Blogs > HNN > Will Sex, Shopping and Luxury Living Spell Doom for the Syrian Regime?

Nov 15, 2005 2:19 am

Will Sex, Shopping and Luxury Living Spell Doom for the Syrian Regime?

When and if Bashar al-Asad and his Baathist regime collapse, chances are it won't be because of a US invasion, or even a small contingent of special ops forces fomenting chaos at the center of Syrian power. Rather, sex, shopping, and expensive real estate will likely be the principal culprits.

In a recent edition of the semi-official Syria-Today, the following ad was placed right next to the text of a recent address by President Assad:

“EMAAR PROPERTIES, a Dubai-based joint stock development company, unveiled plans for two major Damascus real estate development projects on October 17. The two developments, 'Eighth Gate' and 'Damascus Hills,' will be the city’s first fully planned communities and are together valued at USD3.9 billion. They will be constructed in the countryside near Damascus and will comprise residential, commercial and real estate compounds... The projects are a joint venture between Emaar and the Syrian-based Invest Group Overseas, an offshore investment and property development company owned by a group of Syrian expatriate investors. Emaar Chairman Mohamed Ali al-Abbar said that Syria was an emerging market for Emaar. 'Syria has great potential for future development and is a remarkable location for Emaar to develop high quality real estate projects,' Mr. al-Abbar said.”

And so begins the inexorable march towards another neoliberal paradise in the Middle East. If the Lebanese journalist Rami Khoury argues that the joint goal of Bush, Chirac and through them the UN is to “whittle away Syrian sovereignty” such an enterprise won't be accomplished by Security Council resolutions and border intrusions alone. Prying open the Syrian economy to the neoliberal, globalized economy is both a core strategy and one of the primary goals of this process. And its shared by the United States, France and a fair number of Arab and Syrian entrepreneurs as well.

Indeed, against Emaar's drive to “build a global property-related brand” the Baath Party's “Unity, Freedom, Socialism” doesn't stand much of a chance. The best al-Assad can offer his people, as he explained in a March 5 speech, is “the protection of national and pan-Arab interests through adherence to our identity, independence, loyalty to our principles and beliefs... [while] dealing realistically with emergent challenges and developments.”

But while al-Assad offers to “protect our political and social stability,” Emaar offers luxury, service and profits. We don't need to guess who will win here, especially when the price for Assad's stability is an authoritarian regime, an economy that is in a shambles--near negative growth, key industries losing more than a quarter of their income in the last year alone--and increasing political and economic ostracization.

In fact, a year ago, the chief of the State Planning Commission announced that Syria would adopt the principles of a market economy by 2010, although a subsequent announcement at the Baath Regional Conference qualified this (at least rhetorically) by adding “social” before “market economy.” And Syria has been struggling over how to liberalize its economy since the early 1990s, if not earlier. The argument over language reflects, as Syria expert Bassem Haddad explains, a larger debate around “the future of the national economy, the role of the state, the importance of competition and the dangers of being engulfed by global capitalism,” all of which could seemingly be put off as long as Syria could drink from the Lebanese well.

In this context, what is saddest about the intersection of al-Assad's speech and Emaar's newest project is that they suggest that the ostensible reasons behind the Harriri assassination--to preserve Syria's massive racketeering operation in Lebanon (without which an otherwise destitute Syrian government would have a hard time functioning)--were seriously misplaced. More than one commentator has described the contest between Assad and Harriri as one between an old-style mafia family and an savvier and increasingly globalized former associate (and now competitor). Viewed this way, the belief that getting rid of Harriri would help the al-Assad “family” preserve the status quo is betrayed by the presence of Emaar, which reveals that the old order is already slipping away, one Damascene hillside at a time. As important, it's Syria's “brotherly” Arabs, not the Americans and French imperialists, who are leading the way.

Of course, few Syrians will be able to afford the luxury living of Damascus Hill in the foreseeable future, regardless of who's living in the Presidential Palace. Nor does the political opposition seem able to offer an alternative to the status quo. Yet if Syrian author Ammar Abdoulhamid argues that the largely supine Syrian opposition “is in desperate need of a Cialis treatment if it is to rise up to the challenges ahead,” a generation of young Syrian men, with bleak prospects for obtaining the kind of livelihood that would allow them to marry and establish families, has a less metaphorical dysfunction for which Cialis or even Viagra will do little good: the difficulty of having sex in the present socio-economic circumstances.

According to Syrian journalist Abdjullah Ta'i, his interviews with young Syrians who went to Iraq to join the insurgency reveals that one of the more common reasons given for doing so was not religious or nationalistic. Rather, as one returnee put it, “My friends and I went to fight in Iraq because we thought we would find lots of sex there. People said that sex and prostitution are available in streets because of the poverty and disorder. We wanted to exploit that situation."

Sadly for the largely Sunni sex-jihadis, there wasn't much sex to be had in Iraq, largely because prostitutes, like most women, have been driven from the public space they used to occupy by the violence of the insurgency. (If they were Shi'i, they might have been able to avail themselves of the innumerable Iranian-run “temporary marriage” hotels that have sprung up in Baghdad and the cities of the south). But while many went home disappointed, others stayed and were hired by Islamist militias—And here the seventy-two virgins available to newly martyred jihadis is a particularly useful hiring incentive; although a few have actually married Iraqi women, thereby solving the problem that led them to Iraq in the first place.

Most, it seems, have not been that lucky. And if the majority who left Syria (at least partly) for sex come back with little else beyond increased religious enthusiasm, to an economy that show little signs of offering them prospects for a better future--politically, economically, or sexually--the tenuous balance between the Syrian regime and its people will be increasingly threatened.

Along with sex and real estate, shopping--or the lack of it--constitutes the third major problem facing the al-Assad regime. Until the oppressive economic regime of the French Mandate and the statist economic policies of socialist and Baathist governments, Syria had for centuries been famed for its merchants, small scale industries and trade-based economy. A new, private bourgeoisie began emerging in the 1980s; together with the old Damascence merchant class it threatened the cohesion of interests between the Alawi dominated military and the Sunni merchants, putting increasing pressure on the regime slowly to liberalize the economy. The problem that has evolved, however, is that while the largely Sunni economic elite increasingly desires market reforms and political liberalization, the Alawi military does not. What we are likely to see in Syria in the near future, particularly with the growing impact of the Mehlis investigation on the country's political dynamics, is the exacerbation of cleavages within Syria's "military-merchant complex" that were manageable as long as Lebanon remained under Syrian control, but which will be increasingly out in the open in the near future.

After decades of a now-failed authoritarian bargain, and with a government that will have an increasingly hard time providing a basic level of “social justice” that once gave Syria one of the lowest rates of income poverty and inequality in the development world, Syrians will increasingly look to the market for solutions to their myriad problems. What kind of market is there to meet their needs, and how well the world community cushions the country's inexorable incorporation into a globalized world economy, will likely determine if the regime's warning of “Apres nous, Iraq” turns out to be hyperbole, prophecy, or something in between.

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James Blake - 11/19/2005

Sex...can sex do that? Why did`nt I think of that. You have a keen sense of reality.