Scared Off

Prolonged unrest is keeping tourists away.

Only last year, Damascus ranked seventh on the New York Times list of top destinations. Since political unrest began in mid-March, however, the alleys of Old Damascus – one of the main tourist attractions in Syria – have emptied. Tourism and small businesses are suffering. Shop owners who used to be busy all day selling goods are now sitting in front of their shops, drinking tea and hoping for customers to pass by.

Syria was previously known as a country with beautiful ruins, a green coast and rich cultural traditions. News of tanks entering major cities and thousands of refugees crossing into Turkey has now fostered the perception of Syria as a country of violence and war.

Warned away
The US and EU countries have issued travel warnings against visiting Syria and international insurance firms have cancelled coverage for travellers. Together, this has caused a significant dip in tourism, Rami Martini, chairman of the Syria Federation of Tourism Chambers said in an interview with Al-Khabar, a local Arabic-language business weekly.

Most airlines flying to Europe have reduced their flights due to lowered demand. In June BMI rolled back its daily service from Damascus to London Heathrow to just four flights a week. Other airlines to have reduced their services include Austrian, Germania, Malév and Turkish; while Cyprus and Lot have cancelled all flights.

As a result, the businesses of hoteliers like Somar Hazim, owner of Beit Rose Hotel in Old Damascus, have been badly hit. According to Hazim, occupancy at his hotel decreased from 90 percent last year to 5 to 10 percent this year, forcing him and other hotel owners to reduce staff. According to Al-Khabar, occupancy rates in Aleppo are close to zero.

“As demand is decreasing, competition is growing and prices are going down. A room that I used to rent out for SYP 5,700 (USD 120) is rented now for about SYP 3,100 (USD 65),” Hazim said. “Our only guests are foreigners who study or work here and their relatives who come to visit.”

The absence of tourists has also affected small businesses, such as the antique shop owned by Nasser Ideen al-Shahrour in Sarouja near Old Damascus. Shahrour said he sometimes goes 15 days without a sale.

“I cannot guarantee anything now. I buy a gram of silver today with SYP 50 (USD 1) and tomorrow the price might be SYP 55 (USD 1.1),” he said. “This means I can’t have fixed prices and this is affecting demand which is already badly decreasing.”

The downswing
Syria’s reputation for safety and its improving marketing strategies boosted the country’s tourism industry during the last two years. Annual tourist revenues totalled SYP 389bn (USD 8.2bn) last year, or about 13 percent of GDP. With dwindling oil revenues, tourism was a crucial foreign currency earner for Syria. While the expected total revenue from tourism in March, April and May was predicted by the Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Tourism to be SYP 23.8bn (USD 500m), the chamber said that income was 30 percent lower than expected in March and has decreased significantly more in recent months.

In its 11th Five-Year Plan, the Syrian government set the goal of attracting 5.1m more tourists a year by 2015; the current annual total is 9m tourists – including travellers transiting through the country.

Lamia Aasi, Minister of Tourism, said during a recent meeting of tourism professionals in Aleppo that there has been a “very sharp” decline in the number of tourists entering Syria. She said that, in May, tourism numbers were 32 percent compared to this time last year, because virtually no European tourists are visiting the country now. Aasi argued it was a “strategic error” to depend so heavily on business from European tourists, with the European market too subject to the changes of global politics. In contrast, she claimed, Asian markets are “only affected by natural circumstances or economic crises”.

She added: “Our long-term strategy is to target Asian markets such as China, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia and Iran which did not suffer a decrease in the number of religious tourists coming to Syria.”

According to Bassam Barsique, director of marketing and development at the ministry, domestic tourism, which makes up 22 percent of total revenue, was unaffected by the crisis. Some major tourism investment deals were unaffected, too. In an interview with Arabian Business, Jumeirah Group, a UAE hotel management firm, said that despite the political uncertainty in Syria, it is continuing with a project it started in November last year to manage the 350-room, five-star Jumeirah Syria Towers hotel built by Souria Holding in central Damascus.

The ministry has also completed a study aimed and finding ways to reduce prices to attract more tourists. It is also rescheduling loans for tourism facility owners and is granting them exemptions on payment of interest and fines.

Even if things calm down, Hazim, the hotel owner, is not optimistic about the future. He said he believes that the harm done to the country’s image cannot be easily undone.

“It will be difficult for the tourism sector to recover quickly,” he said. “Tourism is the first sector to be hit, and the last to recover. It is because it is a profession that depends on a place’s reputation.”

I published together with Muhammad Atef Fares in Syria Today magazine.

