Cablegate: 2010 Investment Climate Statement for Syria


DE RUEHDM #0051/01 0141400
P 141400Z JAN 10





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: 09 STATE 00124006

The 2010 Investment Climate Statement for Syria follows:

Chapter 6: Investment Climate

-Openness to Foreign Investment
-Conversion and Transfer Policies
-Expropriation and Compensation
-Dispute Settlement
-Performance Requirements and Incentives
-Right to Private Ownership and Establishment
-Protection of Property Rights
-Transparency of Regulatory System
-Efficient Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
-Competition from State Owned Enterprises
-Corporate Social Responsibility
-Political Violence
-Bilateral Investment Agreements
-OPIC and Other Investment Insurance Programs
-Foreign-Trade Zones/Free Ports
-Foreign Direct Investment Statistics
-Web Resources

Openness to Foreign Investment

Designated by the U.S. government as a state sponsor of
terrorism, Syria has been subject to the U.S. Department of
CommerceQs Export Administration Regulations (EAR) for over
thirty years. All dual-use goods and advanced technology
items have been controlled and/or restricted from the
Syrian market since 1979. These restrictions were enhanced
through the implementation of economic sanctions under the
Syria Accountability Act (SAA) of May 11, 2004. As
currently implemented, the SAA does not ban U.S.
investments. However, the current ban on the export of
almost all products of the United States has made
investments by U.S. businesses more difficult to carry out,
and the President has the authority to extend
implementation of the SAA to ban all U.S. business and
investment activity in Syria at any time.

SAA sanctions are in addition to restrictions under the
Grassley Amendment that prevents U.S. corporations from
taking advantage of foreign tax credits for taxes paid in
Syria. Furthermore, the President has designated more
sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers
Act (IEEPA) and Section 311 of the USAPATRIOT Act regarding
financial transactions with the Commercial Bank of Syria.
As a result, the transfer of U.S. dollars to and from Syria
has become difficult, making investments that much more
challenging to execute. Therefore, since the end of 2006, a
number of U.S. corporations, notably in the oil and gas
sector, made the decision to divest and cease their
activities in Syria.

Syrian officials and ministers routinely stress publicly
the need for economic reform in order to attract foreign
direct investment and thus stimulate economic growth and
increase employment. Announced liberalizations are often
rescinded or contradicted by other government officials,
however, sometimes at the expense of private companies that
have made business decisions based on government
commitments subsequently annulled. Although a bloated
bureaucracy, rampant corruption, and the lack of an
independent judiciary are still significant impediments to
business, in 2009 the Syrian Arab Republic Government
(SARG) did issue new laws in the fields of investment,
tourism, shipping, arbitration, intellectual property
rights (IPR), banking and finance, real estate, and trade
that continue its slow and halting effort to reform the
countryQs economy. Continued political instability in
Syria's neighboring countries, however, as well as the
international financial crisis, discouraged significant
foreign investment.

Investment Law No. 10 (1991) and its amending Decree No. 7
(2000) were the SARG's initial attempts to stimulate
foreign direct investment in Syria; unfortunately, the
Higher Council for Investment's (HCI) lack of definitive
criteria for adjudicating foreign applications left the
process open to political pressures, lobbying and
corruption. This first attempt at reform brought long
delays and was seriously lacking in many areas.
Consequently, due to poor implementation, Investment Law
No. 10 fell short of its goal of making Syria a more
attractive investment venue.

To address the shortcomings of Investment Law No. 10 and
its amending Decree No. 7, the SARG announced Decrees Nos.
8 and 9 in January 2007, which resulted in a dramatic
year-on-year increase in the number of HCI-approved
projects. Decree 8 allows preexisting investment licenses
(under Law 10 and Decree 7) to continue unchanged.

