The young Syrian businessmen making it happen

Feature A new breed of businessman is reaping the rewards of a more dynamic, developing Syria. Entrepreneurs are tapping into a growing wave of demand and changing the country's commercial and retail landscape beyond all recognition.

Abdulsalam Haykal is a well-known face in both Damascus and Lebanon: at 31, he is a highly successful businessman with fingers in so many pies that piles of business cards line his desk.

Fluent in Arabic and English, he studied at Lebanon's American University of Beirut (AUB) and then at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and is the son of a successful businessman in the shipping and banking industries. We meet in his office at Transtek, the 60-person software company he heads. Sitting back in his leather chair opposite a flat screen television, Haykal is buoyant about the future of Syria. He has just become the first Syrian to be named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. In his other roles, he is the CEO of Haykal Media, one of the largest - and very few - private media companies in Syria. He is also a trustee on the boards of AUB and Kalamoon University, the latter a new private university, 80km north of Damascus.

Young, well-educated and confident, Haykal is typical of a group of businessmen enjoying a freedom and corresponding power and wealth in Syria that past generations could only have dreamt of. Schooled abroad, well-off and well-connected because of their families, they are grabbing the opportunities of economic liberalisation, starting large businesses and providing the services their peers want. "There is a large space for the private sector in Syria now," Haykal says. "We have amazing, unprecedented space in which to work."

Down the road, one of his contemporaries, Adnan Tarabishy, works from his office in Mezzeh Villas, a relatively new neighbourhood in Damascus. At 32, he is the founder and managing director of Y2AD, Syria's top advertising agency, which manages publicity for international brands such as Sony, Nivea and Pepsi. Returning to his homeland after studying at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut, Tarabishy found unforeseen opportunities open to him. And as a member of another family with a well-established reputation, thanks to its four-generation packaging business, he was familiar with Syria's business world and could rely on his family name. "It was the ideal time," he says. "Advertising was still fairly unknown here - there were no billboards, for example, and there was also no know-how."

Now, with a turnover of several million dirhams per year, Y2AD is Syria's leading company for representing international brands: a list that is expanding steadily as importing to the country becomes easier. "The big space is for services, which are new to older people but normal to young people," Tarabishy says. "In modern service companies, there is less competition and often less start-up capital needed."

Tarabishy and Haykal are not alone: George Chawi, the owner of Dome and O-Lounge, Damascus's hippest bar and restaurant; Karim Tabah, the vice-president of the Nasco group of companies, whose interests run from medical to agricultural supplies; and Majd Suleiman, the head of United Group, a publishing company that has the Middle Eastern concessions to titles such as the women's magazine Marie Claire.

In the few multinational companies operating in Syria, the demographic of middle management is the same as that of the entrepreneurs. From the Four Seasons Hotel to the MTN telecommunications company, those in their late 20s and early 30s are ruling the roost. "The most inspiring people are young people," Haykal points out. "They have the big aspirations and the energy; they are willing and able to take the challenge of running a new business."

The results of the entrepreneurial drive are plain to see. Damascus is no Dubai, but visitors to the country over the past few years would have noticed that it has been changing. Sprouting up are slick, glass malls containing goods and services hitherto unknown to the country's 20 million citizens. Take Damasquino Mall or Damascus Boulevard, for instance, where international brands such as Nike and Lacoste were tempted into the country for the first time; Costa Coffee and Lina's sell coffee at upwards of six times the price charged in an ordinary Syrian cafe, outstripping the price in Europe and the United States.

It's a far cry from the Damascus of even a decade ago: a visit to the city then offered little choice of food or accommodation, and the wealthy went to Beirut or Dubai to shop. These days, new boutique hotels, bars and restaurants are springing up and being featured in magazines such as Haykal Media's unapologetically elite fashion and lifestyle glossy, Happynings. With such developments, Syria is tempting the young and the wealthy to stay - and play - at home. "It's an exciting time for business here," says Haykal. "There are so many opportunities to help shape the country and have an impact."

