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Syria: Windows on a wider world

Syria’s commitment to the development of export-oriented sectors and new trade ties is paying off, with new incentives for domestic and foreign investors in place. Privatization, though, is not part of the package and the government is pledged to retain a mixed economy.

A more open attitude to international trade is an increasingly important element of Syria's economic strategy. The most obvious proof has been its commitment to participation in the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Project originally drawn up in Barcelona in 1995. In theory, this will open up a market of some 700 million consumers to Syrian exports. The downside is that it could open up Syria's domestic market to a flood of imports that have traditionally been strictly controlled or subject to prohibitive import tariffs.

Syrian officials and businessmen are keenly aware that at present most of its industrial output is hopelessly ill-suited to compete with goods manufactured in other markets on the EU's periphery that began economic integration years before Syria even contemplated reform. In that respect, such countries as Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia already have a formidable head start.

The good news is that Damascus has at least four elements on its side as it prepares for closer economic links with Europe. The first is time. It will be at least 10 years before the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area is anything like a level playing field. And 10 years is a long time even to put fairly ramshackle economic houses in order.

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