Syria, formerly a socialist state, began its economic reform process in late 2003. The official aim was to reintegrate Syria into the global economy, while still preserve welfare for its people under the umbrella of the so-called “Social Market Economy”. The process has lead to a rapid growth of Syria's private sector, but also led to a continuous increase in poverty levels and an exponential income inequality within the private sector.
Abu Fares lashed out on this disturbing trend in a post he called, “The Syrian Private Sector: A Socioeconomic Farce“:
Officially disclosed salaries in the Syrian private sector range from the minimum full-time wage of $125 to $42,000 a month.
This is our current state of affairs in a nutshell and 15 years after the government cut the leash and set loose a whimpering private sector in an attempt to help rebuild the dismal economy. What did the rising stars of the Syrian open market and trendy society, the Nouveau Riche and Old Money, the crooks and their offspring, the deserving self-made millionaires and the rarest of them all, the honest entrepreneurs contribute to this country besides sucking it dry of resources, potential and wealth and devastating its environment?
Abu Fares describes several ailments and shortcomings in the private sector, including its complete disregard to social responsibility, the environment and tax evasion.
Ehsani, a Syrian economist based in the US, published a detailed rebuttal of Abu Fares‘ post on Prof. Joshua Landis‘ Syria Comment. In a post titled, “The Sin in Syria is Low Wages“, Ehsani argues that while economic reforms will inevitably leave some people worse off, they are unavoidable and should be pursued even more rapidly by the government. He also proposes that the main problem isn't how much money the better-off could be making, but rather how little money the ones at the bottom are making:
To look at the problem in a different way, we should not be shocked at the bank manager who earns $42,000 a month but the accountant who goes home with only $400 at the end of the month and must face his family. It is not the Four Seasons hotel and its prices that should dismay us but the fact that Damascus only has one 5-star hotel. Dubai has over 70. Similarly, it is not the $170,000 Beemer that should make us angry but the fact that so many Syrians must still ride “battered micro-buses with 9 sweaty (and stinking) passengers” who live below the poverty line.
His proposals at moving forward revolved around reforming the tax code, and introducing strict controls over tax evasion, and eventually for Syria to make a complete break with its socialist history:
Syria will never put its economic house in order unless it makes a clean break from socialism. Introducing vague German economic terminology and saying that we are now a “social market economy” is not enough. For a country with such limited financial resources, our government has no business being in the business of making shoes, cloths, tires, bottled water, beer and 244 other constantly losing establishments. Every manager in charge of these inefficient businesses sees his job as a license to steal and plunder.
In his reply to the post, Abu Fares recalls a personal story about his own experience in the private sector:
Among my more shameful memories is sitting on a board meeting for a new venture, a huge manufacturing plant in Syria, where the main topic of discussion was the hiring of Indian foremen and supervisors because qualified Syrians would not work for the pathetically low salaries the board members were willing to offer.
The debate included many participants in the comment sections of both articles. Alex, commenting on Ehsani‘s post, says that the Syrian government should listen more, and better, to what its people actually want:
Before we decide to move totally to the right, we need to somehow “ask the Syrian people” how far they want their country to move away from socialism. Proper opinion polls should be conducted instead of relying solely on the opinions of experts (from visiting western bankers, to Baath party representatives in government meetings) who advice decision makers on how and how far to reform.