UAE presence in Syrian fair boosts Arab ties - GulfToday

UAE presence in Syrian fair boosts Arab ties

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

UAE-Syria

An Emirati woman knits together straw leaves in a display of traditional crafts on the first day of the Abu Dhabi International Hunting and Equestrian exhibition (ADIHEX) in the UAE capital on Saturday. Agence France-Presse

Syrians enthusiastically received the Emirati and Omani delegations to the Damascus International Fair which opened on August 28th. The sight of white thobes and kuffiyeh and agal and Omani turbans among the crowd prompted many Syrians invited to the opening ceremonies to greet the newcomers enthusiastically. The 40-strong UAE delegation was led by the Emirati Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The UAE representation at the fair reinforced the Federation’s presence in Damascus following the reopening of the embassy last December.

Arab participants provide a new opening to the Arab world after eight years of isolation and war.

The UAE and Omani presence at the Fair, a major annual commercial and social event in the Syrian capital since the first fair in 1954, has reinforced Syria’s relations with the Arab world which turned against the government of President Bashar Al Assad in 2011-12 due to the crackdown on demonstrations and dissent.

The fair, the first in this region, had been a tradition in Damascus until 2012 when war made it impossible to hold such a high profile event. The original location was in the middle of the city, stretching along the Barada River from Omayyad Square to the National Museum. The fair was a gala occasion which attracted talent and visitors from all over the region. They filled Damascus’ hotels and packed restaurants, shopped, and partied.  Stars who performed at the fairs included the great Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, Lebanon’s divas Fayrouz, Shadia, Sabah and others. The fair was revived in 2017 when the situation in the city was still uncertain and a rocket struck close to the main gate killing five and injuring a dozen persons.  Nevertheless, the fair received 1.3 million visitors.

The fall of Eastern Ghouta to government forces in the spring of 2018 enabled organisers to make a spectacular effort for last year’s fair, the 60th. Damascenes celebrated their liberation from mortars and shells fired from Eastern Ghouta, particularly into the Old City, and from radical fighters seeking to infiltrate and detonate explosives in the centre of the “new” city. Forty-three countries participated in the fair which was housed in new, modern grounds on the highway to the international airport. The new location boasts splendid exhibition halls and other facilities. Iran sent the largest number of companies, Russia came second.  Some 1.8 million flocked to this fair.

The current fair opened with a splendid sound and light display and a message of hope as Damascus struggles to reunify the country and provide for its people. Ahead of the opening, the Trump administration threatened to sanction foreign countries and companies if they take part or conduct business in Syria. Nevertheless, 30 countries and 1,700 companies are participating.  Foreign firms taking part come from US-allied Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Brazil, and the Philippines and Syria’s friends Russia, Iran, China, Cuba, South Africa, Algeria, Iraq, North Korea and Venezuela. North Macedonia is another newcomer while the Czech republic is the sole European Union exhibitor.

The UAE provided an elegant sitting area and photographs of the Federation’s emblematic buildings. A young man served guests bitter Arabic coffee from a gleaming brass pot. More than a dozen

Omani firms showed their wares and handicrafts in a hall perfumed with incense.

Scores of Syrian firms set up shop, exhibiting pistachios, tinned fruit and vegetables, jars of apricot jam, packets of coffee and biscuits, soft drinks, and machinery. It will take years for Syria to recover the industries of Aleppo and Homs lost to warfare and looting and to once again export manufactured goods as well as agricultural produce.

Since April, when Gulf Today last visited Syria, electricity has improved greatly in the capital and in government-held areas. Water flows into Syrian homes. Security has improved. But for middle and working class Syrians life is a struggle. The economy is faltering due to US and European sanctions. The Syrian lira has lost value, the exchange rate to the US dollar fluctuates daily.

Israel’s recent attacks on both Lebanon and Syria caused a downward dip in the Syrian lira. Salaries of civil servants, teachers, and other public employees are low while prices of food, fuel and other essentials are rising. Syrians are issued smart cards allowing them to buy rationed petrol, cooking gas and fuel oil but supplies are limited and fuel oil, in particular, is in very short supply.

While education and health care are free, public schools are overcrowded and public hospitals are largely staffed with young doctors as older medical professionals with the most experience have gone into private practice or left the country. Syria’s well-developed pharmaceutical companies have been devastated by the war, limiting available medicines and medical devices.  Foreign medicines are expensive and difficult to obtain due to sanctions.

A businessman told Gulf Today that the government gives priority to raw materials for manufacturers rather than consumer goods for the public but many companies need to restore their plants by obtaining new machinery which cannot be imported due to sanctions. External investment is not available due to sanctions. Essential, “humanitarian” goods can only be brought by UN agencies due to sanctions.  The businessman said a few Lebanese and Jordanian companies are prepared to defy sanctions but, for Syria to function economically and rebuild, sanctions must be lifted.

Lebanese and Syrian businessmen have set up facilities in Lebanon’s western Bekaa and the port city of Tripoli in order to become the first in line for reconstruction contracts.  Lebanon, where the economy is in free fall, will also benefit from investment in Syria.  The Syrian government is in the process of drawing up a ten-year recovery plan, to be implemented in two stages, but details have not been released and finance will have to be found. Meanwhile, young people who have money flock to coffee houses in Damascus, to chat, have fun, and forget about war and sanctions.

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