my salary covers all our food and bills for the month. But this month my wife told me the money had run out after just nine days,” he said. “I don’t know what to do. She went to buy some commodities and came back from the shop very upset because the price of sugar is now 110 Syrian pound, whereas it was 75 just a few days ago.”

Staples like rice and eggs have tripled in price over the year, while cooking oil has doubled, according to residents of the capital. Bakeries, subsidized by the state, have held their price of SYP15 for eight pieces of traditional flat bread.

But with electricity blackouts 12 hours a day hitting even middle-class neighborhoods not involved in protests, the bread makers have struggled to meet demand, leading to long lines. Those who can afford it now buy bread from the black market, where it costs 50 Syrian pounds a pack.

Shortages of diesel and heating oil have also hampered bakeries, as well as transport. That has left families cold through the winter months, spawning a flourishing black market with traders buying precious supplies, often through contacts in the regime, for the subsidized price of 15 Syrian pounds per liter and selling it for 35 Syrian pounds.



For the first time in a generation, residents of Damascus have seen massive lines of cars, jostling two by two at petrol stations as the once rock steady government-backed prices begin to unravel, climbing from SYP40 for a liter of gas to SYP50 recently, and up to SYP150 on the black market.

The arrival of a delivery tanker at government-run gas stations has begun triggering chaotic scenes among drivers desperate to fill up, darkening the mood among the capital’s already stressed taxi drivers, who have hiked their prices well beyond the meter.

Last month, Faisal al-Qudsi, the son of a former Syrian president who was involved in the country’s economic liberalization, told the BBC that the economy was being crippled by foreign sanctions, particularly on the oil sector, and that the Central Bank’s reserves had fallen from $22 billion at the beginning of the crisis to about $10 billion.

Qudsi said Iran was sending “quite a lot of cash” to support Syria through Iraq, but it was not enough, adding that most of the top businessmen he knew had left because of fears for their safety.

The government initially spent $2 billion defending the local currency, but Mohamad Nidal al-Shaar, the country’s economic minister, said in January that the government’s priority would be protecting its foreign currency reserves.

Economists said the crashing value of the Syrian pound reflected a widening gap between supply and demand of hard currency dollars, suggesting the state has indeed rolled back its previous support for the national currency.

In the marketplace, the Syrian pound is losing value so fast that traders in Damascus said they were struggling to price goods one day to the next.

“I didn’t know what to do last Thursday,” said Muhanad, a 45-year-old businessman with a small electronic goods store. “I had to tell my staff not to sell anything more because I could not decide the price. One day a computer monitor is worth 38,000 Syrian pounds, but the next day it’s worth 50,000.”

But if the value of his stock is temporarily on the rise, the long-term business prospects look bleak for traders like Muhanad, a member of the Sunni middle class, whose support for a regime led by an Allawite minority has been vital over the decades.

With tight controls on hard currency savings and transfers, small businesses like Muhanad’s must pay for imported goods in euros or dollars bought with Syrian pounds. The Central Bank’s official rate may remain unchanged at just over SYP59 to the dollar, but businessmen like Muhanad know the real worth of their companies and savings are in rapid decline.

“The business class supported President Assad for maintaining the country’s economic, political and social stability,” Muhanad said. “But if these are gone, why should we support a president who wants taxes but offers nothing in return, not even protecting the national currency?”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>