Syria has granted permission to three foreign banks to operate in the country's free trade zones, the finance ministry said Tuesday. Societe Generale Libano-Europeenne de Banque (SGLEB), Fransabank and the Banque Europeenne pour le Moyen-Orient (BEMO) "had their requests accepted Sunday, as they met the required conditions," a ministry spokesman told AFP.
All three banks are Lebanese, although two of them have French participation. Societe Generale holds 50 percent of SGLEB, and Credit Agricole is a minority holder in Fransabank.
SGLEB is Lebanon's 11th largest bank, while Fransabank is in 20th place and BEMO is 21st.
"Three other banks -- Byblos Bank, British Arab Commercial Bank and Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries -- could open soon" in the zones, the ministry spokesman added.
Syrian authorities in June authorized foreign banks to set up in the free trade zones, provided they each have minimum currency capital of $11 million. The move is the first sign that Syria is trying to open up its banking sector, which is controlled by the state.
But the foreign banks will only be allowed to provide services to the industrial, commercial and transportation firms that are also in the free trade zones. Syria started free trade zones in 1972 in Damascus, the nearby town of Adra, the northern city of Aleppo and the Mediterranean ports of Latakia and Tartus.
The government continues to impose strict rules on the transfer of foreign currency abroad, prompting Syrian businesspeople to keep their money in neighboring countries, particularly Lebanon.
Prime Minister Mohammed Mustapha Miro, appointed in March, has taken a number of measures to attract foreign investment in Syria.
© Agence France Presse 2000
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )