Syria’s Business Elite – Will it Defect?

Many Opposition Members have argued that the business elite of Syria will abandon the regime down the road when Syria’s economic troubles grow deeper. I have asked a number of readers to explain how they think the Syrian business elite will react in the future.

Ford Prefect (From Sunni Elite Family, living in the US)

Many Syrian anti-government “experts” and dissidents are arguing today that the Assad regime’s downfall is guaranteed when the majority of the Syrian business elite switch sides and stop supporting the Assad regime.

Nothing could be farther from the truth than this line of thinking. It is an illusion created by opposition members who reside mainly outside Syria; it is naïve at best.

The business elite is the regime.  It is an elite 40 years in the making – a complex web military officers, business people, merchants, industrialists, landowners, and others cutting across all sectarian and geographical lines.  When we talk about the regime, it is important to keep this elite class in mind. Most people, and especially those living outside Syria, do not understand this unique Syrian phenomenon and fall into the trap of thinking the regime is only loosely coupled to the rest of the society.

I hate to over-generalize but I have to do so here.

The business elite is the regime today. If you are not in the regime, you are not in the elite. The converse is also true.

The military elite, married to the business elite, buying the pieces of the art elite, living in the homes purchased from the builder elite, consuming the food of the hospitality elite, driving cars from the auto elite, and it’s elite this and elite that.

Change the regime and a slice of this elite class will be replaced by another. Who are we kidding?

MajedKhaldoun (Sunni living in US – I support the right of everyone to be free. I came from a family who are Baath and Communist, but when I came to this USA I became libertarian.)

The Elite business do not like uncertainty,they will abandon the regime if this takes a long time. Syrians today are saying NO DIALOGUE with this corrupt murderous regime. The regime will go. More of the silent majority will soon join the opposition.

Ehsani – US based Banker-Businessman

Will the opposition’s bet that Syria’s business elite will soon separate from the regime if the economy worsens? How will the Business elite respond to the economic difficulties ahead?

Presumably the country’s high net worth individuals make up its so-called business elite. If you happened to belong to this group, the last thing that you want to do is rock the boat. The wealthier you are the closer you are to the higher echelons of the political leadership. Those who have remained in the country have come to expect to be rewarded for their loyalty. Rather than move their capital overseas, they decided to invest in the country and for that they must receive certain privileges, advantages and access.

Over time, this turned into a self fulfilling prophecy. By staying in the country, you were loyal and because you were loyal you gained access and certain privileges which made you more money which you reinvested more of and so on. Moreover, this very system dissuaded many outsiders from coming in. Competing with the connected insiders became a daunting challenge for foreign and expatriate investors alike. The journeyman, low-hanging-fruit investors can expect to be plucked clean by the powerful local investors who have joined hands in such corporations as the Cham or Souria Holding Companies. This group of investors alone makes up close to 75 of the country’s business elite.

Will any of those abandon the regime? I think that the answer is extremely unlikely. This is because most are trapped in the system. They are trapped in highly illiquid assets that are difficult to sell nowadays. Even if they were sold, transferring such funds to one’s Swiss account is most likely not going to be looked at too kindly by the security and political leadership. For the above reasons, the business elite will stick with the regime and pray that everything returns  to the status quo that prevailed before March of this year.

There is no doubt that the business community has suffered recently from the severe economic contraction. Those that see no chance of a return to the good old days will try to diversify and send some capital overseas. For now, most have bought foreign currency, gold or land as a hedge. Those that have done business and prospered in Syria in the past will find it hard to replicate their success overseas. Bank deposits earn close to zero in the main currencies. Starting a business from scratch in the EU or the US is challenging and hard.

For the business elite, life would indeed be much easier if the regime regains its footing and somehow returns Syria back to its days prior to the events of March. Even if this takes time, it is worth the wait from the perspective of this group. The alternatives in all likelihood are going to be even worse than today. Back in 2006, I wrote how Syria is made up of two separate countries: Syria 1 which contains close to one million people and Syria 2 which contains the remaining 19 million. The only thing that has changed since then is that Syria 2 has grown to 22 million.

Sami Moubayed (Sunni from Elite Business family, Living in Damascus)

The business elite that matters, at curtain fall, is that of Damascus and Aleppo. To date, both of them have been pro-regime although ironically it was the elite of both cities that suffered most from the Baath Party when it came to power in 1963.

