x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Hard times for Syrians with no relief in sight

Even the more affluent are feeling the pinch, being forced to scrimp as Syria suffers the painful effects of tighter sanctions and months of bloody unrest.

A Damascus resident checks wiring in front of his house. Power cuts have become routine in the capital as Syria continues to endure civil unrest. Khaled Al-Hariri / Reuters
A Damascus resident checks wiring in front of his house. Power cuts have become routine in the capital as Syria continues to endure civil unrest. Khaled Al-Hariri / Reuters

In the relatively affluent Arnous neighbourhood of Damascus, power cuts now extend to three hours each afternoon, disturbing the daily routine of Abdallah Zaitoun, a contractor whose business was thriving until a popular uprising hit Syria 10 months ago.

"I always felt we were privileged when I passed by the poor shanty towns on the fringe of the city. I am now so afraid every day this crisis continues with no light at the end of the tunnel," said Mr Zaitoun, 44, speaking at his office in the Syrian capital's Seven Lakes commercial district.

Mr Zaitoun's 14-year-old son, Abdullah, who attends an elite private school, now struggles to get his homework done on his Toshiba laptop because of the power cuts. Mr Zaitoun's wife, Zainab, a teacher, is trying to save by dropping items from a regular shopping list that used to include imported chocolate bars, French cheeses and fruit juices.

They and many other residents of the capital's upscale neighbourhoods, previously insulated from the unrest that has rocked Syria, say they are starting to feel the pinch and fear the worst is yet to come.

The IMF says Syria's economy will shrink 2 per cent this year, the first contraction since 2003, as a result of the turmoil that began last March.

Independent economists say tighter sanctions imposed by western and Arab countries will reduce oil revenue and exports, even though the authorities say that new markets in Iraq and Iran could cushion the loss of lucrative buyers in the Gulf.

The government has braced residents for wider power rationing, accusing "terrorists" of sabotaging power plants.

Stealing electricity by running wires into a public electricity unit has become common this winter, residents say. More affluent residents, and companies, are installing private generators, prices of which have shot up. Long queues to purchase heating oil and petrol, along with bread shortages, even in areas of the country that have not experienced months of protests, are adding to the discomfort.

The government has raised the official price of fuel to 50 pounds (Dh3) a litre from 44 pounds three weeks ago, prompting many residents to buy on a flourishing black market.

Inflation is difficult to predict as official data, which showed inflation at 5.7 per cent by the end of November, is dismissed by independent economists, who estimate that overall, prices have risen on average by 30 per cent since September after the authorities restricted state financing of imports to conserve foreign currency.

"The middle class has been hit. Their purchasing power has gone down by at least 18 to 22 per cent, and as for the low-income [households], they have been hammered," said Essam Zamrick, the vice president of the Damascus Chamber of Industry and owner of a food-processing plant. In the shops, luxury items and some food products are scarce, and the price of a 50kg bag of sugar has nearly tripled in the past two months to about 2,500 pounds.

"Grocers only have mostly vegetables, cucumbers and tomatoes on display. Imported fruits are no longer on sale," said Daya Jundi, a resident of the south-western city of Zabadani along the border with Lebanon, which was a popular resort for Gulf Arab tourists but is now a hotbed of anti-Assad protests.

Even meat consumption has slumped, because far less is on sale. A kilogram of fresh lamb now costs about 1,000 pounds against 600 pounds just a few weeks ago, locals say.

Import prices have soared as the Syrian pound has depreciated 21 per cent against the US dollar since the uprising began last March, and Syrians are hoarding goods, fearing prices will rise further, economists say.

While the middle class is suffering, poorer citizens in the rural heartlands adjoining cities that have borne the brunt of the conflict are suffering much greater hardship.

"People are cutting trees to get heating with the severe shortage of heating gas and continued electricity cuts that can stretch for several days," said Rateb Al Nimr, a teacher in the Bayada neighbourhood of the city of Homs in central Syria, which has become the hub of the revolt in the country.

Rising unemployment in hotbeds of unrest in Homs, Hama and Idlib and in the poorer areas of the big cities is aggravating social unrest.

Officials say the unemployment rate hovered at about 8.9 per cent in 2010 before the unrest, but there is no new data available. The economy needs to generate at least 250,000 new jobs annually for sustainable economic growth in the country of about 23 million.

Sameh Nawar, 38, a former financial controller in the municipality of Rastan, north of Homs, lost his 15,000 pound monthly salary after he participated in peaceful protests calling for greater political rights in his hometown.

"My home has been shelled and I am now living in a makeshift residence with relatives," he said.