Decree No. 8 is designed to enable investors, whether
Syrians, Arabs, or foreigners, to own or lease the land
required for their projects, and provides for free
repatriation of profits, dividends and invested capital on
condition that all tax liabilities have been met. If a
foreign investor encounters obstacles in setting up a
project, and decides to withdraw within six months of
receiving a license, all capital invested up to that point
may be freely repatriated. Foreign staff will be entitled
to repatriate up to 50 percent of their net income and 100
percent of any end-of-service benefits. Additionally,
Decree 8 exempts investors from paying customs duties on
equipment imported to set up their projects, but they are
liable to standard corporation taxes which fall under the
jurisdiction of the 2006 Tax Law. However, investors are
eligible for tax deductions if they choose to establish
their projects in one of SyriaQs industrial zones. Decree
No. 8 offers additional tax deductions for projects that
create a high number of new jobs, as well as projects with
many shareholders.

To encourage investments in the underdeveloped eastern
region of the country, namely in al-Hasakeh, Dayr al-Zur
and al-Raqqa, the SARG passed a law in September 2009
exempting investment projects located in those regions from
taxes and fees for a period of ten years, provided the
projects were licensed before December 31, 2012. Projects
licensed after this date would not benefit from the tax

Most sectors are open for private investment under
Investment Law 10, Decree 7, and Decree 8 except for cotton
ginning, water bottling, and cigarette production. All
investment laws and decrees cover projects in the fields of
manufacturing, transport, agriculture, electricity, health
and services. Tourism and real estate investments are
covered by separate legal and tax frameworks and governed
by the Ministry of Tourism. Oil and gas projects and salt
mining must be coordinated directly through the Ministry of
Petroleum. The Ministry of Finance governs the
establishment of private banks and insurance companies and
the Ministries of Education and Higher Education govern the
establishment of private schools and universities.

As a corollary to Decree 8, the SARG also passed Decree 9
of 2007 stipulating the formation of the Damascus-based
Syrian Investment Agency (SIA). The Higher Council for
Investment (HCI) meets only twice per year to review
general investment policies, but has delegated operational
decision-making to the SIA. The SIA, under the auspices of
the Prime Minister's office, has the overall responsibility
for supervising national investment policies, developing
and enhancing the investment environment in Syria,
providing data and statistics to investors, approving
projects and annulling licenses for those projects not
implemented within the required timeframe. To facilitate
investment and overcome bureaucracy, SIA opened branches in
several major Syrian cities and plans to open additional
branches to cover the whole country by the end of 2010.

Decree 9 also charged SIA with providing one-stop-shopping
service to potential investors in order to speed the
processing of investment applications and help reduce
bureaucratic hurdles. SIA officially inaugurated its
One-Stop-Shop in early December 2008. As part of its menu
of services, the One-Stop-Shop offers an "Investment Map"
of Syria that was produced with the assistance of the
United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The map
reportedly provides detailed information pertaining to laws
and regulations governing investment in Syria, as well as a
list of established investment projects and continuing
investment opportunities. The map was launched online and
is available in English, French and German. SIA plans to
translate the investment map into 12 other foreign
languages during the coming year to better promote
investment. Furthermore, SIA representatives have been
appointed in every Syrian embassy abroad to showcase Syria
to potential investors.

The SIA is supposed to meet at least bi-weekly to reduce
the review process time to two weeks from application to
decision. The SIA board members are appointed by the Prime
Minister and include a Chairman, Director General, Deputy
Director General, Deputy Ministers of Finance, Local
Administration and Environment, Economy and Trade,
Agriculture, Transport, Industry, Tourism, Social Affairs
and Labor, Housing and Construction, and the State Planning
Commission as well as a representative from each of the
Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Industry, the
Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Commerce, the
Federation of the Syrian Chambers of Agriculture, and the
Federation of the Syrian Chamber of Shipping, the Director
of Legal Affairs at SIA, the Director of the One-Stop-Shop,
and SIA's Director of Marketing.

