Syrian expatriates return home in hopes of new wealth

Many Syrian-Americans are leaving for Damascus, lured by the opportunities offered by a newly open economy.

For Louay Habbal, sipping his latte in an upmarket coffee shop in Damascus, the US will always be home.

The warmth of the people, the possibility of achieving success from nothing, and the vast open spaces are unparalleled, he says, delight filling his face as he remembers 28 years spent in America working for a succession of leading banks, including Merrill Lynch and Riggs.

"America is the only country on earth where a foreigner is not called a foreigner," he says. "It's the only country in the world where you can land at [John F. Kennedy Airport] and within 24 hours be working, with a place to live and a license to drive."

But, in January, Mr. Habbal uprooted his wife and two US-born children and returned to Damascus to establish a new bank.

President Bashar al-Assad's economic liberalization policies have spurred many Syrian-Americans, like Habbal, to leave their comfortable American lives and return to Syria. "There are tremendous opportunities right now in Syria. Things economically are accelerating rapidly and every day there are new unorganized opportunities," Habbal says.

New laws are easing over 40 years of private investment restrictions, opening up most economic sectors to private capital, dramatically loosening Syria's tight foreign exchange regulations, and rationalizing tax rates.

According to the International Monetary Fund, nonoil GDP growth in 2006 was a strong 6 to 7 percent.

An estimated 20 Syrian-Americans play leading roles in Syriatel , the country's leading communications firm. Others have set up IT companies, established manufacturing firms, and even opened high-end American-style cafes.

Expatriates are successful, says Syrian economist Samir Seifan, because they combine a Western work ethic with a native's knowledge of the notoriously labyrinthine Syrian business system.

"The business mentality they bring and the experience of managing are important, but at the same time you need local experience. We have more bureaucracy than America, we have more difficulties, and we don't have the mentality for business and a market economy," he said.

However, readapting to life in the Arab world has been difficult for some.

"I will leave as soon as I find a job in the US again," said one Syrian-American businessman, who wished to remain anonymous, as he complained about everything from the tightly controlled security regime to the lack of 24-hour supermarkets and gyms.

A key dilemma for those who stay has been one of identity. After years in the US, many have come to love a country widely condemned in the Arab world. But, faced with criticism, Syrian-Americans say they try to shine a positive light on America.

"I tell them that if you live in America you can never find as good a place in terms of lifestyle, freedom, options, and opportunities. There is no place on earth like America. Forget politics – in terms of the human condition and the living environment you cannot find a place like the US," says Ghiath Osman, a senior project manager for Syriatel who spent 10 years in Silicon Valley.

Despite the fact that his loyalty was questioned after 9/11, and that he opposes the Iraq war, Habbal calls himself an "American ambassador." "I tell people America is a good country with good but misguided people," he says.

Precise figures on Syrians returning home remain unavailable. But they seem to be making an impact on the domestic economy.

Investment projects have increased by 250 percent since 2004, touching $9.2 billion last year. Much of this increase has been boosted by expatriates focusing their finances and expertise on Syria, says Bouthaina Shaaban, minister of expatriates. Se points out that investment projects constitute 26 percent of the GDP.

Foreign direct investment was also up 82 percent from 2004, touching $500 million in 2005, according to official Syrian figures. The ministry of expatriates, established in 2002, has pushed forward many rule changes, including easing military service for expatriate children, to draw Syrians home. It is now seeing the results, it says.

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