By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem* — After five years of suspension due to the Syrian war, the Damascus International Fair kicked off again its 59th edition from Aug. 17 until Aug. 26, with the participation of 43 Arab and foreign states.
The fair , which was considered as the top event on pre-war Syria’s economic calendar, hosts local and foreign companies that exhibit their goods and services.
The Syrian government portrayed the Arab and international participation and the massive public turnout as a sign of Syria’s victory and of the Arab and international recognition of the Syrian government and the gradual return of foreign companies to the Syrian market.
Syrian Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade Samer Khalil said Aug. 21 that the public turnout was high and exceeded 350,000 visitors during the first two days. He noted that international participation was remarkable at 43 states. He also said that the opening of the fair marked the start of the recovery period that would put the Syrian economy back on track and help it flourish.
That economic refresh was translated in the full booking of hotels and restaurants in Damascus and its surroundings during the days of the Fair, according to the Syrian Minister of Tourism Bishr Yazji.
Syrian Minister of Information Mohammad Ramez Turjman believed the extensive coverage of the journalists for the economic events and the festivals of the fair throughout the 10 days projected a strong and clear message to the world and reflected Syria’s stature. Turjman noted that the celebrations and the high turnout to the fair indicate that “the atmosphere of victory is not far from what we are experiencing today.”
He further added that the nearly 50 foreign companies participating in the fair signed many contracts and trade deals with Syrian traders and companies in all sectors, especially the textile and food industries.
Syrian economic journalist Ziad Ghosn told The Levant News, “The Syrian government wanted to achieve several goals through reviving the Damascus International Fair, some of which are political, like relaying the reassurance of state institutions after the field gains the Syrian army achieved in cooperation with its allies and overcoming the danger phase. Damascus also wanted to assert that the reconstruction of Syria would happen with the cooperation of its friends and allies. The active participation of Iran, Russia, Iraq, China and India serves as proof, and some surprising participations like Egypt’s remarkable one herald potential developments in the political relations between Egypt and Syria.”
Ghosn added, “The high public turnout to the fair and the active attendance of economic figures sent out a clear message to Arab and foreign businessmen and companies to turn the page of fear from the security situation in Syria and think of investment projects in the country where the largest reconstruction plan is around the corner. Many trade deals and contracts were signed on the sidelines of the fair, but no details were given about their financial worth, which is reportedly good. The deals involved the textile and agricultural product sectors, among others.”
For his part, Syrian academic researcher Akil Mahfouz told The Levant News, “Syria has overcome its crisis and has treaded a long and complicated path. It is now trying to show the world that it can get back on its feet and resume production. Through this fair, Syria wants to address Syrians who have been jaded by the war, businessmen and investors, and mostly its enemies, to assert that the Syrian war has another aspect that can be capitalized on, which is investment and the gains of reconstruction.”
Syrian journalist Samar Radwan who covered [for a Syrian website] the events of the fair told The Levant News, “As Syrians, we felt this fair was a challenge that would show if we could turn the terrorism page. It was an international event and a huge accomplishment economically. It is a victory because the secure field area has expanded. The field victory is imminent, and the political victory has been reached.”
More than 1500 local Syrian companies participated in the fair which covered an area of 55,000 square meters [in the exhibition city on Damascus Airport Road]. In the international side of the fair, there were companies from 43 states, among them few Western companies from Italy, France, Germany, Britain and other European countries, despite that those countries boycott the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad. But Iran’s presence was the most remarkable with 31 Iranian companies covering 1000 square meters of the fair. They included car production companies, home appliances, food products, construction tools, agricultural services, electrical and medical equipment, computer spare parts and information technology programs.
The director of the Italian energy company Sumi, Claudio Zegnanini said that the fair is a huge cooperation opportunity between Italy and Syria and asserted that Sumi is willing to cooperate in the energy fields, if that is what Syria wants.
The director of a German company participating in the fair said that, in six months, the boycotting foreign companies will beg the Syrian government to let them return to its market.
The events of the fair concluded on Aug. 26 with the signing of several agreements. The Ministry of Local Administration and Environment signed a deal with the Republic of Belarus to supply Syria with 200 buses with facilitated payment conditions. The Syrian Ministry of Internal Trade signed a joint cooperation protocol for trade exchange in the food and electrical appliance industries with Emersun and Minoo industrial groups.
Director of the Syrian Public Association of International Fairs and Markets Fares Kartali said that Damascus International Fair has achieved success and exceeded expectations. He noted that several agreements in different economic sectors were signed between public and private Syrian companies and associations and their counterparts in the countries participating in the fair.
Many countries seem to be seeking a piece of the pie in Syria’s reconstruction process. The Syrian government’s allies, notably Russia and Iran, will most likely have the biggest share, according to President Assad and previous deals and promises. India is also looking to participate in the reconstruction, and several Indian companies took part in the fair.
Kidar Ridi who handled the Indian part of the fair and represented a cement production company expressed his company’s desire to open a cement production line with Syria due to its importance for construction.
The Czech Republic also took part, with 12 Czech companies specialized in strategic construction and infra-structure projects, featured in the fair.
The agricultural outcome of the fair was also good, as contracts to export 50,000 tons of Syrian fruits and vegetables to Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Russia, Sudan, Vietnam and Moldova were signed between Syrian exporters and companies from these countries.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government wanted to show the world and Syria, through the Damascus International Fair, that the war is almost over and that victory is imminent as is reconstruction. Assad made sure to relay this message in his latest speech on Aug. 20, when he said that his government managed to thwart the Western project in Syria and the battle is continuing and “the signs of victory exist”.
*Dr. Haytham Mouzahem is the head of Beirut Center For Middle East Studies.