Jordanian businessmen in Damascus: Test for Western sanctions

“Participatory rather than competition” forum in Damascus - 8 October 2022 (SANA)

“Participatory rather than competition” forum in Damascus - 8 October 2022 (SANA)

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Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa

The 11th of this October witnessed the conclusion of the Jordanian-Syrian Economic Forum, bearing the title “Participatory rather than competition,” which was held in the Syrian capital Damascus for three days.

The conference witnessed a “broad” presence of Jordanian businessmen and a number of companies operating in various sectors, in light of an official presence from both sides represented by the head of the Jordan and Aqaba Chambers of Commerce, Nael Kabariti, as head of the Jordanian delegation to Damascus, and by the ministers of Economy, Industry, and Agriculture on the Syrian regime’s side.

The main objective of this forum was to display the potential of Jordanian companies and their job opportunities in the Syrian market in the areas of intra-regional trade, agencies, services, industry, the financial sector, insurance, contracting, construction, universities, and agriculture. In addition, specialized bilateral meetings were held between Jordanian companies and Syrian businessmen to discuss prospects for cooperation in the areas of renewable energies, information and communication technologies, health care, and medical tourism.

During the past years, such economic meetings and conferences between the two sides have been repeated, demonstrating a “genuine” Jordanian desire to push for greater trade and investment relations with the regime.

In this report, Enab Baladi attempts to explain the reasons for Jordan’s desire to push for greater trade and investment relations in regime-controlled areas. It also examines the reasons for ignoring the likelihood of Western sanctions imposed on those who deal with the regime or engage in economic activity that supports its existence.

What is the aim behind this Jordanian desire?

The head of the Irbid Chamber of Industry and the Vice-President of the Jordan Chamber of Industry, Hani Abu Hassan, said in a press statement following the conclusion of the last forum that the most important thing put forward by the Jordanian side during the said forum was the start of the partnership in the Jordanian-Syrian Joint Free Zone, because of its benefits for both parties in terms of employment and economic stimulation.

President of the Syndicate of Owners of Clearance and Cargo Transport Companies in Jordan, Dhaifallah Abu Aqoula, considered the volume of trade between Jordan and Syria to remain very weak, which requires both sides to work to remove all obstacles to increase these values.

Ayman al-Desouki, a researcher in the field of political economy and local administration in Syria at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, told Enab Baladi that Jordanian businessmen were connected to their counterparts in Syria during the conflict through a range of mutual visits and forums during previous years. However, these visits have not made any qualitative breakthroughs to increase the volume of trade between the two countries.

Al-Desouki explained the frequency of such visits with political considerations and field data, succeeding in maintaining active communication channels between the two countries through the business portal that could be activated for political purposes.

Al-Desouki believes that the purpose of the visits will be to explore possible opportunities for both sides and to convey mutual messages in line with the proposed “step-by-step” political initiatives and their annexes, as well as to map the existing problems facing the private sector in both countries and the proposed solutions and transfer them to decision-makers in the hope of addressing them, because, in his own words, such decision is primarily a security and political one.

During the first half of this year, the volume of goods passing through the Nasib-Jaber border crossing amounted to 85,000 tons, at a value of 150 million USD, on 4000 trucks from both sides, according to the Director General of the Jordanian-Syrian Joint Free Zone, Irfan al-Khasawneh. Goods entering from Jordan’s gate to the free zone varied between solar panels, auto parts, food, and so on, reaching 60,000 tons carried by 3000 trucks and valued at 180 million USD.

Meanwhile, goods entering from the Syrian gate to the free zone varied between artificial stone, marble, furniture, fodder, and other commodities. There were 40,000 tons of goods worth 12 million USD that were carried on 650 trucks.

Investment is a “huge opportunity”

Speaking to Enab Baladi, the expert and consultant in the field of data analysis and financial crimes, and the technical director of the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, Wael al-Alwani, believes that the desire to invest in Syria is not currently limited to Jordanian businessmen, but rather extends to businessmen in the region in general. This is explained by their view of Syria as a great post-war opportunity for reconstruction and investment in war-ravaged sectors.

With specific reference to Jordan’s desire, al-Alwani considered that Jordanian businessmen have previous and old business relationships that are currently reinforced by geographical proximity and the old heritage in order to reopen new bridges for activity in Syria.

A test of the “appetite for sanctions”

Despite repeated visits, not a single investment project by a Jordanian entity or businessman in regime-held areas has been officially announced, raising questions about the purpose of the visits without registering any significant activity in Syria outside this context.

Experts agree that Syria’s investment climate at this time is inappropriate to initiate investment, as it is affected by several indirect factors, including poverty, crime and poor infrastructure, workforce participation, national security considerations, political stability, taxation, financial liquidity, financial market stability, the rule of law, property rights, regulatory environment, and government transparency and accountability.

Economic researcher, Ayman al-Desouki, believes that investment opportunities in Syria depend on the overall political atmosphere associated with political initiatives and their ability to dismantle the files of the Syrian crisis and Syria’s precarious security situation.

Al-Desouki argues that there can be no qualitative breakthrough in investment between Jordan and Syria at the present time and that what might currently be achieved may be limited to partial handling of some trade-related problems, which are likely to later evolve into economic initiatives if political initiatives achieve some form of qualitative breakthrough.

Meanwhile, expert Wael al-Alwani described what happens during this type of visits as a “test” of the regional and international systems and their sensitivity to this type of visits. He says that this is a measure of the appetite of Western countries that impose sanctions on supporters of the Syrian regime, adding that the repeated visits indicate a desire to raise the ceiling each time to test the “gray zone” in which they are allowed to remain without being exposed to the risk of sanctions.

Al-Alwani emphasized that mere attendance at an economic forum did not necessarily mean that there were economic or trade deals or agreements, which does not place them at risk of being sanctioned. The imposition of sanctions required compelling evidence of assistance provided to the regime or proof of business relations with its organs and institutions or already sanctioned individuals.

Western sanctions are no longer taken seriously in Syria because of several factors, including the current regional rapprochement with the Syrian regime and the decline of the Syrian profile as a priority as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine topped crises around the world, al-Alwani argues.

The researcher added that he notes a serious desire globally and regionally to find a solution in Syria as an explanation for many of the current developments today. It is not excluded that turning a blind eye to investments and projects and ignoring the breach of Western sanctions is one of the ways of being lenient with the Syrian regime, surely in the context of certain settlements and trade-offs, according to his estimation.

 

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