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Coming in from the cold

After 40 years of self-imposed isolation, Syria has finally opened its doors to foreign banks. Last month the economy minister Mohammed al-Imadi issued banking licenses to the three Lebanese institutions: Banque Européene pour le Moyen Orient, Fransabank and Société Générale Libano-Européene de Banque (SGLEB).

This is the first time private, let alone foreign banks, have been allowed to operate in Syria since the sector was nationalized in 1960.

The licenses only allow the three banks to lend to companies in free-trade zones, thereby excluding retail customers, state-owned companies and the bulk of the private sector.

However, a new banking law has been proposed and put forward in the Syrian parliament that could see these restrictions lifted and give the new arrivals the freedom to operate in all segments of the market.

Bassel Hamwi, representative of the International Finance Corporation in Syria, says that the details of the new law (such as whether to allow full foreign ownership or just joint ventures) have yet to be fully debated but expects a decision by the end of this year.

Lebanese bankers see the government's move as a sign that Bashar al-Assad (who took over as president following the death of his father in June) is keen to liberalize the Syrian economy but only at a slow, prudent pace.

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