Bottoms Up

Changing legislation is altering how alcohol is bought and consumed in Syria.

photos by Adel Samara

photos by Adel Samara

Assalamu Alaykum is not exactly how one expects to be greeted when walking into a liquor store. Yet, that is how Ayman Kaadan, owner of the Royal Stone alcohol shop in the Muslim-majority Barzeh neighbourhood greets his visitors.

Kaadan said he does not see any contradiction in being a Muslim who sells alcohol. However, liquor stores in Muslim areas were prohibited by Syrian law until July last year, when the law licensing alcohol shops was modified. Places where alcohol can be consumed, however – such as pubs and restaurants – are still illegal in Muslim-majority areas.

Modern alcohol legislation dates back more than 60 years. According to a law issued in 1952, pubs, restaurants and other locations where alcohol is consumed must be located in non-Muslim areas, 20 metres from police stations and government buildings and 100 metres from places of worship, schools, hospitals and cemeteries. A similar law used to govern liquor stores. Kaadan’s shop, which he opened in 2009, operated without a licence for two years.

According to employees at the governorate of Damascus, the growing demand for alcohol shops drove the Ministry of Local Administration to modify the law. The ministry issued a new law in July 2010, allowing liquor stores to open with the only restriction being that they be located 75 metres from places of worship and that shop owners do not allow customers to drink inside or in front of the store. When the new law was issued, Kaadan immediately applied. He was granted the licence late last year.

Unlicensed pubs
Since the law licensing liquor stores was modified, the number of new shops has increased. Other previously unlicensed shops also applied for licences, Ghassan Maamouri, director of the licensing unit at the governorate of Damascus told Syria Today.

The number of licensed pubs and restaurants serving alcohol, on the other hand, is decreasing, Abu George, the 50-something owner of a 70-year-old pub called Abu Gerorge’s, said. Abu George inherited the pub in Bab Sharqi from his father and grandfather.

“Many alcohol shops and pubs in my alley closed because their owners died and the family did not want to continue the business,” Abu George, who started working in the pub when he was seven, said. “The number of places of worship, schools and hospitals is steadily increasing. This is leaving little space for new, licensed pubs to replace the old ones.”

Because of the high public demand for pubs combined with the challenging licensing conditions, the number of unlicensed pubs is increasing, Somar Hazim, the owner of Beit Rose, a licensed alcohol-serving hotel in the old city, said. Hazim counted six unlicensed pubs near his hotel.

Maamouri from the licensing unit said that unlicensed places that sell or serve alcohol face penalties of SYP 500 (USD 11) and are given a two-week notice to apply for a licence. This penalty is repeated twice. If the owner still does not comply, his shop is closed. The governorate, however, could not provide statistics about the number of unlicensed alcohol selling and serving shops that have been recently closed down.

Hazim from Beit Rose hotel said that this system is not enough. He argued that strict monitoring is required. Kaadan from Royal Stone alcohol shop agreed.

“I didn’t have any trouble with the governorate for the first year-and-a-half when my shop was unlicensed. Unless neighbours file a complaint against the shop, the governorate does not know that the shop is unlicensed,” he said.

Hazim said that this is affecting his and other licensed, alcohol-serving establishments.

“Some restaurants serve alcohol undercover,” he said. “They don’t have to pay taxes so they can sell alcohol for cheaper prices than we do. It is spoiling our business.”

Customers at Abu George’s like 20-something Maher Samaan also complain that, with the lack of monitoring from the government, many unlicensed pubs mix local, low-quality alcohol with imported liquor, while illegal stores often sell smuggled, low-quality alcohol.

Anwar Hamoud, owner of liquor store in Dummar, argued that the unreasonably high taxes on alcohol – as high as 85 percent of the product price – encourages illegal sales, which harms business.

“[Unlicensed shops] can afford to sell for much cheaper than legal purchasers of alcohol can. This leads to great losses in the government treasury,” Hamoud said. “If taxes were reduced, it would no longer be worth it for smugglers to risk being caught.”

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Segregating non-Muslims
Salina Abaza, a graphic designer in her twenties who enjoys going to pubs, said she believes that the law regarding pubs and other alcohol serving places should be modified. She said that restricting alcohol serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas segregates the country’s non-Muslim community.

“Serving alcohol in only non-Muslim areas limits the places where Christians, for example, can hang out,” she said. “This segregates them from other Syrians.”

Tony Khouri, a 40-something trader and one of Abu George’s regulars, agreed.

“I like going out and having lunch with my wife and drinking a glass of wine, but I’m bored of the old city. I live and work here so it would be nice to hang out somewhere else,” he said. “The problem is there is only a handful of restaurants that serve alcohol outside old Damascus and their numbers are decreasing.”

