In the current political furor, it must be remembered that the Lebanese and Syrian economies are and have been strongly interdependent – a situation that predates Syria’s military intervention in 1976 and will probably remain so in the short to medium term.
Prior to former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination, the Lebanese economy was finally picking up steam, built on stronger trade with the region, including Syria. Should the opposition win the upcoming Lebanese elections, it will not necessarily mean that Lebanon will be cut off from Syria economically. The special bilateral agreements of the early to mid 1990s have been replaced with Arab-wide trade pacts that have slashed tariffs on a wide variety of goods and facilitated inter-Arab investment. They will remain binding. Restrictions on Syrians working in Lebanon are a possibility, but the fact of the matter remains that Syrian labor is not easily replaced by other foreign workers, as they require housing and residency permits to the tune of $1,800 per year. If economic reform accelerates in Syria in response to the crisis, which it has in terms of banking, Lebanon’s could lose its share of Syrian savings, and with it, a vital source of deposits that can be invested in everything from Lebanese treasury bills to credit cards – all of which keep the Lebanese dream of material progress going. But as US pressure increases on Damascus, Syrian reform is likely to grind to a halt for the foreseeable future unless a working compromise can be found.
Despite ebbs and flows in Lebanese-Syrian relations over the years, bilateral trade has continued unabated and has seen rapid growth in bilateral trade. In 1997, for example, the volume of bilateral trade stood at $76.81 million, for which Syrian exports to Lebanon accounted for 92.7%. As more agreements were signed, Lebanon gradually began tipping the trade balance in its direction. In 2000, for example, bilateral trade volume stood at $190.1 million, with Syrian exports making up 87.8%. By 2003, trade volume stood at $277.2 million, but Syria’s share of the pie had slipped to 74.06%. In the first half of 2004, total trade volume stood at $136.95 million, of which Syrian production accounted for only 63%. While such figures are susceptible to fluctuations in energy prices (almost half of Syrian exports to Lebanon are oil products), Lebanese exports to Syria more than doubled between 2001 and 2003, and Lebanon’s share of official trade volume continued to grow.
Official statistics on Lebanese-Syrian economic activity are deceiving, however, as they do not reflect services Lebanese enterprises provide to Syrian clients, as well as rampant black market activity. The Lebanese state’s ability to assess taxes and customs duties during the war was severely curtailed. Getting a handle on the volume of black market activity between the two countries is therefore incredibly difficult. But a brief look at some of the reasons Lebanese and Syrians took their economic activity underground sheds light on what remain important needs of both sides that are likely to quickly show through the current political posturing.
Refuge for Syrian money
First and foremost are financial activities. Following Syria’s Ba’athist Revolution of 1963 and the nationalization of the banking sector, Syrian money poured into Lebanon. Syrian financiers set up shop in Beirut and in Chtoura to service the needs of Syrians, due in large part to the inefficiencies and restrictions that accompanied state domination of Syrian finance. Syrians are not inward-looking people cut off from the rest of the world and over the last century, Syrians migrated to the West in large numbers due to extensive political instability, and carried their trade with them. Thus, unlike many other “socialist” countries, Syrian had a strong need to keep and effectively use hard currency.
Lebanon fits Syrians needs to a tee. Its famous banking secrecy laws made it easy for Syrians to hide their true income and worth from the Syrian authorities. The banks’ top-rate services, in terms of transfer facilities, suited the needs of Syrian traders all over the world. Last but not least, the banks’ ability to make smart investments and make strong returns made Lebanon Syria’s piggy bank.
When the Syrian state imposed harsh foreign currency restrictions following its forex crisis in 1985 to 1986, Lebanon became an important conduit for black market currency transactions in and out of Syria, known in the region as the HAWALA system. When Syria’s private sector began to grow in the early 1990s, and Syrian banking regulations remained high restrictive, this activity became semi-sanctioned, with Syrian authorities openly turning a blind eye to the illicit activity. Lebanese banks asked few questions, as per their banking confidentiality regulations.
Lebanese banks also became active in loans to major Syrian enterprises, charging high rate of interest and special terms in exchange for forgoing the ability to secure collateral in Syria (which is restricted to Lebanese banks). Last but not least, Lebanese banks provide, and still provide, the lions share of L/C and other import finance facilities to Syrian importers. Only in the last few weeks, following Hariri’s assassination, have Syrian regulations been eased to allow Syrian banks to provide L/Cs in foreign currency.