Historically speaking, however, both cities can make or break any political movement—but rarely have they ever been part of anything that threatens their stability and commercial interests. Let us not forget that Damascus very unwillingly joined the revolt of 1925, and when it did, suffered punishment greater than that of all other Syrian cities combined. It was shelled continuously for 48-hours and entire neighborhoods were set ablaze and looted. Aleppo for that matter was not even part of the Syrian Revolt of 1925. And to be fair to history, although we make reference to the “Aleppo Revolt” in history books, it was the suburbs of Aleppo that revolted against the French in 1919. Aleppo itself remained silent.

In Damascus, the merchants used to moan and groan whenever political parties, or youth movements, called on them to close down their shops for anti-government protests. Simply put, as far as the businessmen were concerned, all that meant was “money lost.” Many merchants would refuse to close, regardless of popular consent, and demonstrators would famously chant: “Saker ya Arsa Saker.” Roughly, that translates into “Close down O’ Pimp. Close down.” That mentality still prevails in the old bazaars of Damascus and in the new posh and trendy corporate culture that has mushroomed around banks, insurance companies, advertising and media firms all over the Syrian capital.

Today, the business elite of both cities is seemingly adamant about not being part of the street demonstrations that have erupted in most towns and villages around the country. That will likely remain the case due to the business interests of Damascus and Aleppo, the weight of their clerics (who are allied to the state), along with the political, social, and economic interests of their notability and business community. In many cases, the notables are from “new money” and rose to power and fame only after the Baathists came to power in 1963. That is why they have overlapping interests with the political elite and are often allied to them by business partnerships and marriage. The silence of both cities, however, won’t last for too long, for three different reasons.

  1. Unemployment: The moment rising unemployment kicks in, young people will take to the streets in both Damascus and Aleppo, regardless of what city elders tell them. Many young people already jobless since March, and if the stalemate continues for another month, they could start finding themselves penniless as well.
  2. Lack of Community Leaders: Back in the 1980s, community leaders like Ahmad Kaftaro (the Grand Mufti) and Bader al-Din al-Shallah (doyen of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce) used their heavyweight influence to pacify angry citizens in Damascus. People respected them, listened to them, and often carried out their orders with no questions asked. When Shallah asked shopkeepers to break the strike, they immediately answered his call. Today there are no community leaders with similar clout and standing in Damascus and Aleppo.

Paul (Christian Damascene)

Any targeting of the Syrian economy will be considered by the business community to be an attack on them personally and on Syria. This will more likely stir an already high nationalistic sentiment in Syria today to new heights.

The west will be highly unlikely to get a resolution in the UN against Syria under the current climate. The opposition (the real nationalistic opposition, not the one hired by KSA and the State Department has opposed foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs. The Syrian gov has also moved ahead with a national dialogue to implement political reforms, so it will be really hard to coerce China and Russia into agreeing to a resolution on Syria. What is going on today in Syria does not represent a threat to international security (more people die in Turkey every year from the Kurdish issue).

  • Demographics: Damascus, more so than Aleppo, is a melting pot for all Syrians. It is packed with people from rural Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Hama, Idlib, and rural Idlib. It is those people who are likely to demonstrate in Damascus, rather than the Damascenes themselves, and those people, naturally, do not take their orders from the business community of Damascus
  • Shami: (Islamic Current)

    The percentage of veiled women is higher in Syria today than in Pakistan.  In Aleppo, and I am not exaggerating if i say that 90% of women are veiled, even inside the districts that happened to be inhabited by Christians some years ago (both old and newer quarters) Syria has seen an imposing Islamic revival during the last decades. I don’t think that Aleppo is an exception. As for Aleppo, don’t worry, they will destroy the hideous statue in Masharqa, if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow. Islamization of Syria is well on its way.

    President of the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce Denounces some Opposition Leaders for Repeating the same old Socialist Economic Solutions

    بالمقابل اتهم رئيس غرفة الصناعة في حلب، فارس الشهابي، احد المشاركين في الندوة، “ما طرح أثناء الحوار، بأنه إعادة للفكر اليساري الاشتراكي أو الشيوعي، الذي عشنا فصوله في أواخر الثلاثينات أو الأربعينات، والذي أتى بجمال عبد الناصر والتأميم وثم الأنظمة الاشتراكية، واتهام البرجوازية الوطنية والرأسمال الوطني، علماً أن الأحداث الحالية أثبتت أن هذه الطبقة هي التي أيدت وحرصت على الوطن”.