Pub owners in Bab Sharqi also said they believe that restricting alcohol-serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas is ridiculous, since most of their customers are Muslim.

“About 70 percent of my customers are Muslim,” Abu George said. “Even veiled women come and have a drink in my pub.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Counting on the People (Sustainable Development in Syria’s 11th 5 Year Plan)

What does an emphasis on human and sustainable development in the new Five-Year Plan mean for Syria’s future?

Charts by Dana Kassab

Mohammad Fathi, a young father who works for an industrial company, says that since Syria started its transition to a social-market economy in 2005, the prices he pays for food and fuel have skyrocketed.

While the 11th Five-Year Plan continues to emphasise a free-market focus – by removing subsidies and increasing the private sector’s role – Abdullah al-Dardari, deputy prime minister for economic affairs, says the plan will improve life for people like Fathi. It will do so by improving the services and opportunities open to them by emphasising the broadly-defined category of human development – the creation of jobs and improvement of services such as education.

The plan will also promote sustainable development by seeking to reduce population growth, develop people’s skills, realise equitable income distribution, provide social protection and reduce poverty. Despite significant changes since 2005, Syria’s economy remains characterised by a large public sector and a small private sphere. A population that is increasing at a rate of 2.5 percent annually is pushing up the costs of subsidies on necessary items such as bread and oil, straining Syria’s natural resources and placing pressure on the demand for new jobs.

The former socialist economy did many good things but it cannot generate the revenues needed for the next stages of development, Joshua Landis, a US professor and the author of Syria Comment blog, said. “Syria is having to reorient itself.”

New focus
The 11th plan reorients Syria by further reducing energy subsidies and allowing prices to rise to market levels, and by upgrading infrastructure and investing in core industries with the intention of creating jobs that lead to sustainable sources of income. Additionally, the plan aims to reduce disparities in social services and infrastructure among Syria’s governorates and to distribute economic investment projects more evenly.

Percentage of people-under-poverty line in Syria

The plan shifts away from industry subsidies, using the funds saved by this measure to introduce more comprehensive social-welfare programs. Many fuel subsidies were removed in 2008 under the 10th plan but by 2015 the government plans to remove the remaining energy subsidies – which cost 5 percent of GDP in 2009, according to the IMF – and phase out some blanket subsidies in other areas, such as in agriculture and water.

Populatioon-growth-rate in Syria

Unemployment-rate in Syria

“The energy deficit [the amount lost by the government through energy subsidies, which totalled some SYP 1.3trn (USD 27.8bn) during the previous five years] is greater than the total amount spent on investment during the 10th Five-Year Plan,” Dardari said. “If we raise prices to market levels, we can use the saved money for development and social services.”

A public unemployment insurance fund is in the works. It will provide unemployment benefits and training as well as monthly benefits for Syrians living below the poverty line. In the health sector, Syria is aiming to increase expenditures on health care to about SYP 4,678 (USD 100) per capita by 2015.

Additionally: “We will expand free education both in terms of quality and quantity, and do the same in health care,” Dardari said. He said that Syria will spend 30 percent of its public-investment expenditures – a total of SYP 2trn (USD 43bn) – to achieve its human-development goals.

The new plan also seeks to decrease the population growth rate from 2.45 percent annually to 2.1 percent by 2015. The plan said it will raise the legal marriage age – but did not specify to what age – to help achieve this goal. The Syrian Commission for Family Affairs is dedicating SYP 2.1m (USD 46,000) towards “population development”.

Having a balanced population is considered key to a higher standard of life for all, Amer Hosni Lutfi, head of the State Planning Commission, said.

Employment growth
Simultaneously, the plan aims to create new jobs to employ the growing population.

“We mean to create not just any job, but decent work opportunities,” Lutfi told Syria Today. “This will lead to high income and more spending, which will stimulate the economy.”

The plan aims to create new jobs within targeted industries, such as irrigation. The Ministry of Irrigation will invest SYP 202bn (USD 4.4bn) in projects, including building new dams and rehabilitating old dams and state irrigation networks. As oil revenues decline, Syria will also focus on industries that it considers more sustainable in the long-term, including agriculture, manufacturing, electricity and tourism.

Saadallah Agha al-Qala, minister of tourism, said tourist figures had almost doubled between 2009 and 2010, rising last year to some 8m. This, he said, provided SYP 330bn (USD 7bn) – or 12 percent of GDP – and employed 800,000 people by the end of 2010.