In the regional context, Syria and its young entrepreneurs are playing in the small league compared to neighbours Jordan and Lebanon, but they are enjoying a faster ascent due to its lower starting point. Reliable figures are hard to come by, and GDP growth is distorted by oil revenues, but there are other indicators of the country's rise. Retail space in malls is one. In 2008, Syria was estimated to have had just 55,000 square metres of shop floor space in malls, according to UK consultancy group Retail International. In the following year it doubled in size and is still expanding.

This consumer trend is driven by the top sector of society, says Mohammed al-Mallah, an expert on the Syrian retail scene. "You see the malls are full of labels because that's what the demand is for," he says. "The top sector of society got wealthier and wants to be able to get these things at home." The two trends feed off one another: the young elite have more money to spend, so this encourages better services in Syria, while the demand grows, so more services are needed. But a more important change, according to the young entrepreneurs, is the wider field the government has created with its economic changes.

In the past few years, Syria has been moving away from its former centrally planned economy under which the private sector was scorned. Despite a few attempts to loosen the economy in the Eighties, reform slowed as Syria sat back and enjoyed revenues from newly discovered oil reserves. In 2000, the new president Bashar al Assad came to power. He had big plans for business, which were boosted in 2005 when the transition to a social market economy was announced.

The international isolation that Syria endured after the assassination of the Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, in 2005, for which the country was widely blamed, slowed progress down, but it is now regaining ground. And the generation of recent graduates is well placed to take advantage of the new scene."We have population growth and at the same time, globalisation, which means more people want more things, as well as needing schools and colleges and healthcare," says Haykal. "The government has realised it can no longer even maintain the status quo, and that's where we come in."

While there is excitement over the opportunities, there is also a healthy dose of disbelief at the freedom being given to those operating in the private sector. After all, many of the young men in the business elite are family friends who have studied together and can help each other out with networking. Tarabishy acknowledges that the benefits don't extend to a large majority of Syrians. "The opportunity is theoretically there for all, but the ones able to take it are the ones who are well placed."

And he readily admits his own business was aided by being the son of an influential businessman. "Because of my name I got credit, even though I wasn't in the family business," he says. "When I say credit, I don't just mean financial - you get priority or special treatment." But Haykal points out that there are usually only a small group of people at the top. "Realistically, anyone starting a business needs the right ingredients - the team, an idea, good timing, financial support, expertise, and the network and connections. There are people who can do this, and there are people who cannot.

"But," he says, "it is essential that we encourage small- and medium-size businesses to create inclusive economic growth." That is why he and others like him are using their power to help entrepreneurs who aren't so fortunate. The Syrian Young Entrepreneurs Association (SYEA) was set up by Haykal and other young businessmen to give grants and business advice. Another, Bidaya, which means "beginning" in Arabic, funds 18- to 35 year-olds from low-income backgrounds. With this support, young people have had more opportunities to start small businesses. Enas Essa, for example, is a 32-year-old founder of an audiobook business. Mouayad Hamoudeh, 22, started his own dental implements business in a relatively poor area on the outskirts of Damascus.

Some young businessmen are helping others in more personal ways. Hassan Daboul, 31, is among those who benefited from education outside Syria, getting an MBA at Beirut's LAU. Now a board member of his father's aluminium company, he is also supporting a friend's glass art business. "I give some financial support and also put in a call when she can't access the people she needs," he says. "She can't do it alone as she doesn't have the financial resources or the big PR network."

Women are another group who have yet to see the full benefits of Syria's changes filter down to them. Many young women work, but few have yet made it to the big business boardrooms. "There are still expectations and family assumptions about the role of women in society," says Dia Haykal, 22, the sister of Abdulsalam, who works alongside him at Transtek. "But for our generation of young women, the situation is improving, gradually."

Where will Syria's economy go from here? Tabah says the future is hard to predict. "I am not in a position to make forecasts," he says. "I would like to see medium-size businesses as the basis of the economy, but here, family businesses are normal. Even big businessmen are individual not institutional, and so big changes are needed." In the meantime, the country's able young men are taking advantage of the opportunities open to them in the ever-expanding private sector, and changing the face of Syria, at least superficially.

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