Holding by a thread: behind the scenes of syria's textile industry
Syrian textile and garment manufacturers are coalescing in Beirut in an attempt to revive their war-devastated industry. Manufacturers, trade associations and international buyers are meeting for a three-day trade fair, the Syrian Fashion Fair, at the Phoenicia Hotel where they hope to secure in $70 million in new export deals for children’s wear and lingerie.
Textiles had been a cornerstone in the Syrian export economy in the years leading up to the crisis, as part of efforts to diversify the country’s economy away from oil. But three years of conflict in the country has cost the industry dearly.
Destruction and theft have forced the closure of many manufacturing facilities, particularly in the commercial center of Aleppo province, where most were located and which has been the scene of intense fighting. Interruptions to transport, logistics, electricity and water supply have also affected production and added to costs.
While accurate figures are impossible to collect, the vice president of the Syrian Garments and Textiles Exporters Association, Firas Takialdine, says around 70 percent of production facilities have been destroyed or are now nonoperational.
“There is a shortage of cotton because of damage to agriculture; there has been damage and theft and interruptions to transport as a result of the war,” Takialdine said at the fair Sunday.
But, by working together, relocating and exploring creative logistical alternatives, Takialdine said, textile manufacturers are optimistic they can “rise again from the ashes.”
While many textiles manufactures have moved to Egypt and Turkey, others are choosing to downsize and relocate to safe areas in Damascus, finding conditions more favorable than abroad.
Sponsored by the association, along with the Export Development and Promotion Agency, the Syrian Exporters Federation and the private Islamic Cham Bank, the fair, which opened Saturday, is the second to be held in Beirut. The first fair in mid-September 2013 secured $50 million in trade deals with mainly Gulf and Libyan customers.
Capitalizing on that momentum, the aim is to secure over $70 million in sales this time.
“It was very successful. The manufacturers, by working together, have now managed to overcome the main obstacles. They were encouraged to rebuild in a new way to keep up with the changing situation,” he said. “Libya and other markets don’t have good alternatives other than Syrian goods, especially children’s wear and lingerie.”
And while transport and logistics challenges have driven up costs, other consequences of the war have been exploited to the industry’s benefit.
The decrease in the value of the Syrian pound has made products highly competitive and labor cheaper. The cancellation of the Turkish Free Trade Agreement in 2012 means Syrian manufacturers are no longer competing with cheaper and often higher quality Turkish imports, manufacturers and economists said.
“Whenever the currency decreases, your product becomes much more competitive. The major cost in textiles is labor, and labor is now much cheaper,” Syrian economist Jihad Yazigi said.
“But that doesn’t mean they are not facing difficulties, in terms of power cuts and transport.”
“You can’t call those who moved to Egypt and Turkey Syrian exporters anymore. They are not benefiting from the decrease in the SP, they are Turkish and Egyptian companies with Syrian shareholders.”
What’s needed, said a Syria-based economist who asked that his name not be used, is optimism.
“Syrians are striving to keep their industry alive,” the economist said.
At the trade fair Sunday, that was on full display.
Lingerie and night-wear manufacturer Mauhannad Dadoush, based in Damascus, said he had been forced to find new solutions for a range of problems over the last two years but that, so far, none of his products had failed to reach his clients.
“My workers were afraid to leave and go home at the end of the day, in case the security situation meant they couldn’t get back and would lose a day’s work.
“I came up with a solution. I prepared a space for them to sleep in the factory, and they return home to their wives and families on the weekends,” Dadoush explained.
“I export by road to Jordan, by sea from Tartous to Europe and from Beirut airport to Europe also.”
He now imports some raw materials due to shortages, but on the whole, he has stayed afloat.
“We have worked hard and are now back at 80 percent of prewar production levels. Our clients have all stayed with us and we have continued to deliver,” he said. “Can you believe we managed to hold a fair like this? We astonished even ourselves.”
Mohammad Aiman Qasem, Kuwaiti buyer and manager of the Qasem lingerie retail chain, said his relationship with his Syrian supplier had continued for 20 years and had been uninterrupted by the crisis.
“We managed to get our products without delay. I’m amazed,” he said.
By Lauren Williams