“Syria has amazing things to see, comparable to Turkey,” Landis said. “But it must do much more to attract people as its total visitor figures are still significantly lower than elsewhere.”

In the current plan, Syria aims to increase the number of tourists at an annual average of 12.5 percent to reach 12m tourists by 2015. To achieve that, it is investing SYP 33bn (USD 717m) in tourism. This investment will provide jobs for 360,000 more Syrians, the plan projects.

Rough road ahead
Some analysts argue that the plan does not go far enough and continues to focus on unsustainable areas of the economy. The public sector will still remain larger than many economists say is viable, costing the government money that could be invested elsewhere. In addition, some traditional areas that are not sustainable – such as agriculture – will still be encouraged.

“The 11th FYP does not propose to cut jobs in the public sector, which is a huge cost to the state,” Landis said. “It should also be careful not to focus on unproductive and water-intensive areas such as agriculture and industry when the money could be better spent on retraining people to work in more productive areas.”

However, the plan allocates more than seven times the amount of money to human development such as health care and education (SYP 2trn) than to agriculture (SYP 275.5bn). Such a statistic gives hope that minimising poverty and boosting living standards may be achievable.

Ensuring that Syria’s poor benefit from development is key to the country’s future, according to Maamoun Fahham, a local economist who has advised the government on sustainable development. Anecdotal evidence suggests poverty has increased since a 2004 study by the United Nations found 11 percent of Syrians lived in extreme poverty.

“This is the main concern because sustainable development cannot be achieved without this group,” he said.

I wrote this article together with British journalist Sarah Birke for Syria Today magazine.

Green Shoots, Pesticide Free

There is a growing global demand for organic products. So why are Syrian farmers who grow their food organically not bothering to register it as such?

Hundreds of olive trees dot the road to Ahmad al-Masalmeh’s organic farm in the Dera’a governorate south of Damascus, forming a thick, green barrier. With its beautiful swimming pool and friendly dogs, Masalmeh’s property looks more like a summer house than a farm producing organic olives and grapes. Masalmeh proudly shows off his estate to visitors and explains in detail how each of the different insect traps dangling from his prized olive trees work to keep the bugs away.

“I worked with expatriate engineers and investors and they introduced the concept of organic farming to me,” Masalmeh, an agriculture engineer who first learned about organic farming in 1985, said. “It seemed well worth it. No need for expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s enough to make organic insect traps and raise farm animals to use their compost as fertilizers. Organic farming seemed a healthy, cheap and profitable endeavour.”

Masalmeh contacted an organic farming certification body located outside Syria – the country does not have such an institution – and applied for accreditation. The process was not as straightforward as he thought. Inspectors visited the farm to test the soil and water. Annual inspections, sometimes surprise ones, followed to ensure that Masalmeh’s produce was free of chemicals.

“Organic farming isn’t only about not using chemicals,” he said. “I had to prove that the area where my farm is located isn’t polluted, gather the crops manually, squeeze them on the same day and have all this documented.”

The accreditation process was far from cheap. With Syria lacking an organic certification body, farmers who wish to acquire the label have to obtain it through an international body. In addition to the high registration fees, they must pay the full cost of an inspector’s trip. While the price of accreditation varies according to the size of the farm, for Masalmeh’s 500-square-metre property, the entire process cost him around SYP 500,000 (USD 10,638).

Few Syrian farmers can afford such an outlay. As a result, most local farmers abiding by organic principles do not apply for accreditation. Rather, they sell their produce as regular, non-organic food.

“Although organic products are cheaper to produce and can be sold for higher prices than non-organic ones, the high cost of accreditation makes it more profitable to sell it as non-organic,” Masalmeh, who only applied for accreditation in 2002 after 17 years of organic farming, said.

Increases in the prices of diesel and natural fertilizer over the past two years have also taken a financial toll on Masalmeh, so much so that this year he could not afford to renew his accreditation.

“I grow organic grapes, but I didn’t apply for accreditation,” he said. “It’s only worth it if I can export my production. But with the intense competition in the Syrian market and with the small-scale production I have, this is close to impossible.”

Cotton is key

Syria’s chief organic crop is cotton. Indeed, Syria was the world’s third-largest producer of organic cotton last year, according to industry research house Organic Exchange. According to Souhel Makhoul, director of the Horticulture Research Administration at the General Commission for Scientific Agricultural Research (GCSAR), organic cotton was produced on only 373 hectares just five years ago, but that has increased to around 28,000 hectares.

