The return of Syrian private-sector banking
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The return of Syrian private-sector banking

After an absence of almost half a century, private-sector banks are once again doing business in Syria. Some three years after the first pioneers opened their doors, the country’s economic landscape is still in full transformation – and competition is beginning to heat up. Alex Warren reports.

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PRIVATELY OWNED BANK branches are springing up fast among the fashion boutiques, coffee bars and internet cafés that line the leafy upmarket suburbs of Damascus. It’s a stark contrast to the situation just five years ago, when the entire banking sector still lay in state hands and finding an ATM required first finding a taxi. The transformation bears witness to the early fruits of Syria’s difficult and complex shift away from a monolithic, centrally planned economy towards one driven by market forces.

Such a goal has been a cornerstone of president Bashar Assad’s gradual economic liberalization programme since 2001. It was given formal shape last year by the government’s 10th five-year plan, which outlines a comprehensive overhaul of the machinery of Syria’s economy. "It’s like we’re trying to re-engineer an entire country," says one banker.

Although many urge more rapid progress, particularly given the substantial fall in Syrian oil production, signs of change are apparent. A flurry of foreign investment has been announced, previously unseen imported products are on the shelves and non-oil GDP has grown by 5% to 6% over the past three years, according to the IMF.

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