x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Agreement with Airbus 'almost done'

An agreement between Syria and Airbus that is thought to include the sale of passenger jets may be completed next week.

DAMASCUS // An agreement between Syria and Airbus that is thought to include a controversial sale of passenger jets will be completed next week, according to Abdullah al Dardari, the Syrian deputy prime minister for economic affairs. "The deal between Syrian Arab Airlines and Airbus is almost done, and next week a senior delegation from Airbus will come to Damascus to sign it," he said yesterday. He made the statement after a ceremony concluding a series of bilateral business contracts between Syria and French oil giant Total.

Syria's attempts to secure Airbus planes have been a source of huge speculation. The European aircraft manufacturer has refused to comment on whether a deal is being done. A tie-up with Syria is sensitive because Airbus contains US manufactured components, and American economic sanctions theoretically prohibit sales to Damascus, which has been blacklisted by the Bush administration. But Mr Dardari hinted that a potential US veto on any sale has been avoided. "There are no obstacles standing in the way of the deal," he said. "Things are moving in the right direction, and we can say it is in our interests and in the interests of Airbus. We feel things are on track."

He did not reveal any more details, and it is possible the agreement could be limited to the restructuring of Syria's flag carrier, Syrianair. But last Thursday Reuters quoted unnamed Syrian sources as saying the deal would involve a multibillion dollar purchase by the Syrian government of 54 Aircraft between now and 2028, as well as help restructuring the airline. That report was subsequently refuted by EADS, which denied its Airbus subsidiary was in negotiations to sell jets to Syria.

Syria has been keen to improve trade links with the European Union, and Mr Dardari said that process had started and would continue over coming months and years. Mr Dardari is a key figure in the Syrian administration, with a reputation as a reformist with economic savvy. He is overseeing efforts to shift Syria's economy from socialist style government control to a freer market system. Syrianair has five operating planes and more than 5,000 employees. It has been struggling to keep its fleet in the air because it cannot easily get hold of spare parts owing to US sanctions. Syrian officials have argued the restrictions pose a risk to the traveling public by undermining the planes' safety standards.