A growing number of Syrian textile companies are also moving to make use of this local, green resource. These include Bawdiqji Company in Aleppo and the Cotton Spinning Company and Manaa Brothers Company in Hama. According to a recent report by Syria’s state-owned news agency SANA, the country will soon export its first batch of clothes manufactured from organic cotton. While the EU looms as the primary market, shipments will also go to China and Mexico.

Syria also produces organic olive oil, laurel soap, medical herbs and grapes which are generally exported to the EU. Compiling an accurate picture of these organic exports is all but an impossible task, however, as organic products have not been issued with a separate customs number and as such are simply recorded as agricultural exports.

Planting the seed

Interest in organic products is spiking throughout the world, particularly in industrialised economies. Globally, organic food sales have jumped from SYP 47bn (USD 1bn) in 1990 to SYP 2.44trn (USD 52bn) in 2008, according to figures from the international research house Datamonitor. Market research also shows that organic foods represent one of the fastest-growing food segments in the EU and US. Syria, however, still lacks a dedicated local market.

“When convincing local farmers to go organic, the first thing they ask is: “Where are we going to sell our products?'” Makhoul said. “Unfortunately, there’s no local market for organic products as few Syrians are aware of their importance.”

This is, however, slowly changing. Market research carried out in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Lattakia by the GCSAR, in collaboration with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Damascus, found that growing numbers of Syrians are willing to pay more to eat organic. And while still few, foreign organic products can be found in some malls in major cities. Yet despite growing interest in ‘green food’, Makhoul said that, at the moment, the only profitable market for local organic products is a foreign one.

The Institutional Development of Organic Agriculture in Syria (IDOAS), a four-year initiative between the GCSAR, the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform and FAO, was set up in 2006 to develop the organic sector. The initiative was tasked with developing legal, institutional and scientific platforms for organic agriculture in the country. Its main achievement to date has been drafting a law to govern and promote organic agriculture which is presently awaiting approval from Syria’s parliament.

“The law will regulate organic farming in Syria so that it adheres to international standards,” Mohammad al-Abdallah, director of agricultural counselling at the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, said. “It will also regulate the relationship between the farmer and the certification body. Today, farmers contact the companies individually, but after issuing the law, companies will have to get permission to work inside Syria.”

Early this year, the second part of the IDOAS initiative started. It aims to establish a dedicated organic department in the Ministry of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform. The initiative will also continue to carry out several capacity-building workshops to encourage farmers to go organic. Eggs, dairy, fruits, cereals, grains and vegetables are all potential areas of organic expansion. The IDOAS is also compiling market research on potential local, regional and international markets.

“Syria has potential for organic farming because of its weather and because Syrian farmers prefer natural insect traps to pesticides, many of which are available locally,” Makhoul said. “Furthermore, there are many virgin fields in Syria that could be easily converted to organic fields and many products, like olive oil for example, that don’t require pesticides. In fact, the ministry is already using chemical-free pesticides in citrus, cotton and vegetables.”

Masalmeh, the organic farmer from Dera’a, said that without serious government support, organic farming in Syria is doomed to remain an individual and costly endeavour. At present, local organic fruit and vegetable producers lack the economies of scale or experience to tap into lucrative foreign markets.

“It’s hard to make a profit out of organic farming,” Masalmeh said. “We need a non-profit organic farmers’ association and a fund for organic agriculture that would cover the accreditation costs or the establishment of a local certifying body.”

This article was  published in Syria Today magazine.Issue no. 64

Sustainable Living (Sustainable Architecture in Syria)

While far from widespread, eco-friendly architecture is beginning to pop up around Syria. It can play an important role in covering the country’s skyrocketing demand for energy.

As Syria runs out of oil and faces ever-mounting pressure on its water and electricity supplies, its growing interest in energy-efficient architecture comes as no surprise. Indeed, experts argue that pursuing eco-friendly buildings that consume less energy and water and reduce pollution is no longer a luxury for Syria. Rather, it is a must.

“Efforts to promote sustainable architecture are very important on a global scale, but they are particularly significant in Syria where natural resources are scarce, energy is expensive to produce and consume and pollution is a major health hazard,” Manaf Hammami, a Syrian architect based in Dubai, said.

While today’s ubiquitous concrete apartment block – along with the country’s building code – pays little attention to energy efficiency or the natural environment, this was not always the case. Syria’s Islamic architectural heritage is a green one, with traditional construction methods and materials carefully selected to work with the natural environment instead of against it, producing houses which were naturally warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

“Islamic architecture in Syria used to be green, paying close attention to the orientation of the house, insulation and natural ventilation, among other things,” Firas Shuman, director of the small grants programme at the UN Global Environment Facility, said.

