Skilled and educated Syrians flee in search of employment

Syria is facing a brain and capital drain as an exodus of business people flee the conflict-battered country.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian business people are estimated to have fled their war-battered homeland since the start of conflict two years ago last Friday, draining away skills and investment and posing a risk to the country's rebound when stability returns.

The UAE, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey are among the countries that have experienced an inflow of often educated, skilled and sometimes wealthy Syrians either looking to relocate their business or find a job. They form part of the more than one million Syrians estimated to have fled the fighting, many of whom have ended up as refugees in neighbouring countries.

"There's a lot of talented Syrians leaving and they have been attracted to areas of economic growth so a lot of them are coming to the UAE to start a business or find employment," said Fadi Salem, the Dubai-based co-founder of Jusoor, a global group set up to help Syrians with education and employment.

"Many have also been liquidating what they have in terms of property and assets and are transferring them to a safe place in the region."

Two years of steadily escalating unrest and, more recently, global sanctions have unravelled an economy once considered a thriving regional centre of industry and entrepreneurship. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the fighting, according to the United Nations, and most business has grounded to a halt. Any remaining enterprise faces the varied challenges of power cuts, blown-out buildings, roads and bridges, looting, a sliding domestic currency and rampant inflation.

Neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have been among the beneficiaries of the exodus of people and money.

"We have seen a huge spike in Syrian investment through our organisation," said Ahmad El Zubi, acting director of the research and studies department at Jordan Investment Board. "People now have an expectation that they will stay out here for a quite a long time, so it's natural for them to start a business."

Egypt, another destination for Syrian business people, has set up a liaison unit within the Authority of Industrial Development to help Syrians set up businesses in the country.

The UAE is also proving popular, especially with job seekers. Unemployment in Syria has surged as 1.5 million jobs have been lost, estimates a report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research., the UAE-based regional jobs website, had experienced a recent "surge" in interest from jobseekers in Syria and Egypt, said Suhail Masri, the site's vice president of sales.

Still, many Syrian immigrants face challenges in their new countries. Recruiters in the UAE have reported difficulties getting visas for workers from Syria and other Arab Spring nations.

Sanctions encircling the Syrian banking system have also made it harder for Syrians to move their money out of their homeland and invest it abroad.

"Many have had to use exchange houses to move their money and they cannot invest it in some countries due to restrictions," said Mr Salem. "If they can't find a job or start a business either, the danger is their resources are depleted."

Analysts are also worried about a potential vacuum of skilled human resources when stability returns to Syria.

"The country has been drained from its wealth and brains," said Zafiris Tzannatos, a UAE-based economist. "While reversals in capital flows can resume quickly, it may require much more time and assurances of stability for the many dislocated Syrians, educated or not, to return home."