According to Decree 9, HCI members include the Prime
Minister, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs,
Ministers of Finance, Local Administration and Environment,
Tourism, Agriculture, Social Affairs and Labor, Economy and
Trade, Housing and Construction, Transport, and Industry,
the Head of the State Planning Commission, as well as the
Chairman of the SIA and its Director General.

Despite the government's recognition of the need to change
Syria's investment climate, both foreign and local business
leaders continue to cite three main obstacles to growth in
investment. First, the banking sector remains inadequate to
meet the financing needs of not only multinational
corporations, but also local enterprises. Second, the lack
of rule of law makes contractual obligations inherently
uncertain and potentially impossible to enforce. Finally,
the lack of regulatory transparency and specificity,
particularly when dealing with government-affiliated
entities, leads to a climate of bureaucracy, confusion,
intimidation, and corruption.

Foreign investors are often hampered by a lack of awareness
throughout the tendering process and complain that winning
bids are often based more on contacts and relationships
than the actual merits of a proposal. Certain ministers in
the government have acknowledged this problem within the
last few years and have tried unsuccessfully to address it.
Similarly, in the judicial system, judgments are subject to
external pressures that make it difficult for businesses to
ensure that contracts are binding.

Although government officials had previously stated that no
privatization of state enterprises will take place during
the current Five-Year Plan, which runs through 2010, in
2007 the SARG awarded a contract to a Philippines-based
company to develop and run the small container terminal in
the Port of Tartous. Similarly, in 2008, the SARG awarded a
contract to a French-Syrian consortium to operate the
container terminal at the Port of Latakia. The tendering
process was typically opaque and the winning French company
may have benefited from having an influential Syrian
partner and an improving political relationship between
Syria and France.

Despite recent legislative attempts at reform, the economy
remains centrally planned, and uncompetitive public-sector
companies continue to drain government finances. While
government officials publicly reject the notion of
privatizing state enterprises on ideological grounds, such
positions likely reflect their unstated pragmatic fears of
a dramatic increase in unemployment.

However, realizing the need for foreign investment in large
infrastructure projects, the Deputy Prime Minister for
Economic Affairs, Abdullah al-Dardari, in cooperation with
The British Syrian Society, organized a two-day conference
in late 2009 to promote Public-Private Partnership (PPP).
The concerned authorities are currently preparing a draft
law to pave the way for such projects, especially in the
electricity, transport and petroleum and gas sectors.

In addition to the challenges mentioned above, business
contacts highlighted the following specific difficulties of
doing business in Syria:

- The SARG requires import licenses for every item
imported, except for raw materials and items imported from
Turkey and the GAFTA (Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement)
countries. Likewise, foreign companies must acquire permits
for each item of equipment intended for temporary use and
subsequent re-export (i.e. drilling rigs) to avoid paying
import duties. The validity of these permits can be
difficult to extend if the companyQs service contract
expires and the company wishes to keep the equipment in the
country for stand-by usage. Delays in the re-export of
equipment after a temporary permit expires have resulted in
heavy fines.

- Syrian corporate, income, and wage tax liabilities for
foreign contractors have been unclear for quite some time,
and they continue to complicate the operations of many

- The awarding of contracts is often delayed by the
lobbying efforts of influential local business interests
and groups. Even in cases devoid of external influence,
bureaucrats fear accusations of corruption and abuse, and
therefore often require additional reviews of investment
proposals that are not mandated by law and that
inordinately delay projects. The SARG has reiterated its
commitment to increasing the degree of transparency in the
process, but foreign and Syrian firms continue to cite

- Public-sector employees may demand bribes for required
routine services. The average public-sector employee earns
wages estimated at USD 215 per month. Public-sector wages
have not kept up with rising inflation so many public
employees have turned to petty corruption to make ends
meet. In addition, labor laws are complex and significantly
limit an employer's flexibility to hire and fire employees.

