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SYRIA - Profile - Dr. Issam Al Zaim.

The Minister of Industry since Dec. 13, 2001, Dr. Zaim was previously minister of state for planning. Like other technocrats brought in to fulfill promises made since March 2000 by Bashar Al Assad, Dr. Zaim has had limited powers. He could not restructure and liberalise Syria's industrial sector, which is dominated by state-owned companies which are overstaffed and highly inefficient.

Zaim was originally slated to assume a more prominent position than that of industry minister. In his previous position as the minister in charge of planning, in 2000 he tried hard but failed to come up with a aimed at creating 440,000 new jobs. Aref Dalila, economics professor at the University of Damascus, warned in November 2000 that the unemployment problem in Syria was a time bomb. Dalila said Syria's population - then over 17 million- will have grown by seven million by 2010, with three million additional people looking for jobs. To avert an explosion, Dalila said the country needed $100 billion to be spent in 2000-2010 in order to create an adequate number of new jobs for the Syrians.

As minister of state for planning, Dr. Zaim played a major role in Syria's first international conference - held at one of London's most luxurious hotels in mid-2001 - to dispel perceptions of a slow-moving and uneven reform process under Bashar's presidency. Zaim told potential investors at the conference: "The economic environment has been considerably improved". He pointed to the ruling Baath Party's decision to allow private banks to operate in Syria and to "the government's focus on improving education".

Western bankers observed, however, that Syria still lacked the regulatory environment for commercial banking - with the Central Bank desperately needing reform. The law allowing private banks to operate in Syria, the most ambitious decision by Bashar Al Assad so far, is yet to change the financial landscape in the country.

The London conference, organised by Euromoney, was entitled: "Syria: A New Dawn for Business, Trade and Investment". For two days and nights, the Dorchester Hotel resonated to the sounds and echoes of a regime long demonised in the West as being a reclusive military dictatorship. The Syrian government delegation of more than 30 figures was led by Farouk Al Shara, the long-serving foreign minister. The delegation included Adnan Omran, the information minister who like Shara is close to the invisible layer of authority. Among the other members of the delegation, apart from Dr. Zaim, was Higher Education Minister Dr. Hassan Risheh who concentrated on plans to improve Syria's educational system.

However, the conference merely highlighted the extent to which Syria had missed out on development since the late 1960s. Alain Meridien, president of Alliances Management Consultants, told the conference participants that in agriculture only 1.2 million out of 6 million hectares of land were irrigated. Meridien also noted that Syria - much of which being "a living museum" - attracted a mere 150,000 European tourists, versus 5.5 million in Egypt and a similar number in Tunisia.
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Publication:APS Review Downstream Trends
Date:Apr 15, 2002
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