Syrians struggle with cost of living despite public sector salary increases

The pound has fallen to a record low, with wages barely enough for most families to get by

A Syrian taxi driver pushes his car to the petrol station to refuel. Hasan Belal for The National
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Syrians struggling with rapidly rising prices see little hope of improvement after authorities announced an immediate 100 per cent increase in state salaries.

The increase followed the Syrian pound's plunge to a record low of 15,500 to the US dollar last week, hitting families who are hard pressed to pay for food, housing and other essentials.

With much of Syria's economy pegged to the dollar, and 90 per cent of the population living below the global poverty line – according to the UN – any drop in the currency has a wide impact.

The Syrian economy is stretched thin, with the prewar rate of 50 pounds to the US dollar now a distant memory. Factors such as the economic collapse in neighbouring Lebanon, western sanctions, domestic mismanagement and the devastation of industry after a 12-year-long conflict have combined to wreak havoc on the currency.

Zuhair Tinawi, a senior MP who sits on the budgeting committee, said the decision to double state salaries was taken to offset the financial burden by reducing the state subsidy on fuel.

“There was an agreement between the executive and legislative bodies to raise salaries by 100 per cent, with revenue taken coming from reducing subsidies on oil derivatives,” he said.

Laith Arnaout, 56, a taxi driver in Damascus, said the price of petrol had led many drivers to keep their cars parked.

“I work for three days a week and much of my time is spent arguing with customers about fares, which vary from day to day according to the price and availability of petrol,” he told The National.

“It’s cheaper to sometimes not work if you buy unsubsidised petrol – the extortionate value of fuel means you must make it back. I have to pick and choose my moments to work, I have a family to feed.

“I don’t blame the passengers, it now costs an arm and leg to take taxis in the country. How can we pay 270,000 pounds for 25 litres of petrol? It's too much, we’re not living in Switzerland.”

Rents, clothing out of reach

Despite the Syrian pound stabilising at 14,350 to the dollar on Friday, a monthly salary of 200,000 ($14) is barely enough to to meet the cost of living.

“Shoes for 250,000 pounds and trousers for 150,000 before the increase [in salary] and even after the increase, it’s even worse,” Facebook user Qusay Abedo wrote on the social media site after trying buy clothes for his family from the Al Hamra high street in Damascus.

With rents going up with the dollar, “most tenants have become unable to pay”, a Syrian real estate agency said on social media.

According to UN estimates, people need to earn at least 1.35 million pounds ($94) a month to subsist.

Anger about the situation sparked protests in the southern province of Sweida on Friday, where residents in the town of Al Thala blocked the road to Damascus, allowing access to only ambulances and university students sitting exams.

The majority Druze province is officially under government control but has its own administration.

Syrian officials have been quick to explain the causes of the country's current plight.

“Many countries of the world suffer from major changes in the exchange rate,” Minister of Economy Muhammad Al Khalil said.

He said that “rumours of war” in the region had “played a major role in speculation and recent inflation that targeted the Syrian pound”.

And in an admission of the country's lack of resources, Minister of Oil Hassan Kaddour said Syria was almost entirely dependent on foreign oil.

“Today, we import 95 per cent of the country's oil needs,” he said, highlighting the vulnerability of the country to high oil prices, which remain inflated in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Ordinary Syrians are hoping that the recent efforts to normalise relations with Arab countries will bring some relief.

However, Kamal Alam, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told The National: “As [President Bashar Al Assad] said in a recent interview, the Arab reintegration will take a while to show economic dividends.

“While Gulf countries will slowly but surely move in, third-party sanctions mean that practical steps can be hard, concerning bank transfers, payment terms and general use of western-dominated monetary terms even for the Gulf to fully participate in rejuvenation.”

“The Syrian business community is more than able to pull Syria through the economic quagmire, but the relentless lobbying in [Washington] DC against even the basic commercial sanctions being lifted makes it hard for the Syrian economy to stabilise.”

Updated: August 21, 2023, 6:28 AM