Individual endeavours

For Syria’s architecture to be green again, large-scale investment in sustainable architecture is needed. Apart from a few large projects, however, eco-friendly buildings in Syria are mostly individual endeavours that depend on expensive renewable-energy sources such as solar power for heating water and generating electricity and grey water recycling systems. Fully incorporating green-building standards into the design of a building is still rare.

At present, the high costs associated with sustainable architecture scares investors away, Houssam Hamwi, head of the project management unit at Massar, an eco-friendly Children’s Discovery Center under construction in the centre of Damascus, said.

“While sustainable buildings are more expensive than concrete-block buildings currently used in Syria, in the long run they pay off,” Hamwi said. “Investors, however, want a quick profit. They aren’t interested in the long-term financial benefits of sustainable buildings or their effect on the environment.”

The lack of local experience and professionals in the field of eco-design is yet another cause of concern among those trying to promote eco-friendly architecture in the country.

“Syrian expertise in sustainable architecture is based on individual initiatives,” Hamwi said. “We need governmental support to develop and encourage eco-design and push investors to finance eco-friendly projects.”

Furthermore, subsidised energy prices and the lack of public environmental awareness mean few people feel the need to save energy, making public demand for sustainable housing in Syria low. Individual efforts are, however, taking shape.

“While visiting Syria I’ve been commissioned to design two houses on a large plot of land outside the city of Aleppo,” Hammami said. “My client is very interested in building a home that not only satisfies his comforts and needs, but is also based on the principles of sustainable design. He wants his house to serve as a prototype for future developments in the area.”

Sustainable architecture

In an attempt to promote sustainable architecture in Syria, the General Company for Engineering Studies and Consulting (GCEC), the General Institute for Housing (GIH) and the National Energy Research Centre (NERC) partnered with the EU to build 18 eco-friendly apartment blocks in the Damascus suburb of Qudssia. The five-storey blocks are part of the New Youth Residential Complex, consisting of some 12,600 flats in total. The complex is due to be finished by 2013.

To make the residential complex eco-friendly, architects used double glazing, thermal insulation, glazed stairwells to enhance natural cross ventilation, solar water and space heating and energy-efficient lighting technology. As a result, residents are expected to reduce their energy bills by 80 percent for hot-water heating and 50 percent for heating and cooling their apartments. No wonder then that up to 1,200 young, low-income Syrians have already applied for apartments.

“Reducing energy consumption is a significant economic benefit to our country, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions from heating or cooling devices,” Safwan al-Assaf, general director of the GCEC, said.

Assaf said the project was first presented to the EU after studies were carried out comparing comfort levels in traditional Arabic houses in the Old City of Damascus with modern houses.

“The results persuaded the team to promote the advantages of traditional building methods in old Damascus and to rediscover design measures from the past,” Assaf said. “The overall energy concept is based on passive building design measures combined with new energy-efficient technologies and the use of renewable energies.”

Other initiatives being undertaken include the opening of an eco-friendly park in Damascus complete with exhibition space and a conference room by the local NGO Friends of Damascus, together with the Fije Water Directorate and the small grants programme at the UN Global Environment Facility. The park incorporates a grey water recycling system for watering its spaces. Erfan el-Bezreh, head of the park’s executive committee, said similar projects are planned for other spaces throughout the capital.

Change is also being mandated from the top. Last month the government held the country’s first national conference on green architecture. It is also reviewing the country’s national building codes to regulate and enforce stricter standards on design and the use of insulation. While still a work in progress, the aim is to introduce and enforce codes which help reduce the consumption of energy by keeping houses and buildings warmer during the winter and cooler in the summer.

“Syria is heading in the right direction, but it’s not fast enough,” Hamwi said. “With the international economic crisis at our heads, sustainable architecture in no longer a need, it’s a must.”

Sustainable architecture focuses on using environmentally-conscious design techniques in the field of architecture. Broadly speaking, sustainable architecture seeks to minimise the negative environmental impact of buildings by enhancing efficiency and moderation in the use of materials, energy and development space.From a design point of view, sustainable architecture takes into account the climate a building is being constructed in and its orientation, seeking to produce a naturally cool space in the warmer months and a naturally warm space in the cooler months. From a materials point of view, an energy-efficient building needs to be well constructed, sealed and insulated, with energy-efficient doors and windows. Solar hot water heating systems and energy-efficient lightbulbs and appliances can also greatly reduce a building’s energy consumption.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Cold Comfort

A government decision to deny divorced women, orphans and unmarried men a special allowance for heating oil has caused uproar in Syria’s civil society movement and among women’s rights activists.

