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Syria Turns Its Attention East

News From : DagangHalal.com (22 Jan 2010)

DAMASCUS – Last week, President Bashar al-Assad appointed Lamia al-Assi, the Syrian ambassador to Malaysia since 2004, as his country’s first woman minister of economy and trade. The dynamic 55-year-old, hard-working and wise, is a breath of fresh air for the Syrian business community.

However, many people read the appointment purely in gender terms, given that she is the third woman in the cabinet of Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari, in addition to the female vice president, veteran scholar Najah al-Attar.

A closer look reveals that Assi was appointed for her caliber and Asian expertise rather than gender, as Syria wants to promote relations with the Far East.

Assi, who holds a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Damascus and an MBA from the Higher Institute for Business Administration, knows the Far East well, and will certainly play a role in furthering a policy that surfaced in 2005. This encouraged Syria to “head East” and invest in heavyweight countries like India, China, Russia and Malaysia. These nations in particular support Syria’s desire to regain the occupied Golan Heights and want to do business with Damascus.

At that time, “heading East” was based on a hard-felt reality; the doors to Europe and the United States remained closed as long as George W Bush was in the White House. Syria had initialed an association agreement with Europe in 2004, yet this was frozen by the European Union under pressure from the Bush administration. Syria had no choice but to look towards the Far East, which was willing to engage with Damascus, with or without approval of the Americans.

Bouthaina Shaaban, former minister of expatriates and now presidential advisor on media affairs, wrote an article outlining this approach, “Perhaps the time has come to bring the Arabs, from a state of complete submission to the hostile West, towards the East and countries that share with us values, interests and orientation.” She then asked, “What did we get from the West, to which the Arabs affiliated themselves for the entire past century, except for occupation, hatred and war?”

She made reference to then-Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, who similarly “headed East” towards Japan, Korea and China when reforming his country between 1981 and 2003. Mahathir, who visited Syria in 2003, is famous and admired in Damascus for writing his PhD dissertation on the Syrian economy of the 1950s. The Syrians seemed to be saying that the world did not end at the doors of Washington, London and Paris, and that countries in the Far East could fill in the political and economic gaps left behind by a hostile US and indifferent Europe.

Although relations with Europe and the US began to mend in 2006-2008, and shifted dramatically after Barack Obama came to power in 2009, Syria remains committed to a policy of engagement with the Far East, mirroring the high-profile trip by Assad to Malaysia in 2003, and to India in 2008. This month, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari went to Syria for talks with his Syrian counterpart, while Shaaban went to New Delhi for a three-day trip to follow up on the presidential visit of 2008.

All of that coincides with a concentrated effort to boost political and economic ties with Turkey, a regional heavyweight, whose bilateral trade with Syria stands at US$1.5 billion and which is expected to reach $5 billion, according to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Last December, Syria and Turkey signed 47 trade agreements and lifted visa requirements between both countries, with Erdogan famously telling the Syrians, “Cooperate with us [in economy and business] and we will extract milk, even from the male goat.” Trade with China, for example, currently stands at $2.2 billion, while Syrian imports from Malaysia are $119 million, with bilateral trade at $156.7 million.

Kuala Lumpur is where the real gold mine lies, waiting to be tapped by Assi, who is well connected with the Malaysian business community and will likely use her influence and know-how to see to it that Syrian-Malaysian relations receive a tremendous boost.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi went to Syria in February 2007. Top officials in both countries know each other well and have constantly promised to upgrade relations, which Otari described as being built on “trust, respect and mutual vision”.

In January 2009, the two countries signed several agreements in air services and small and medium enterprise after a Malaysian firm was contracted to upgrade and expand Damascus international airport and build a sewage and industrial wastewater treatment station in Syria.

In 2006, Syria was Malaysia’s eighth-largest export destination in West Asia. Most Malaysian exports to Syria are in textiles, clothing and palm oil, while Badawi calls for investing in halal products (those prepared by Muslim tradition), which would sell well in the Malaysian market.

Speaking to Syrian businessmen in 2007, Badawi said, “While Malaysia prides itself as one of the major trading nations in Asia, we recognize that Syria, in particular Damascus, has for centuries been a trading hub in this region and that Syria has a rich history in commerce. We should make the most of our long involvement in trade to develop business linkages between our two countries. Obviously we have not done enough in this regard … lack of understanding of each other’s economy could perhaps be the deterring factor.”

Perhaps this is where someone like Assi will come in handy. Last October, Syria said that it needed to revisit the partnership agreement with Europe, claiming that the conditions that prevailed when the treaty was initialed in 2004 no longer stood, given the 2008 financial crisis that hit Europe hard. Before jumping into such a treaty with Europe, it would be wiser to boost investment and bilateral trade with countries in the Far East, which would strengthen the Syrian economy in anticipation, perhaps, of signing the agreement with Europe sometime in the near future.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

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