|Syria is a middle-income developing country with a diversified economy
based on agriculture, industry, and energy. During the 1960s, citing its
state socialist ideology, the government nationalized most major
enterprises and adopted economic policies designed to address regional and
class disparities. This legacy of state intervention and price, trade, and
foreign exchange controls still hampers economic growth, although the
government has begun to revisit many of these policies, especially vis-à-vis
the financial sector and the country's trade regime. Despite a number of
significant reforms and ambitious development projects of the early 1990s,
as well as more modest reform efforts currently underway, Syria's economy
still is slowed by large numbers of poorly performing public sector firms,
low investment levels, and relatively low industrial and agricultural
Despite the mitigation of the severe drought that plagued the region in the late 1990s and the recovery of energy export revenues, Syria's economy faces serious challenges. With almost 60% of its population under the age of 20, and a growth rate (3.5%) among the world's highest, unemployment higher than the current estimated range of 25%-30% is a real possibility unless sustained and strong economic growth takes off. Oil production has leveled off, and financial aid flows from the Gulf have slowed.
Taken as a whole, Syrian economic reforms thus far have been incremental and gradual, with privatization not even on the distant horizon. The government, however, has begun to address structural deficiencies in the economy such as the lack of a modern financial sector through changes to the legal and regulatory environment. In 2001, Syria legalized private banking; private financial institutions may emerge in 2002, as may a nascent stock market. Beyond the financial sector, the Syrian Government has enacted major changes to rental laws, and is reportedly considering similar changes to the commercial code and to other laws, which impact property rights.
Commerce has always been important to the Syrian economy, which benefited from the country's location along major east-west trade routes. Syrian cities boast both traditional industries such as weaving and dried-fruit packing and modern heavy industry. Given the policies adopted from the 1960s through the late 1980s, Syria failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy. In late 2001, however, Syria submitted a request to the World Trade Organization to begin the accession process. Syria had been an original contracting party of the former General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade but withdrew in 1951 because of Israel's joining. Major elements of current Syrian trade rules would have to change in order to be consistent with the WTO. Syria also continues to discuss a possible Association Agreement with the European Union that would entail significant trade liberalization.
The bulk of Syrian imports have been raw materials essential for industry, agriculture, equipment, and machinery. Major exports include crude oil, refined products, raw cotton, clothing, fruits, and grains. Earnings from oil exports are one of the government's most important sources of foreign exchange.
Of Syria's 72,000 square miles, roughly one-third is arable, with 80% of cultivated areas dependent on rainfall for water. In recent years, the agriculture sector has recovered from years of government inattentiveness and drought. Most farms are privately owned, but important elements of marketing and transportation are controlled by the government.
The government has redirected its economic development priorities from industrial expansion into the agricultural sectors in order to achieve food self-sufficiency, enhance export earnings, and stem rural migration. Thanks to sustained capital investment, infrastructure development, subsidies of inputs, and price supports, Syria has gone from a net importer of many agricultural products to an exporter of cotton, fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs. One of the prime reasons for this turnaround has been the government's investment in huge irrigation systems in northern and northeastern Syria, part of a plan to increase irrigated farmland by 38% over the next decade.
Syria has produced heavy-grade oil from fields located in the northeast since the late 1960s. In the early 1980s, a light-grade, low-sulphur oil was discovered near Dayr az Zawr in eastern Syria. This discovery relieved Syria of the need to import light oil to mix with domestic heavy crude in refineries. Recently, Syrian oil production has been about 530,000 barrels per day. Although its oil reserves are small compared to those of many other Arab states, Syria's petroleum industry accounts for a majority of the country's export income. The government has successfully begun to work with international energy companies to develop Syria's promising natural gas reserves, both for domestic use and export. U.S. energy firm, Conoco, completed a large natural gas gathering and production facility for Syria in late 2000.
Ad hoc economic liberalization continues to provide hope to Syria's private sector. In 1990, the government established an official parallel exchange rate (neighboring country rate, or NCR) to provide incentives for remittances and exports through official channels. This action improved the supply of basic commodities and contained inflation by removing risk premiums on smuggled commodities.
Over time, the government has increased the number of transactions to which the more favorable neighboring country exchange rate applies. The government also introduced a quasi-rate for noncommercial transactions in 2001 broadly in line with prevailing black market rates. Nonetheless, some government and certain public sector transactions are still conducted at the official rate of 11.2 Syrian pounds to the U.S. dollar or at other rates, and exchange-rate unification remains an elusive goal.
Given the poor development of its own capital markets and Syria's lack of access to international money and capital markets, monetary policy remains captive to the need to cover the fiscal deficit. Interest rates are fixed by law, and most rates have not changed in the last 20 years. Some basic commodities continue to be heavily subsidized, and social services are provided for nominal charges.
Syria has made progress in easing its heavy foreign debt burden through bilateral rescheduling deals with virtually all of its key creditors in Europe, although debt owed to the former Soviet Union remains an unsolved problem.
GDP: purchasing power parity -
$50.9 billion (2000 est.)
SOURCES: The World Factbook, U.S. Department of State
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