Photo Fadi al-Hamwi

When the Ministry of Local Administration announced last November that it would distribute a SYP 10,000 (USD 217) allowance for heating oil to the population, many Syrians breathed a sigh of relief. In February, however, this collective sigh turned into a gasp of horror when Minister for Local Administration Tamer al-Hijeh announced that the allowance would not apply to single or divorced women, widows, bachelors and orphans.

“Last year the ministry gave a similar allowance to all Syrians and Palestinian refugees residing in Syria,” Sadik Abu Watfe, an assistant to the minister of Local Administration, said. “This year, however, the allowance will only be allocated to those in need.”

The needy, according to Abu Watfe, are Syrians and Palestinian refugees who live permanently in the country and do not have a financial stake in more than one car, a residential or commercial piece of real estate or agricultural land. They also have to own a family book, which is a certificate delivered to every Syrian and Syrian-Palestinian groom when he gets married, in which his wife and later his children are registered. Women are never issued with a family book, except if their husband dies, although not all widows have one.

“Why is the right to the heating allowance associated with the family book?” Da’ad Mousa, a Syrian lawyer and activist, said. “This means that a whole segment of society has no right to heating in winter. Furthermore, second, third and fourth wives who live in separate houses don’t get an allowance because while the husband may have four wives, he is only issued with one family book.”

In short, unless a woman has a husband or her husband’s family book, she is not eligible for a heating allowance. Furthermore, according to the minister’s instructions, even divorced women who are in the possession of their father’s family book are not eligible for the allowance because only the head of the family registered in the family book (or his wife if he has passed away or is ill) can apply for the allowance. Syrian women married to foreigners are also ruled out because their husbands do not receive the all-important document.

The minister’s announcement has caused uproar within the country’s civil society movement, with local press describing the move as “a punishment to women” that is “against the Syrian constitution”. The Syrian Communist Party also vehemently denounced the decision, saying it was a form of discrimination against women, not just because of the link being made between the right to a heating allowance and the family book, but also because women cannot even obtain a family book.

“We have always demanded and we still demand that a woman’s right to independence in all matters be acknowledged, especially with regards to civil and personal status law,” an editorial published on February 24 in the Syrian Communist Party newspaper Al-Nour stated. “This includes giving women a family book in case their parents die, they don’t get married, are divorced or widowed. This would release them from their complete dependence on their families, husbands, ex-husbands or late husbands.”

No way out

Despite the public outcry, Mousa says little can be done to change the situation.

“This is a government allowance,” she said. “No legal procedure can force the ministry to extend it to women as well.” It is a reality that is hard to accept for women like Kamar Habasheye, 50, who has been divorced for three years. With no diploma in hand and in fragile health, finding a job is no easy task. Since her three daughters got married, Habasheye lives alone, surviving off a monthly income of SYP 2,000 (USD 43) that she receives from an Islamic charity. She tries to supplement this meagre amount by taking on the occasional cleaning job, which earns her another SYP 1,500 (USD 32) a month.

“I simply can’t make ends meet,” Habasheye said. “Every week I have to spend a few days at my parents’ house and another couple of days at my brother’s place so as not to starve. I desperately need this allowance. The winters are getting colder every year and I have no idea what to do.”

Habasheye is one of many women hoping for a change in this year’s heating allowance distribution scheme. However, according to Abu Watfe, the funds allocated to the heating allowances have already been distributed, making it pointless to change the eligibility criteria.

“We’ve already distributed the majority of the allowances, covering eighty-five percent of Syrian families,” Abu Watfe said, adding that the ministry could make an exception in extreme cases. “While they are not eligible for the heating allowance, women who are extremely hard up could come to the ministry and ask for help,” he said.“We might investigate their case.



In February, the Ministry for Local Administration announced that the heating allowance, provided under Law No. 29 of November 19, 2009, does not apply to:

• A divorced woman whose father, mother, brothers and sisters are married. The allowance will only be allocated to the head of the family registered in the family book, or his wife in case he has passed away or is ill.

• A divorced woman who has lost her parents and does not have a family book.

• Underage children who do not have their late parents’ family book.

• A widow who does not have a family book, even if she lives in Syria permanently.

• A bachelor whose parents passed away and who does not have a family book, or whose family book is in the possession of his stepmother.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

A Woman’s Touch (Businesswomen in Syria)

Little by little, women are taking up leadership roles in Syrian family firms.


Photos Carole al-Farah

Back in the 1980s, when Sonia Khandji Cachecho was still a little girl, she loved to sneak into her father’s office and watch him work. A few years later Cachecho was managing the office when her father was away on business trips. Taking on a leading role in the family company was not welcomed by all, however, and some older Damascene traders were even unwilling to do business with her.

