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SYRIA - Bashar Al Assad.

During the years when Bashar was being groomed for the presidency, following the untimely death of his brother Basil, he was regarded as a someone with a technocratic outlook. His focus was on economic improvement, the elimination of corruption and the introduction of the internet to Syria. Indeed, it is largely through the efforts of Bashar that decision makers in Syria have entered "the Internet time zone" - a step that many of the old guard members of the invisible layer thought unwise.

This process had already begun when his father was in power. It could be seen, for example, in the cabinet shuffle of March 13, 2000, when Prime Minister Mohammed Mustafa Miro took over from Mahmoud Al Zohbi who had headed the government since 1987. Miro's main task has been to navigate the cabinet through the Internet zone and at the same time preserve the political status quo - an extremely difficult challenge at a time a leadership transition from the late president Hafez Al Assad to his son was in process. Miro has the confidence of Bashar, indicated by the fact that he stayed in place despite some changes to the cabinet in November 2000.

It has become clear to the Syrian leadership structure that Bashar is different from his father in many ways, yet very similar as well. He is very intelligent, modest, polite and calm, but quite firm like his father. Modern-minded, he promised professors at Damascus University in early 1998 they would have local access to the Internet. He fulfilled his promise and use of the Internet began to spread beyond the university and the presidential palace in late 1999.

The political atmosphere began to soften after Bashar came to power in June 2000. On Nov. 15, 2000, he issued a decree freeing 600 political prisoners, who were released in the days that followed (see the latest edition of RIM). On Nov. 19, Assad issued a decree closing Mazzeh prison, one of the country's most notorious detention centres, in order to "erase it from the memories" of his people. On Nov. 22, Syrian Minister of Justice Muhammad Nabil Al Khatib announced that a sweeping General Pardon Law designed to give imprisoned convicts an opportunity to "return to social life as effective and productive members...and observe this law without deviation" had been issued by Bashar and approved by parliament to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Corrective Movement launched by Hafez Al Assad. However, this does not mean that the Bashar regime is likely to take a relaxed view of political activism or any threat to stability.

Bashar was born in 1965 in Damascus. He studied medicine at Damascus University, specialising at the Tishreen Military Hospital as an ophthalmologist in 1992. He went to London for further studies. He returned after his elder brother Basil's death in 1994. He then took over Basil's duties. The implicit assumption in Damascus always was that he would succeed his father as ruler eventually. There were a number of indicators justifying this assumption. He worked from the presidential palace is in charge of Lebanon affairs, a position he got in 1998 to offset the influences of Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and Gen. Ghazi Kanaan in Lebanon. He also holds the military rank of staff colonel, having undergone extensive training at the presidential guards' academy.

Hafez Al Assad also gave Bashar a virtual carte blanche to introduce the "Internet timezone" in Syria, something that he would not have entrusted to anybody else. The late president also prepared for Bashar to take a special position in the Baath Party's leadership which was achieved in 1999 and early 2000. Bashar has many friends among members of Arab ruling families, like Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum who is Dubai's crown prince and the UAE defence minister. His friends also include Lebanese-born film star Omar Sharif.

Mohammed Maher Bin Husni Jamal: The Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources since July 3, 1996, Jamal was retained in Miro's new cabinet on March 13, 2000. He is an efficient and nice man, working hard to make sure foreign companies stop abandoning the Syrian petroleum sector. A number of foreign companies have left the country because of the previous government's tough E&P terms and restrictive approach to the downstream sector.

Jamal is among technocrats who have been calling for a better E&P regime since he took over the ministry in mid-1996. He has also called for a new system of incentives to encourage the private sector and foreign companies to participate in downstream projects, including new oil refineries. But under the previous Zohbi government his hands were tied and the then dominant old guard prevented change.

Under Miro's cabinet and with encouragement from Assad, Jamal is anticipating major changes for the better. He is expected to be the key man in an inter-ministerial committee proposed to be formed under Dr. Miro to review the existing investment laws for the various sectors, including that of petroleum.

An oil engineer, Jamal was previously chairman of Al Furat Petroleum Co. Shell and the other foreign companies welcomed his becoming oil minister in mid-1996. A number of new E&P deals were signed subsequently. That came after a period of stagnation. As minister, he succeeded Nader Al Nabulsi, who was sacked after being charged with a corruption scandal and was blamed for the stagnation in the petroleum sector. In 1997, Jamal managed to improve the investment terms somewhat and secured E&P deals with several other companies.

(It was partly as a result of such moves that, in January 2000, Shell found oil in two exploration wells in its 4,881 sq km Zenobia block in the Euphrates Valley, in the north-east of the country. Shell subsequently described the discoveries as substantial. Shell is the operator in Al Furat Petroleum Co., which is by far the biggest oil producer in Syria. It discovered about 2,000 million barrels of oil equivalent in Syria between 1984 and 1993. But from 1993 till end-1999 it failed to make commercial discoveries).

In his 40s, Jamal is a tall figure. Pragmatic, he is regarded highly by the foreign oil operators in the country. He built up his career in Al Furat, where he rose quickly and became chairman in January 1996. He has expressed the worry that, unless significant oil reserves are discovered in the next few years, Syria could return to being a net oil importer by 2005. A warning to that effect was made in early 1998 by Shell. Jamal believes that, if a big number of companies are attracted to explore there would be major oil and gas discoveries.

Jamal has control over the heads of all the state-owned companies active in the petroleum sector, including the Syrian Petroleum Corp. (SPC) and its upstream and downstream subsidiaries. He has no control over external marketing of oil, which is handled by Sytrol under the direct supervision of the Petroleum Marketing Committee, chaired by Dr. Daud Heido, at the prime minister's office. Jamal maintains good relations with the prime minister's office and with Dr. Heido, and he was behind a decision allowing private investment in the downstream sector as a proposal to build a private oil refinery was been approved by the Zohbi cabinet.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Operations in Oil Diplomacy
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Mar 26, 2001
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