A Trade Fair in Syria's Damascus Illustrates Just How Quickly Bashar Al Assad is Coming in From the Cold

Published September 4th, 2019 - 01:21 GMT
Preparations for the Damascus International Fair in the countryside of the Syrian capital, on August 10 /AFP
Preparations for the Damascus International Fair in the countryside of the Syrian capital, on August 10 /AFP


‘From Damascus to the World’ reads the omnipresent banners at the 61st annual Damascus International Trade Fair, currently being held in the Syrian capital- and though the Syrian regime has a penchant for overstating the extent and depth of its international relationships, the fair’s motto seems to attest to the diversity of attendees.



According to organisers, 1700 companies are taking part in this year’s festival, representing 38 countries, ranging from familiar Syrian allies, Russia and Iran, to powers from further afield including India, the Philippines and South Africa. The annual trade fair, first held in 1954, at the height of pan-Arab fervour, was put on hiatus between 2011-2017 as the country found itself gripped by civil war and internationally isolated.

Yet in the last 2 years, businesspeople and dignitaries from throughout the Middle East and further abroad have flocked Damascus in attempts to secure lucrative reconstruction contracts and engage in increasingly tense geopolitical competition as rivals jockey for influence in Syria as the country emerges from nearly a decade of conflict.
 

According to organisers, 1700 companies are taking part in this year’s festival, representing 38 countries, ranging from familiar Syrian allies, Russia and Iran, to powers from further afield including India, the Philippines and South Africa


The fair’s opening ceremony gave a number of insights into the global ambitions of Bashar al-Assad’s regime which has been seeking to consolidate links with traditional allies and normalise relations with former adversities.

A sound and light show which opened the event overtly referenced Syria’s imagined position at the centre of the modern Arab world, projecting images from an earlier period of pan-Arab unity. Alongside Syria’s Arab identity, the other key focus of the performance proved Syria’s position on the ancient Silk Road, which linked a network of trade routes between China, India, the Gulf and Europe.

Dancers from China and Russia took to the stage with background images of St Petersburg’s palaces, busy Chinese ports, and ancient Palmyra, in Syria’s east, a key hub of trans-regional trade for centuries. The symbolism of the event was not lost on observers- while Syria seeks to normalise its position in the Arab world, it also looks North and East, hoping to maintain the financial and political backing of key global powers China and Russia.
 

Dancers from China and Russia took to the stage with background images of St Petersburg’s palaces, busy Chinese ports, and ancient Palmyra, in Syria’s east, a key hub of trans-regional trade for centuries.

In regard to normalising relations with the Arab world, the events of recent days have augured well for the Syrian regime. The Arab League has long taken a strongly critical stance on the Syrian government, having voted to suspend its membership after violent crack downs on protests in 2011, which catalysed the violence which has engulfed the country ever since.

The Gulf states have tended to take an especially dim view of Mr Assad’s government, having actively supported rebel groups seeking its overthrow. Yet this week Oman and the United Arab Emirates have furthered their policies of normalising relations with Syria.

A delegation of at least 40 businessmen from the UAE is reportedly in attendance at the trade fair, alongside a smaller Omani contingent. Though Oman never formally severed ties with Syria, the UAE’s recent overtures towards the regime are especially significant. The UAE officially resumed diplomatic communications in December 2018, reopening its Damascus Embassy and holding meetings with government officials.

Increasing trade relations suggest that this normalisation of relations runs deeper than the high politics of diplomacy. Among the UAE’s businesses represented at the fair is Arabtec Holding, one of the region’s largest construction firms, responsible for the Burj Khalifa. A range of other real estate and construction firms are in attendance, hoping to secure lucrative contracts as the Syrian government aims to rebuild its war damaged infrastructure, housing and services. 

Among the UAE’s businesses represented at the fair is Arabtec Holding, one of the region’s largest construction firms, responsible for the Burj Khalifa

Yet business interests alone do not account for the Emirati presence at the fair, nor the UAE’s increasing interest in post-conflict Syria. The UAE, along with its regional allies, has grown increasingly concerned with the extent of both Turkish and Iranian influence in Syria.

Increasing business connections may provide a channel to exert influence in a strategically important setting. The UAE’s cultivation of strategic alliances and economic interests in Syria is of particular controversy given how it sits with key Emirati allies. American officials, following the announcement of attendees at the festival, took to Twitter to warn ‘that anyone doing business with the Assad regime or its associates is exposing themselves to the possibility of US sanctions’, while Saudi Arabia has vowed to not aid in the reconstruction of Syria without a political transition in Damascus. Recent UAE decision making may point to the development of a new foreign policy direction in Abu Dhabi, defined by balancing relations between adversaries rather than playing a junior partner role in a controversial alliance with Saudi Arabia and the USA.

Recent UAE decision making may point to the development of a new foreign policy direction in Abu Dhabi, defined by balancing relations between adversaries rather than playing a junior partner role in a controversial alliance with Saudi Arabia and the USA.

Chinese, Iranian and Russian ambitions to benefit from Syria’s reconstruction have been more flagrantly on show in recent months. China has pledged billions of dollars worth of investments in Syria since 2017 and increasingly sees Syria as an alternative route to the Mediterranean and a key node in its Belt and Road project.

Chinese investors are seeking to redevelop the Port of Tripoli in Lebanon, the only deep-water port in the area not under the effective control of Russia and revive the disused Homs-Tripoli railway to service the port.

Iran, which has long played a supportive role for the Syrian regime, hopes to be given favourable treatment in reconstruction negotiations. An Iranian construction firm has reportedly signed a Memorandum of Understanding to construct 200,000 housing units in Damascus, whilst the Iranian regime connected MAPNA group has signed agreements to build a power plant in the Latakia region and an oil refinery in Homs.

Syria. Russia, China and Iran, with strong political connections to the Syrian government, may yet considerably advance their commercial claims as the country seeks to redress damage to infrastructure estimated at $388 billion USD by the UN.

On Monday, the Syrian Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources signed three contracts with Russian oil and gas giants Mercury and Velada over drilling, surveying and production interests in the oil and gas sector in central and eastern Syria. Russia, China and Iran, with strong political connections to the Syrian government, may yet considerably advance their commercial claims as the country seeks to redress damage to infrastructure estimated at $388 billion USD by the UN.

Western states continue to be wary of involvement in reconstruction efforts in Syria given long standing opposition to the governing regime.

Yet other key regional and international actors see profits to be made in the country’s post-conflict landscape. As President Assad tightens his grip on power, he carries a significant coterie of commercially interested allies with him.

 

The views expressed in this article to not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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