Some 400 potential investors, including the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a branch of the World Bank, gather for a conference in Damascus Thursday aimed at promoting the Syrian economy.
"The international conference for investment in Syria," scheduled Thursday and Friday, is the first forum of its kind to be organized in Damascus since the start of the policy of economic openness some ten years ago.
Syria hopes the conference will promote a "useful dialogue" among financial circles invited to contribute to the modernization of its economy, run since 1963 on the socialist principles of the ruling Baath party, according to the party's official paper.
Syrian economic experts estimate the country's needs several billion dollars, stressing the country is lagging behind in information technology and has ageing infrastructure.
The head of the Syrian chambers of commerce, Rateb Shallah, said Syria has several strong arguments in its favor, in particular "a market of 18 million people, a promising tourist potential, and good development possibilities in the food, agriculture and textile areas."
But to see the projects through in all these areas, a banking system needs to be put in place to respond to the needs of companies, he told AFP.
The government of Mohammed Mustapha Miro, which reflects the thinking of the new president Bashar al-Assad, has already announced that it plans to allow private banks and foreign banks to operate in free-trade zones.
These measures, which represent the first Syrian opening in the banking sector which was nationalized in 1963, are to be followed soon by the creation of a special investors bank.
Banking reform is particularly needed as a 1991 law to promote investments did not have the planned effect.
According to official figures, only 47.6 million dollars were invested in Syria in 1999, and Syria's share of total foreign investment in Arab countries is no more than 0.77 percent of the total.
Miro's government is also determined to clean up the administration and ease the bureaucracy which holds up the flow of capital, and to put Syria on the path of the countries eligible to receive international bank loans.
Syria is in the process of solving its debt problem with Germany, which will allow it to have access to loans from the European Investment Bank.
The EIB's return to Syria will be followed by that of the World Bank in 2002, when Syria will have made up its arrears of debt to the bank in line with a deal agreed in 1997 -- DAMASCUS (AFP)
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