The Syrian International Business Association (SIBA) was formed in 2017 through a World Bank initiative to represent the Syrian business community in the diaspora and to engage with Syrians and offer support. One aim is for the established Syrian business community abroad, which had previously left the country, to help newly arriving Syrians to integrate into their new communities.
This came after meetings and consultations with the World Bank following its study about Syrian business networks around the world. SIBA discussed with them ways to organise the Syrian business community in the diaspora through a platform with which governments can interact and assist with common problems faced by the Syrian business community outside the country.
SIBA is registered in Canada as a non-political, not-for- profit international organisation, with chapters to be formed in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, Egypt, Armenia, the UK, the USA, the UAE and countries in South America.
The diverse portfolio of countries serves SIBA’s stated aim of representing and empowering the Syrian business community outside Syria “through the generation of meaningful business and employment opportunities across sectors, development of relevant technical business skills, and integration of Syrian economic interests into the economies of host countries”.
Historical role of the business community in modern Syria
Syria’s mercantile class, prominent since Ottoman times, has traditionally been the main driver of the economy in Syria. Syrian governments have at several stages experimented with various social experiments which were not exactly beneficial to the economy.
But the mercantile class has traditionally played a stabilising role through solidifying social cohesion and maintaining merchants’ historical interconnection with religious establishments. Religious charities have customarily been funded through private donations from the business community, which in turn established a social support network that often supplanted the government’s own failures and fostered social cohesion and religious tolerance.
An example is the Welfare and Social Services Association of Homs which was formed in 1955, and has since provided a backup social support network. It was supported by local businesses.
The mercantile class was mainly urban based. But through trade flows and movements, Syria’s business community can also be credited with cultivating better relationships between the countryside and urban centres.
The Syrian business community abroad and its role in economic development
Despite the detrimental economic policies undertaken by successive governments since the 1960s, Syria’s traditional mercantile class has solidified the economy, mainly through SMEs, and continues to play this role until today. The Syrian business community in diaspora has also contributed substantially to the development and resilience of Syria’s economy through investments, remittances and the transfer of knowledge and skills. During the conflict, foreign remittances from Syrian diaspora groups have kept the Syrian pound from further deterioration. The diasporic business community has also contributed substantially to the growth of host economies, particularly in countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan.
Some Syrian business people inside Syria have also businesses outside the country. We are therefore not talking about a disconnect between internal and external business communities but a wide and varied business community. The Syrian business community has also contributed positively to the economies of its host countries. In 2015, Syrian businesses in Turkey added about 0.5 per cent to Turkey’s GDP, and there are similar success stories in Jordan and Egypt.
Post conflict facts
Out of an estimated total population of 23 million in 2010, seven million Syrians are now internally displaced and another six million have taken refuge in foreign countries. By 2018, there were 22 million diasporic Syrians.
The conflict has emptied the country of both its intelligentsia and its skilled and semi-skilled labour workforce. The business community is qualified and has exceptional potential to play a role in the redevelopment of Syria’s economy through direct inward financial investments, facilitating and expanding the export of Syrian products, transferring business know-how and best practice, bridging sectors, business connections and communities and maintaining a two-way transfer of skills and experiences.
To fulfil this role, the Syrian business community inside the country requires a new deal. In the 1980s an informal agreement between thelate Hafez Assad and the business community gave business access to the economy without governmental control in return for politicalstability. That worked until the current conflict breached that agreement. Currently, there is no deal, and it is not clear what political settlement the current government is prepared to offer the business community for its return.
The Syrian business community outside Syria wants the following concerns to be addressed in any upcoming negotiations: personal safety and security, the rule of law, investment securities, and the upholding of housing, land and property rights. On an international level, it requires the economic sanctions to be lifted, an end to capital flow restrictions, more serious economic support from the international community, such as credit guarantees and financial support instruments, and better access to regional and international markets.
The informal estimate is that the Syrian business community in the diaspora are worth about $200 billion. However, business people face severe restrictions in their ability to move funds. Any Syrian trying to open a bank account will face many hurdles.
With a new deal, the sanctions need to be lifted to help Syria redevelop.
In conclusion, the Syrian business community can be instrumental in the social and economic recovery of Syria. The current conflict has breached the traditional pact between the government and the business community. This must be redressed but not happen without reaching a new arrangement between the two sides. Without this, and without the active engagement of Syria’s business community, the Syrian economy will not fully recover in any meaningful way, and reconstruction efforts will be limited in scope and impact.
*Published in Partnership with the LSE’s Conflict Research Programme.
This paper was presented at the Political Economy and Governance in Syria conference organised at LSE in December 2018.