DAMASCUS // Since joining the swelling ranks of Syria's unemployed a few weeks ago, Khaldoon al Hazeem has tried to remain positive, looking for skilled work in the country's new private sector, ideally as a salesman for an international company.
The 32 year-old is one of tens of thousands of Syrians who were working in the Gulf when the global financial crisis struck and who have since lost their jobs and been forced to return home. He used to have a good, decently paying position in Abu Dhabi, where he spent the past five years, first working for Xerox, then as a property sales representative. The skills he picked up in the Emirates will, he hopes, hold him in good stead in Damascus.
"I spent five years struggling to make something of myself in Abu Dhabi and now that struggle will have to begin again here. But I feel my prospects are stronger than they were, I have talents that will be useful for the private companies and Syria has changed, there is more openness now, the country is modernising and there is room for people like me to work." His optimism might be misplaced. There are no reliable statistics for the number of Syrians working abroad who have now had to come home after being laid off, but economists here estimate that some 50,000 will have made the trip before the end of the year. The burden will be significant on a labour market that already has an official unemployment rate of 10 per cent, unofficially perhaps double that.
While the highly skilled may find work, the majority will find the going difficult, according to Nehad Haider, a Syrian economist. "I know some Syrian businessmen who are willing to pay a lot of money to get the right people working for them, even with the crisis," he said. "The problem is there are not many positions like that. Even those with a high skill level will not get work easily." With the government sector overstaffed and with well-educated Syrians already finding it hard to get good work at home, economists like Mr Haider have been urging the authorities to adopt new policies, including cutting red tape and making it easier to start small businesses.
"The returnees from the Gulf will bring with them modern management skills, ideas and work ethics, and good understandings of how a successful company should be run. We need to make sure they are encouraged to use those talents. It's less about money and more about making sure that business ideas are allowed to flourish and grow." Another idea reformers have been keen to advocate is allowing Syrians to open domestic bank accounts in foreign currencies. Expatriates returning with US dollars currently have little choice but to stuff the money under a mattress at home. It would be much more beneficial to the country if held in bank accounts. Some steps have been taken to help deal with the crisis. At the start of last month Bashar Assad, the president, issued a decree authorising restructuring of government bank loans to private companies. Firms will be allowed more generous repayment schedules - extended from a year to 10 years - and interest rate holidays. The plan is designed to encourage reinvestment of capital in businesses that would otherwise face closure.
Such interventions are rare - the last comparable move took place in response to the imposition of US sanctions - and this latest measure was widely welcomed as sensible and necessary. It also went some way to reassuring the business community that Damascus is not in a state of denial about the economic storm. As with many other nations hit by the crisis, the Syrian authorities have been careful about commenting on the effects. Publicly at least they have been cautious, wary not to hit any panic buttons. Privately, economists who assist the government's economic team say there are few illusions about the tough times that lie ahead.
In fact, there has even been vigorous public debate about the economic course Syria should chart. While freedom of speech on political matters is highly restricted, there have been no-holds barred arguments at the weekly open meetings of the Syrian Economic Society (SEC), often attended by senior officials. "At the SEC nothing is off limits, there are no 'red lines', everything is allowed," said Mr Haider the economist, a former director of loans at the European Investment Bank. "That's really positive because you must acknowledge problems frankly and talk about them frankly if you are to overcome them."
One of those issues arising from the returning expatriate workforce is the drying up of remittance payments, worth an estimated US$850 million (Dh3.12 billion) last year, although again the statistics are disputed. Many Syrians working abroad supported families, with about five people typically dependent on money sent home. There are indications that some money is beginning to flow in the opposite direction, with cash being sent to the unemployed by their families, so they can pay the rent while they look for other work in the Gulf.
Syrian economists say the effects of reduced remittance-spending power are now being felt in local marketplaces, though the general consensus is that the full impact of the global crisis has yet to make itself felt here. The issue of expatriate workers is just one element that has still not fully hit home. "I'm sure that more Syrians will be following me," said Mr al Hazeem, the one-time Abu Dhabi-based salesman. "I'm just the start. There are many more who have lost their jobs or who are waiting to lose their jobs."
As with many other Syrians who worked in the Gulf, Mr al Hazeem, an English-language graduate from Damascus University, returned with little financial reward to show for it. He was able to save some cash but most of that has been used to pay off his military service contract. Syria, technically still at war with Israel, has a system of military conscription. Those who work abroad are legally able to bypass it, providing they live outside of the country for five years and pay a $5,000 penalty.
"I have no regrets about the choices I took but I thought I'd have more to show for it money-wise than I do." Having returned to Damascus at the end of April, Mr al Hazeem insisted he still felt hopeful and had never intended to spend the rest of his life away from Syria. "I have a positive feeling. I'm happy to be home, and I have a sense that I'll be able to start building a future here. I'm not saying it will be easy or quick but I can do it."
His optimism was shared by a leading Syrian economist who, while critical of government policy, has formally advised it on how to handle the global financial slowdown. "There is always a crisis of some kind taking place in the Syrian economy so we know how to cope with it," he said on condition of anonymity. "The last really major crisis was in 1989 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that was a profound psychological shift, that was fundamental, no one knew where the money was going to come from.
"This time is not going to be as bad as that. The economy is more diverse, it's more capable, it's more flexible, it's healthier." firstname.lastname@example.org