Hamoud al-Mahmoud, editor-in-chief of Aliqtisadi, spoke to us from Damascus about the economic hardship faced by everyday civilians and the precarious state of Syrian industry. Aliqtisadi, a monthly Arabic-language news magazine, began publishing in 2004, amid a flourishing of Syrian press. Like other publications it has struggled to stay in print as funds dried up and consumer appetite for the products decreased. The popular magazine has also begun publishing on the web.
Syria Deeply: What’s still left of Syria’s economy?
Hamoud al-Mahmoud: Very few businesses now are making money in Syria. Number one are those who have business in currency trade; we call some of them the war traders. They are trying to take advantage of the fluctuation of the Syrian pound. For sure, there are many people that try to profiteer from the extreme circumstances that Syrians are going through. It’s hard to enforce order in the chaos that is spreading.
In general, the good businesses to make money in in Syria now are the informal businesses. Pre-crisis they were around 40 percent of the businesses in Syria, and now they make up 65 or 70 percent. Many big industrial factories in Syria used to have a good brand name attached. They’ve closed, and they used to produce things like detergents, ceramics, cosmetics and food. Many of their owners moved them to Dubai, to Egypt, to Jordan. And then what happened is that the war traders tried to take those brand names and make counterfeit products.
SD: How bad is inflation? Has the price of tomatoes surged, for example?
HA: The Syrian Bureau for Statistics just released a study that said inflation is almost 300 percent now, the number one [affected product] being food. Food inflation has been raised to 341 percent. The highest inflation is in Aleppo, but it’s less in Damascus.
I know people suffering from the prices of food and of their daily necessities. The United Nations
Relief and Works Agency says half the people in Syria are now under the line of poverty. People have changed their consumption habits. They’ve removed many kinds of food from their diets like chicken and fruit. They shifted from eating chicken to eating a powdery product that tastes like chicken. It’s not chicken.
Other people are trying to make money in the streets, yelling that they have clean water [to sell.]
People don’t have good nutrition, they have a lack of quality in their food. The counterfeit products are all over the market and people don’t always know if the products are the quality products they had before the crisis, or fake. Things like fruit: they need them, but they are unaffordable. They need things for babies, for kids, for older people.
SD: How are average citizens making ends meet? Are people still going to work? Trying to do business as usual?
HA: The latest official stats show that 3 million people lost their jobs so far in the crisis, around 60 percent of the labor force. The U.N. says 30 percent of the Syrian people are refugees or displaced, and a large number of people not accounted for have fled the country trying to find other jobs.
People are being creative and innovative. One of the choices people have in many Syrian cities including Damascus is to farm some kind of vegetable, plant them on the roofs of their houses, some seeds, some kind of tomatoes. They are trying to manage their lives. In some other cities, people try to have informal and illegal businesses. They are trying to refine oil or to invade the ruins and historical monuments to find some ancient stuff to sell. Some people are trying to manage in an illegal way.
SD: How is the Assad regime surviving, economically?
HA: At the beginning of the crisis, we heard some statements about the reserves in the central bank, but now no one is talking about it. The government has managed to export Syrian oil; it’s generally banned to export it. And then they have support from Russia and Iran. It’s not a secret that they have these loans. So I suppose that they can live for a long time, but for regular people suffering, it’s very hard to live. Even if the government survives and manages its expenses, at the end of the day, if the people cannot live and survive with that kind of daily financial pressure, this will be a disaster for the government.