Ghassan al-Qalaa: Chief merchant of Damascus and old guardian of the Syrian state
Murad Abd al-Jalil – Enab Baladi
At the front of the large hall in the Sheraton Hotel in the Syrian capital Damascus, and behind him a photo of the President of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, sat the President of the Federation of Syrian Chamber of Commerce, Mohammad Ghassan al-Qalaa, nicknamed “Chief Merchant of Damascus.” He was next to the Governor of the Central Bank of Syria, Hazem Qarfoul, during a meeting with Syrian businesspersons to launch an initiative to support the Syrian Pound after its record decline last month where the exchange rate reached the threshold of 700 SYP per US dollar.
Mohammed Ghassan al-Qalaa is a cornerstone in the formation of Syria’s economic map, yet he transcended the world of economics to politics. This shift was achieved through in Sochi in Russia, when he led what Russia called the Congress of Syrian National Dialogue, in early 2018. Al-Qalaa’s name was also added to the list of civil society, which was formed by the United Nations to sit along the two lists of the regime and the Syrian opposition in the constitutional committee, bringing back the 70-year-old elder to the forefront of events in Syria.
Inheriting his father’s business
Al-Qalaa, 78 (born in 1941), from Damascus, started his business from his father’s shop in al-Hamidiyah Souq in central Damascus in 1961, before inheriting his father’s legacy after his death. He began his industrial and commercial life by establishing al-Qalaa Trading Group, specialized in the import and export of raw materials and finished products. He was also active in several other areas, such as the fabrics, manufacture of underwear and women’s clothing and dyeing and preparation of fabrics, as well as manufacturing.
Because of his status in the market, he assumed several positions. He was first a treasurer in the Damascus Chamber of Commerce between 1977 and 1989, then vice-president of the Arab-Italian Chamber of Commerce. Afterwards, he was appointed deputy-head of “Dar al-Hadith al-Sharif” Association, then deputy-head of the Syrian Economic Sciences Association, and finally President of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce since 2009 to date. He is also the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Damascus Securities Exchange since 2013.
Al-Qalaa, who obtained a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Aleppo University in 1964, did not use a financier or supporter to emerge in the Syrian economic scene and occupy a position among merchants. Unlike other businessmen who became known because of their close ties with the narrow economic circle of the ruling al-Assad family in Syria, al-Qalaa worked on the principle that “the trader and the industrialist should take the initiative himself and not rely on or wait for what others can offer him,” as he said in an interview with eSyria website in 2009.
The “Shahbandar” of merchants loved independence, freedom of work and legitimate business. He defended his principles of trade on every commercial occasion by calling on young people to stay away from normal careers and turn to self-reliant jobs, according to an interview with al-Watan in April 2018.
“Shahbandar” and politics
The name of al-Qalaa has emerged again in the list of civil society in the Constitutional Committee, supported by the United Nations. The UN is trying to keep the committee balanced between the two parties to support the formation of a new constitution for Syria, to serve the Syrian State’s interest and not the interest of the regime or the opposition. This raises questions about the history of al-Qalaa in politics and the role he can play in the Committee.
Al-Qalaa, along with the major Damascene merchants, such as Ratib al-Shallah, are among the old guardians of the Syrian State, who are trying to prevent the collapse of state institutions and currency. This explains their support for Syrian governments when they face any economic crisis, either during the rule of Hafiz al-Assad, or after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011 during the rule of Bashar al-Assad, according to Yunis al-Karim, an economics analyst.
Al-Karim told Enab Baladi that there is a view in Syrian politics, to which al-Qalaa is affiliated, believing that the state is greater than the regime or the opposition and it must be preserved along with its structure and currency. This view stands with the most organized side, rather than the strongest, which explains al-Qalaa’s support of the regime.
This view sees the regime as more organized and in control of the sovereign institutions, at the expense of the opposition, which lacked an organized body, according to al-Karim. Al-Qalaa is criticized, according to al-Karim, for this position as he worked on strengthening the oppressor against the unorganized oppressed.
Al-Qalaa’s view also believes that the regime in Syria should not be beholden to allied countries such as Russia or Iran. It considers these countries as only allies with interests but not at the expense of the Syrian State, unlike the current economic reality in the country, after Iran and Russia took over economic functions by signing long-term contracts with the Syrian regime, in various vital economic sectors.
Al-Karim added that it is possible to say that al-Qalaa and his supporters led the gray category during the revolution, which does not have clear political positions but is only concerned with its interest. He pointed out that the national vision of the traders of Damascus does not necessarily intersect with the national view of the Syrian revolution, because different terminology leads to different objectives, and both parties (the regime and the opposition) have different objectives.
Al-Qalaa’s “national vision” was embodied in his speech at the Sochi conference in Russia in the presence of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, when he called for a “loud scream to all those who are concerned: Raise your hands off of Syria and stop intervening in its affairs. Our people have tasted a lot of bitterness and various types of suffering, as a result of blatant interferences, after they were an example of coexistence, stability and security.”
Al-Qalaa concluded by saying: “Syria will be only for the Syrians loyal to the homeland; only them have the right to determine its future.”
War merchants “bother him”
The commercial principle of al-Qalaa has been a reason for his resentment of the emergence of businessmen in the Syrian arena, who found in the previous years of the war a fertile environment to increase their capital at the expense of the Syrian people’s suffering, in addition to the absence of previous prominent merchants, such as Rateb al-Shallah.
In contrast, new prominent businessmen have emerged, including Samer Foz, Waseem al-Qattan and brothers Hossam and Bara’ al-Katerji, whom al-Qalaa implicitly described as “the war merchants”, in an interview with the state-owned newspaper Tishreen in April 2017. He claimed that “some real traders left the market, and they have been replaced by traders who have nothing to do with the profession and who made their fortune from the womb of war,” stressing that “the role of these newly-emerged traders will end after the end of the war.”
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