ISTANBUL — Jihad Yazigi concedes that he owes a debt to Bashar al Assad. Without the now-besieged Syrian president, there would have been no free-market reforms, no surge in foreign investment and no modern banks in Syria. As Mr. Yazigi acknowledges, there also would not have been The Syria Report, his weekly economic digest that is one of the country’s few successful independent publications.
“My business thrived because there was an opening and I have to give Bashar credit,” Mr. Yazigi said during a recent conference in Istanbul, when asked to reflect upon the changes that awakened the Syrian middle class even as they enriched the elite. “The problem is he didn’t go deep or fast enough to head off the unrest. He didn’t reform the judicial system or encourage a free press, for example. These were red lines that could not be crossed.”
Mr. Yazigi, the son of an exiled Syrian dissident, publicly called for democratic reform as early as 2004, most notably in a column headlined “The D Word.” At the same time, he applauded the government for stimulating free trade and foreign investment, liberalizing its currency, reforming its financial sector and removing subsidies on everything from cooking oil to farm equipment. Largely as a result, the country’s gross domestic product rose steadily; between 2005 and 2010 it achieved an annualized growth rate of about 5 percent, among the highest for developing countries at the time.
Syria was not the only Arab country that aggressively deregulated its economy. Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Saudi Arabia all embraced similar changes which, by the end of the decade, had produced impressive growth but also high inflation, stubborn unemployment and yawning rates of income disparity. So was it free-market reforms that triggered the convulsions that continue to destabilize the region? Or regime kleptocrats who hijacked a badly needed reform process?
“It makes it a lot more difficult for people to sacrifice for the sake of change when elites are profiting,” Mr. Yazigi said. “That said, there were more problems than just corruption.”
In promoting service sectors like hotel construction and management over labor-intensive ones like manufacturing, Mr. Yazigi added, the government neglected a fertile source of jobs. It also exposed its industries to high quality, affordable imported goods when it signed a free trade deal with Turkey. The government withdrew price supports on farm equipment and produce too quickly, he said, sparking an exodus of laborers from an agriculture sector that once accounted for a quarter of total employment.
“Many farmers ended up moving into urban slums,” Mr. Yazigi said, “and that led to a lot of stress and resentment in the cities.”
Mr. Yazigi, a French citizen and Greek Orthodox Christian, is, like Mr. Assad, an outsider whose destiny lured him back to Syria. Both men are sons of plotters — though unlike Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, an air force general who ruled Syria from 1970 until his death in 2000, Raja Yazigi was on the losing end of a 1961 coup he helped lead in Lebanon.
After fleeing via Jordan, he settled in Ghana, where he established a carpentry business and started a family. At the age of eight, Mr. Yazigi was sent to France for his education. Like Bashar, who studied ophthalmology in Britain before he was fated by his elder brother’s death to lead the Assad ruling dynasty, Mr. Yazigi was obliged to interrupt his studies at the American University in Paris and run the family business when his father passed away in 1995.
The building trade could never compete with Mr. Yazigi’s love of politics, and with the arrival of Bashar as president he sensed an opportunity to indulge a passion inspired by his father, who sent his children to Damascus every summer to improve their Arabic and learn the city’s political terrain. In October 2001, from Paris, Mr. Yazigi distributed an online translation of Syria’s then-fledgling financial press. He knew he was onto something just a few weeks later when The World Bank contacted him and asked for more.
“The Internet had just started,” he said. “I felt like this was something I could do that I really loved and give something back to the country.”
The Syria Report comes out each week with data and news gathered from a variety of sources, including Mr. Yazigi’s own reporting. Among his most precious resources is a database of hundreds of Syrian companies he compiled by soliciting such details as contact coordinates, names of board directors, financial returns and shareholder information. Extracting proprietary information from Syria’s secretive, family-owned businesses was not easy. Over time the database would evolve into a coveted tool for foreign investors and traders converging on Syria. Subscriptions rose in tandem with liberalization and growth.
A one-year membership costs $600. Mr. Yazigi is coy about the number of paying readers, though he allows that sales grew by 30 percent in 2010, a record year for foreign direct investment in Syria, then declined significantly in mid-2011, when peaceful demonstrations against Mr. Assad’s brutality grew into war. Much of the sales he lost to a diminished foreign business community have been absorbed by interest among academics, journalists and aid workers.
The heart of The Syria Report’s content is provided by the Syrian government, which despite the war still faithfully posts official economic data and tender offers. Between the stories about corporate earnings and the depreciating Syrian pound one can find the occasional reporting that is usually absent Syria’s state-controlled press. The government kicked out the country’s few accredited foreign correspondents not long after the violence began. Stories about multinationals quitting war-torn Syria, for example, or the simultaneous closings of several embassies, are rarely carried anywhere but in The Syria Report.
“Jihad has been very engaged and bold,” said Peter Harling, a Syria specialist for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “He’s taking principled but sophisticated positions just as other Syrians are becoming politically aware and acute in their analyses. This is what gives me hope for the future of Syria.”
Although Mr. Yazigi has blogged critically about the Assad government, his commentary in an English-language online economic bulletin is too esoteric to attract the attention of the state’s security apparatus. His recent decision to move to Beirut, he says, had more to do with the perils of war than government spies. He still maintains an office and a staffer in Damascus to assemble data.
In March 2011, when the regime responded to a first wave of protests by increasing public-servant pay, Mr. Yazigi scolded the government for political “gifts” that would impose “a severe drain on the Treasury and create serious inflationary risks.” In October that year, he disparaged as “nonsense” the government’s decision to ban imports to conserve foreign currency only to reverse its ruling in the face of opposition from the Aleppo business community. The episode confirmed the government “had no clear economic policy,” Mr. Yazigi wrote, and signaled a reversal of its commitment to free-market reform.
One day, when peace is restored to Syria, Mr. Yazigi said, he would like to expand his existing consulting work. Before the war he applied for a license to host business conferences but was told, in effect, that others close to the government had a lock on the business. It was the kind of red line, he said, that ended up ensnaring the regime.