    وأضاف “لا نريد لهذه المعارضة أن تكون لها الصبغة اليسارية، التي تأتي بالتنظير والفلسفة والكوارث على المجتمع واقتصاده، ولا بد من إجراء المصالحة الداخلية مع القوى المدنية الأخرى وخصوصاً قوى رأس المال الوطني”.

    وطالب أحد المشاركين ويدعى، مصطفى أبو صوص، طالب في كلية الحقوق السنة الرابعة “بحوار شبابي، لأننا نحن نعرف كيف نريد أن نرى سورية الغد، وكيف نبينها، ومن يتحاورون اليوم هم الذين ورثونا هذه الأزمات التي لم تأتي وليدة الصدفة، ونؤكد على عدم الحوار مع من حمل السلاح”.

    Comments (158)

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    151. Revlon said:

    69. Dear Tara, thank you for reading my post and for your question.

    You said:
    ” Duma women’s demonstration you linked earlier is quite disturbing and I strongly condemn it.”

    I say: I took note of your position.

    You said:
    “I would not call that paticular demonstration peaceful. We should not let Wisal TV hijack it from us”

    I say:
    – The ladies demeanor and their chants were nothing but peaceful.
    – Demonstrators carried dozens of banners.
    – One girl carried a banner, with Wisal/Safa handwritten on it.
    – I know almost nothing about those stations.
    – All I know is that they promote a very conservative interpretation of Islam.
    – That interpretation, like it or not, is embraced by a sizable, albeit proportionately a minority of Muslem Syrians.
    – To deny them the right to read and follow the media that fit their beliefs, taste, and lifestyle is like denying you or other commentators on this blog the same right to read or follow the media of your or their preference.
    – Neither their choice to demonstrate nor the choice of the TV staion to broadcast the video amount to hijacking anyone’s right demonstrate.
    The revolution has as many voices and choices as there are demonstrators.
    It has one spirit; freedom.

    – Many “seculars” on this blog are much more narrow minded and far more intolerent to other people’s choices than their perceived “sectarian nemesis”.

    They use vulgar, obscene and threatning language as a proof of their “nationalism and secularism”.

    They use sectarian language to achieve their “secular” agenda.

    I like to provide you with an excerpt from the first speech of their idol, Jr.
    I found it very alarming, and more worthy of being broadcast on Wisal, or Safa than the video of Duma ladies.
    Here it is:
    وأضاف الرئيس الأسد.. وأد الفتنة واجب وطني وأخلاقي وشرعي وكل من يستطيع أن يسهم في وأدها ولا يفعل فهو جزء منها.. والفتنة أشد من القتل كما جاء في القرآن الكريم فكل من يتورط فيها عن قصد أو من غير قصد فهو يعمل على قتل وطنه وبالتالي لا مكان لمن يقف في الوسط.. فالقضية ليست الدولة بل الوطن..

    As you see, Jr. used part of a verse, from Quran to justify his means for achieving unity in “secular Syria”

    The phrase he used “Fitnah is worse than killing” was cited in Quran, in Surat Al Baqra.
    Here it is:
    وَٱقۡتُلُوهُمۡ حَيۡثُ ثَقِفۡتُمُوهُمۡ وَأَخۡرِجُوهُم مِّنۡ حَيۡثُ أَخۡرَجُوكُمۡ‌ۚ وَٱلۡفِتۡنَةُ أَشَدُّ مِنَ ٱلۡقَتۡلِ‌ۚ وَلَا تُقَـٰتِلُوهُمۡ عِندَ ٱلۡمَسۡجِدِ ٱلۡحَرَامِ حَتَّىٰ يُقَـٰتِلُوكُمۡ فِيهِ‌ۖ فَإِن قَـٰتَلُوكُمۡ فَٱقۡتُلُوهُمۡ‌ۗ كَذَٲلِكَ جَزَآءُ ٱلۡكَـٰفِرِينَ (١٩١)

    However, even then, his quotation was out of context. The latter was provided in the verse before, and here it is:
    وَقَـٰتِلُواْ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلَّذِينَ يُقَـٰتِلُونَكُمۡ وَلَا تَعۡتَدُوٓاْ‌ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ ٱلۡمُعۡتَدِينَ (١٩٠)

    In a couple of posts earlier, I asked 11 pro-regime and one neutral whether they agreed with Jr.’s use of the quotation in substance, context, and principle.
    The neutral and one Pro. who cared to answer said they did not care as long as it serves national unity.

    I apologize for taking so long to reply.
    I appreciate your frank views.