The second area concerns black market trade activities. Despite changes in Syria’s customs regulations over the past few years, the country remains a highly protected economy. Lebanese products skirt these restrictions through the abovementioned free trade agreements. As Syria’s private sector has grown, so has its appetite for goods either banned by Syrian customs regulations, or those forbidden by US trade restrictions on Damascus. As a result, Lebanese traders have become masters of “re-exporting”, where goods such as US computers or car parts are shipped on to Syrian suppliers in violation of US law. In response, US corporations have put heavy pressure on Lebanese import agencies to obtain “end-user” licenses for various products. Strong family business ties straddling the border, high commissions made by Lebanese re-exporters, along with no increases in the capacity of the US embassy to monitor such transactions, make such demands virtually unenforceable.
In terms of services, Syrian producers utilize Lebanese expertise in everything from production techniques and marketing. Most Syrian businessmen say Lebanon’s close proximity and the international experience of its workforce make Lebanon the best source at the best price. But perhaps more important is the willingness of Lebanese companies to receive large “off the books” payments from Syrian sources that in most other economies would be considered money laundering. This fact is not due to the Lebanese penchant for “business” but rather their understanding of, and willingness to circumvent, Syria’s foreign exchange restrictions. Along with, of course, Lebanon’s banking secrecy policy.
The third area involves Syrian labor in Lebanon. Since independence, Syrian workers have satisfied Lebanon’s demand for skilled, cheap, and unreported labor – an important factor in the profitability of Lebanese businesses. While many Lebanese now complain that the estimated 1 million Syrian workers in Lebanon are in fact stealing jobs away from Lebanese, the simple fact of the matter is that Syrian workers, in the words of one Lebanese businessman, “will do what most Lebanese feel is beneath them.” It is easy to understand: Lebanon’s skilled and polyglot workforce invests in its education with the hope of obtaining a white-collar office job. Syrian workers, therefore, fill the blue-collar gap in Lebanon ask construction workers, garbage collectors, handymen and house cleaners. This makes Lebanon an important source of remittances to the Syrian economy, with some estimates reaching $4 billion per year.
Not all these funds leave Lebanon, of course, as most Syrians are still reluctant to repatriate their savings to Syria’s nascent private sector banks. Many Syrian workers are also married to Lebanese nationals, making estimates of the Syrian labor drain on Lebanon hard to quantify. Nevertheless, Syria continues to suffer from high unemployment, and the economic opportunities for Syrians in Lebanon are an important part of keeping food on the table among the families that straddle the anti-Lebanon range.
A brief history of Lebanese-Syrian economic pacts
In the year’s following independence, different Syrian governments tried to placate the wishes of businessmen from all over the country who historically preferred using Lebanese ports. This culminated in the signing of the Lebanese-Syrian Economic Pact of 1953 – a document designed to help integrate the two economies. The agreement allowed for quota and duty free trade in agricultural products and exempted industrial production from all or half of customs duties, depending on the product in question. In terms of labor and services, Lebanese and Syrians could obtain a six-month residency permit on the border, which allowed Syrian surplus labor to serve the Lebanese market – a situation that continues to this day.
During the civil war, Lebanese-Syrian trade continued, albeit on a much more limited basis with areas under the control of Christian militias. In the early 1980s, Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayal tried to uproot Syrian business ties with areas under his control and led the Azharis – a financier family of Syrian origin – to sell their controlling stake in Credit Libanais in 1984. Following Syria’s role in implementing the Ta’if Accord, both countries signed the agreement for Brotherhood and Collaboration of 1991.
While the agreement is often framed in terms of its bilateral commitments to overall cooperation, external affairs, and security, equally emphasized are economic and social affairs. Such matters are overseen by the Committee for Economic and Social Cooperation, an offshoot of the Lebanese-Syrian Higher Council, which oversees the agreement.
In 1993, Syria and Lebanon concluded yet another pact – The Agreement for Economic and Social Cooperation and Coordination. Perhaps more than any other agreement, it outlines in detail the goal of gradual economic integration between Lebanon and Syria, as well as the principles on which such goals would be met. Six clauses outline free movement of persons, labor (based on the laws of each country), services, goods, capital, and transport. In addition, a “mechanism” was established to coordinate national policies in water, energy, electricity, taxation, and finance, amongst others, with the goal of achieving a common market between the two countries.
As each state adjusted its legislation to meet such goals, bilateral trade expanded. When the Arab leaders began looking to liberalize pan-Arab trade in the mid 1990s, in part to counteract its free trade agreements with the EU and the WTO, the 1993 agreement was held up as a success story. This led in 1997 to the conclusion of the Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement (GAFTA), in which Lebanese-Syrian economic relations have been framed ever since. GAFTA established the goal of eliminating all tariffs and quotas (with some exceptions) on January 1, 2005. Ahead of that date, Arab countries were free to conclude bilateral agreements to accelerate economic liberalization – a clause Lebanon and Syria took quite seriously. Some 23 bilateral agreements were subsequently concluded, including everything from investment guarantees and industrial and agricultural production to the protection of the environment to emergency medical services.