Syria's next government faces huge challenge on jobs front
The new government being formed in Syria faces the huge task of creating a quarter of a million new jobs each year to spur growth for its young population and maintain social stability. These targets must be met to remain strong in the face of Israel and carry out political reforms in a country ruled for almost four decades by the Baath party, according to member of parliament and economists.
"Unemployment is the most dangerous challenge facing the desired process of economic development," acknowledged the party's daily, following Monday's resignation of a government headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa Miro.
President Bashar Al-Assad has tasked Miro with forming a new cabinet. Al-Baath newspaper said that unemployment, which economists put at 20 percent of the active population, "needs rapid and radical solutions". The high birth rate in Syria, which has a population of 17 million, requires an annual growth rate of over three percent to create more than 250,000 new jobs per year, said an economist tipped to join the government.
"This target is achievable," he said, pointing to Syria's wealth in agriculture, oil and gas products, and archaeological riches with a high tourism potential. But bureaucratic obstacles, endemic corruption, complex regulations, an archaic banking system and backwardness in information technology have deprived Syria of the investments it needs. Syria's state banking system does not finance private projects, obliging businessmen to turn to the banks of foreign countries, especially in Lebanon, for loans.
When he came to power in July 2000, the young president announced he wanted to "develop and modernize" Syria and signed around 100 new laws, notably legislation to allow private banking. But 18 months on and Syria does not appear able to reverse almost two decades of stagnation. Officially, gross domestic product in 2000 was estimated at $17 billion and growth at five percent this year, although economists give a figure of one to two percent with inflation also running at two percent.
MPs blame the outgoing cabinet formed in March 2000 shortly before the death of Assad's father Hafez, who ruled for 30 years. Despite being headed by Miro, seen as a relatively flexible newcomer, it retained ministers of 15 years standing such as Khaled Mahayni in the finance post and Mohammad Imadi in economy and foreign trade.
"The aim now is to put in place a team working in harmony with a clear vision of the reforms needed," one MP said. Another economist said Syria needs a strong economy and social stability "to remain independent when it needs to take political decisions", referring to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Peace negotiations between Syria and the Jewish state have been frozen since January 2000, with Damascus insisting on recognition of Syrian sovereignty over the whole of the Golan Heights which Israel seized in 1967.
Social stability is also a key ingredient for gradual political reforms, the economist said. Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam said in February 2000 that political reforms would have to wait for economic restructuring to avoid the type of social crises which struck Russia in the 1990s. As a sign of the slow pace on the political track, the Syrian authorities in August and September arrested 10 opposition figures, including two MPs, for have demanded an end to the Baath's "monopoly" on power.
Parliamentary circles predict the vast majority of cabinet posts in the next Miro lineup will go to new ministers, including some independents outside the Baath which has ruled Syria since March 1963. — (AFP, Damascus)
by Maher Chmaytelli
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)