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    July 1st, 2011, 1:01 am


    152. louai said:

    مخزن سعدنايل لـ«حزب التحرير»!

    بعد إعلان الجيش اللبناني رسمياً عن مصادرة مخزن سلاح في أعالي بلدة سعدنايل وتوقيف اثنين للاشتباه في علاقتهما بالموضوع، أخرج هذا التطور الأمني ما سمي «الحراك السلمي لمناصرة الشعب السوري»، من كونه مجرد شعار إعلامي أو سياسي، بعدما تبين ان المخزن عائد لـ«حزب التحرير»، ويحوي مدفع هاون 60 ملم مع مئة قذيفة، رشاش متوسط من عيار 12,7 ملم مع ذخيرته، قواذف «أر بي جي» مع قذائف، أسلحة خفيفة وذخائر متعددة.
    وأوضح المصدر أن «التحقيقات تركز على مصدر السلاح الغربي الذي تم ضبطه وكيفية وصوله إلى أيدي عناصر حزبية، وعلى معرفة ما إذا كانت هناك خلايا أخرى مسلحة، خصوصاً أن القوة المداهمة في سعدنايل تعرضت لرشق ناري من مكان مجهول في جرود البلدة، ورغم ذلك أكملت طريقها ونفذت المهمة وهذا يعني وجود مجموعات أخرى».
    ولدى سؤال احد الخبراء العسكريين عن نوعية الأسلحة المصادرة اشار الى ان «هناك بعض أنواع الأسلحة غربية الصنع مثل الرشاش المتوسط 12,7 ملم الذي لا تملكه عادة الا الأجهزة الامنية الرسمية بموجب هبات او اتفاقات ثنائية، وبالتالي فإن وصول مثل هذا النوع من السلاح الى جهة حزبية يعني الكثير على صعيد متابعة القضية والتحقيقات بشأنها».
    وأبدت أوساط أمنية «تخوفها من ان يكون هناك خلايا اخرى للحزب نفسه لديها كمية التسلح نفسها وربما أكثر مما يعرض سكان منطقة البقاع لمخاطر امنية، خصوصا اذا توافرت معلومات للقوى الامنية عن وجود مخازن أخرى مما سيضطر هذه القوى الأمنية للقيام بعمليات مداهمة». («السفير»)

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    July 1st, 2011, 1:44 am


    153. louai said:

    SYAU @9

    i dont think i can add any thing more to SC and WD .

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    July 1st, 2011, 1:54 am


    154. louai said:

    In respond to Calls from outside Syria to destroy the internal Syrian economy ,Syrians from around the world are supporting the Syrian pound; we will transfer money to our families in Syria or simply open new bank accounts in Syria between: 1/07/2011 – 07/07/2011

    Please join us, Syria needs you .

    : يوم الجمعة الموافق 1-7-2011 سوف نقف نحن السورين وقفة الوفاء للوطن لدعم اقتصادنا وليرتنا السورية من خلال قيامنا بتحويل المال الى سوريا بغية رفع القيمة لليرة السورية بعد انخفاض خفيف طرأ عليها
    الفترة هي لمدة اسبوع سوف نقوم بتحويل جميعا في نفس الفترة لمدة اسبوع وسف نرفع الليرة السورية انشاء الله بجهود ابناء سوريا العظماء.

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    July 1st, 2011, 1:59 am


    155. Samara said:


    The time for Bashar to resign as being leader is innevitable. But it is not gonna be anytime soon.

    Like i said, the dogs are gonna keep barking, while Bashar is still ruling for years to come.

    You say a couple of menhebak songs? So far i have only downloaded 40 and there are more. And that is in the sapce of the past few months. There will be hundreds more in the next few years.

    Mehebak. Menhebak. Menhebak Bashar. Wallah menhebak ya Assadna.

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    July 1st, 2011, 3:37 am


    156. Philip Andrews said:

    Can any of the contributors here recommendd a book or other study of the Syrian elite in English?



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    July 3rd, 2011, 6:45 am


    157. khananel said:

    can any of the contributors please recommend a book or other study of the Syrian elites in English?


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    July 3rd, 2011, 6:48 am


    158. Syria Comment » Archives » Should the US Hasten Assad’s Downfall Despite Syria’s Absence of Opposition Leaders? said:

    […] a five weeks ago, the head of Aleppo’s Chamber of Commerce, Faris Al-Shihabi, decried the return of socialist and communist ideas among the opposition. He warned: We do not want this […]

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    August 6th, 2011, 12:44 pm


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