Restaurants owned by the displaced in northwestern Syria enhance competition and economic activity

A shawarma stand worker in one of Idlib city’s restaurants - May 2021 (Enab Baladi)

A shawarma stand worker in one of Idlib city’s restaurants - May 2021 (Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish 

Koutaiba Barish, a displaced Syrian from Saraqeb town in eastern Idlib governorate, had concerns that he would not be able to open a new shop in Idlib city after his displacement. He realized the many challenges he had to overcome to have a place similar to the sweets and pastry shop he owned in Saraqeb.

Eventually, Barish opened a restaurant in Idlib city and re-established a name for himself in the foodservice business, which already had famous and popular restaurants, established a century ago in Damascus and Aleppo. 

The northwestern Syrian business market has seen a boom in economic activity following the decline of military offensives on the region. While some areas started enjoying security and stability, the Russian-backed Syrian regime continued targeting villages and towns near conflict lines, south of Idlib governorate.  

Despite the obstacles, many displaced merchants and artisans pursued their work after opening their private businesses in the northwestern Syrian market. 

The mass forced displacement waves from Damascus, Rif Dimashq, Daraa, Homs, Aleppo, and Hama have increased the population of opposition-held areas in northern Syria, creating a fertile ground for commercial business.

The displaced are reviving the restaurants sector in northwestern Syria

The restaurant industry in Aleppo countryside has recovered after displaced persons from other governorates opened new businesses, creating a positive competitive atmosphere, Mohammed Kannaj, a displaced man from Qalaat al-Madiq in Hama countryside and owner of a restaurant in Azaz city in Aleppo’s northern countryside, told Enab Baladi.

Kannaj added that he faced no significant difficulties or obstacles while starting a new business (opening a restaurant) despite being a stranger from the area.

The rise in the number of restaurants in Aleppo countryside has contributed to enhancing the quality of service, Kannaj said, adding that restaurant owners became more interested in improving and developing their restaurants’ works in all areas and started selecting professional staff to stand out in the restaurant industry.

The Azaz-based restaurant owner, Mahmoud Kredi, told Enab Baladi that the arrival of displaced investors who put their money in the restaurant business had a clear positive impact on the region. Before, people had limited options in terms of where to go to eat, as only a few restaurants existed.  

The displaced people’s restaurants in opposition-controlled areas helped introduce new dishes and foodstuffs and enhanced meals and competition, according to Barish.    

The number of licensed restaurants in Idlib governorate is 12, and many more had applied for a license; however, there are no accurate statistics on the number of restaurants in Idlib governorate and Aleppo countryside, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG)’s media spokesperson, Mulahm al-Ahmad, stated to Enab Baladi

Meanwhile, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG)’s Economic Minister, Dr. Abdul Hakim al-Masri, told Enab Baladi that small restaurants and crafts shops provide sufficient financial resources to displaced investors, create job opportunities, and generate revenues to business owners through collecting monthly rents.

Al-Masri added, the opening of restaurants by displaced people encourages the rest of the region’s population to do the same and invest in the restaurants business. He also pointed out that some restaurants in Afrin and al-Bab are employing more than 20 workers each, under shared ownership. 

Difficulties facing restaurant business

Barish told Enab Baladi that the most significant obstacle to restaurant business in northern Syria is the monthly rents, with the rent of the first restaur325ant he opened reaching 400 US dollars, “a large amount compared to incomes in Idlib.”

The location factor is another obstacle in Barish’s opinion, who said that his restaurant was reputable in Saraqeb and Hama’s northern countryside, but the re-settling of the displaced in rural Aleppo, Idlib, and displacement camps forced him to rebuild his restaurant’s name from the very beginning amid fierce competition from some of the oldest restaurants in the region.

Barish added that the use of the Turkish currency instead of the Syrian pound in northwestern Syria had caused fluctuations in commodity prices, with the exchange rate reaching nearly 3500 Syrian pounds against the US dollar in June 2020, amid demands from Syrian citizens to have the currency substitution as a temporary solution pending political transition. 

However, the Turkish lira hit record lows against other currencies, causing prices to fluctuate in Turkey and northwestern Syria.

As for Kannaj, he said that the lack of some foodstuffs in the northwestern region is the major challenge facing investors in the service sector, adding that it is not unusual for restaurants to run out of some food items for several days, primarily fish, ready-to-fry potatoes, and other raw materials. 

The high prices of meat, chicken, and other food items have overwhelmed restaurant owners, Kannaj said, adding that the high taxation of commodities entering the Syrian National Army (SNA)’s crossings is raising prices significantly and affecting the overall selling activity.

Al-Masri, the SIG’s Minister of Economics, said that there are many obstacles to investors in the northwestern region, most notably merchants’ fears regarding the region’s investment environment. 

In such cases, merchants are advised to invest in small-capital projects that depend on local materials, as long as the security situation remains relatively stable, al-Masri said, stressing the need for economic stimulus. 

Al-Masri mentioned that trade facilitation allowed the entry of basic food materials at low customs duties from Turkey and exportation. He also highlighted the role of industrial cities in supporting the business sector, particularly to those wishing to establish big factories.

The infrastructure-ready industrial cities based in al-Bab, Azaz, al-Rai, and Jarablus had all of their sections sold, and industrialists from Turkey have made investments in them, al-Masri said.

The regime’s military campaigns, backed by Russia and Iran, on opposition areas have led to the killing and displacement of tens of thousands of civilians, limiting the opposition’s control to the countryside of Aleppo, Idlib governorate, and parts of the countryside of Latakia, Hama, al-Hasakah, and Raqqqa in northern Syria.

According to statistics by the Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG), there are 1,489 displacement camps distributed in northwestern Syria, with a population of over a million and a half displaced persons, who mostly fled their areas due to military offensives in the period between April 2019 and 5 March 2020.

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