“In the eighties, women were largely marginalised in the world of business and only the sons took over the family business,” Cachecho said. “My father, however, never discriminated between me and my brothers. He believed in a woman’s ability and encouraged me to continue my studies and work in the family business.”

Cachecho, backed unconditionally by her father, persevered in the family hair care and cosmetics business, eventually taking over the reins. Today, she also sits on the Damascus Chamber of Commerce and serves as president of the chamber’s businesswomen’s committee.

“Those business people who once frowned upon my work have changed their attitude,” she said. “I have even become an example they now ask their daughters to follow.”

Growing numbers of Syrian women are entering the world of business. Yasmina Azhari, deputy director of Maersk Line shipping services, said women have not only forced their way into leadership positions in many family businesses, but also in many employment fields traditionally dominated by men.

“The quality and quantity of women-led businesses has developed a lot during the past 10 years,” Azhari, who also set up the NGO Modernising and Activating Women’s Role in Economic Development (MAWRED) which helps female entrepreneurs launch business ventures, said.

Mariam Massouh, general manager of Massouh Trading Company, is part of a new breed of Syrian women who are now taking up senior leadership positions within their family company.

“Many people find it weird that I’m working in my family’s aluminium company,” she said. “They often tell me that aluminium is not feminine enough for women. But whether it is a small cosmetics shop or an aluminium company, at the end of the day business is business.”

Conservative social attitudes

It is not only in large family companies where women are playing a greater role. Leila Zayyat always wanted to become a fashion designer, going so far as to enroll in the Syrian branch of the ESMOD fashion institute. The sudden death of her father in 2004, however, forced Zayyat to switch careers and take over her father’s small snack shop in the Damascus suburb of Qassa. Her younger sister has also followed her into the small business. While it was not all that long ago that a young woman working as a food vendor would have been unimaginable, today the Zayyat sisters easily go about their work, supported by their customers and neighbouring business owners.

“People always hurry to help us because we are women,” Zayyat said.

Despite her success, Zayyat doubts her business would have been possible if she was living in a more conservative part of the country. Indeed, social attitudes loom as the biggest hurdle for women in business, family or otherwise.

“The law doesn’t discriminate between men and women in business, it is society that often hampers women when entering the world of business,” Azhari said. “I was encouraged in my business by the Lattakia Chamber of Commerce because they wanted to create an image of Lattakia as a civilised and open-minded governorate, but this is not the case everywhere in Syria.”

While supported by her local community, Zayyat believes her work reduces her marriage prospects. “Not all men will accept that their wife runs a snack bar,” she said.

Even if they do, creating a balance between family and business, though not impossible, is difficult to achieve. When she had children, Cachecho decided to put her career on hold.

“These days it is not that hard for women who do not want to stop working to continue because today women have servants to take care of the house while they are away,” Cachecho, who recently returned to the boardroom after a 12-year break, said. “But I didn’t want my children to grow up without me being there for them. If I wasn’t working in a family business, however, it would have been impossible for me to quit for 12 years and then come back.”

Leila Zayyat is running a snacks shop

Women and the law

While Syrian law does not discriminate between men and women in business – Article 45 of the Syrian constitution “guarantees women all the opportunities that enable them to participate fully and effectively in political, social, cultural, and economic life” – a number of legal issues confront women working in family businesses.

Inheritance is a case in point, with inheritance laws making it more difficult for women to take over a business.

Inheritance laws fall under the Personal Status Code which makes women legal dependents of their fathers or husbands. These laws are also based on religious laws. For Muslim women, this means they only inherit half of what their brothers do in accordance with Islamic teaching.

According to Cachecho, however, this problem can be solved by converting family businesses into joint-stock companies. “This solves a lot of problems for the next generations within the family and for women in particular,” she said.

The fact that children take their father’s family name, rather than their mother’s, also makes it more difficult for women to maintain their family business across generations.

“Children carry their father’s name and therefore they often establish their own family business rather than continuing the mother’s family business,” Cachecho said.

According to Cachecho, only 9 percent of Syrian companies are registered in a woman’s name. Of this total, only 15 percent are family-run firms.

Despite these obstacles, Cachecho remains optimistic for the country’s businesswomen.

“There are a lot of opportunities for women to start their own business with a small budget,” she said. “Women from different social classes are now starting their own companies. While family businesses led by women are limited in number, our hope is that many of the new businesses created by women independent from their families will develop into women-led family businesses in the future.”

This article was published in Syria Todaymagazine.