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.
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.