- Syrian property law - at least since the BaQathists took
power in the early 1960s - has been tenant-friendly, which
made it difficult for landlords to lease residential
properties, negotiate rent rates and evict problem tenants.
In addition, at the end of 2004, the government implemented
an 18 percent tax on any real estate leased for use by
foreign persons or entities. In 2005, however, the SARG
began implementing a residential rent law passed in 2000
that affords landlords greater rights and protections.

In 2006, the SARG issued a law permitting commercial real
estate owners to lease their properties according to
contract terms. The law allows the real estate owners to
reclaim their properties after the contractQs term of
validity has expired. In addition, foreign investors in
real estate and the tourism sector have been able to take
advantage of decisions of the Higher Council of Tourism
that provide foreign landlords with exemptions from labor
and tenant laws.

In June 2008, the SARG issued Law 11 regulating property
ownership by non-Syrians. The law's objective is to
facilitate foreign ownership of residential property as a
means of stimulating greater overall foreign investment.
Law 11 was followed quickly by Law 15 in July 2008, which
established a Real Estate Development and Investment
Authority specifically empowered to encourage investment in
the real estate sector. Despite these steps, foreign
individuals and companies are allowed to rent offices and
residences for a maximum period of 15 years, which is not

In September 2008, the SARG passed Decree 9 in an attempt
to curb illegal housing. The Decree applied to any new
construction of illegal housing (but not existing housing)
and listed a set of penalties that included prison terms
from three months to ten years as well as fines of USD
4,000 to USD 87,000.

In December 2008, the SARG passed Law No. 33 authorizing
the granting of title/deeds to owners of existing illegal
housing units. The registration process took place at
special councils established by the law that were entrusted
with the task of confirming the property deeds.
Beneficiaries had to pay 10 percent of the unitQs estimated
value to the Treasury as property tax.

To better regulate the real estate sector, the SARG passed
Law No. 39 in late December 2009 establishing a Mortgage
Finance Supervisory Authority (MFSA). Starting in 2010, the
MFSA will be responsible for issuing all mortgage finance
related legislations and regulations including standard
contracts, licensing instructions to mortgage companies and
funds, as well as the set-up of a national mortgage entity.
Law 39 imposes penalties on mortgage firms that violate the
existing regulations.

- Enforcement of the Arab League Boycott of Israel (dating
from 1967) may lead to difficulties in the importation of
needed products or in registering trademarks because the
government requires additional paperwork certifying
compliance with the boycott. U.S. law prohibits companies
from providing this paperwork. Anecdotal reports indicate
the SARG has occasionally waived its requirement for
boycott compliance certification in order to facilitate
business with large U.S. companies. As of September 2009,
the Syrian Trademark Office is no longer asking foreign
companies to fill out an application declaring their
compliance with the Arab League Boycott of Israel.

Transparency International Corruption IndexQ126
Heritage Economic Freedom IndexQQQ141
World Bank Doing Business IndexQQQ138

Conversion and Transfer Policies

Under the guidelines of the USAPATRIOT Act, the President
has designated the Commercial Bank of Syria (CBS) as an
institution of primary money-laundering concern.
Consequently, the Secretary of the Treasury issued a
decision on March 9, 2006 banning correspondent relations
between the Commercial Bank of Syria and U.S. financial
institutions. Although the U.S. Treasury sanction only
targets CBS, many U.S. and European banks subsequently cut
off correspondent banking relationships with all
Syria-based financial institutions.

In March 2001, the SARG passed Law No. 28, which authorized
the establishment of private and joint-venture banks. The
law made general provisions for the operation of private
banks and set a minimum Syrian ownership requirement of 51
percent. At the same time, a banking secrecy law was also
issued that authorizes numbered accounts and restricts
asset seizures. To date, eleven private traditional banks
are operating in the country and are generally able to
carry out the same banking operations that are permissible
to the Commercial Bank of Syria. In May 2005, a
Presidential decree (Decree 35) allowed the establishment
of Islamic banks in the country with a minimum of 51
percent Syrian ownership. At present, two Islamic banks are
operating in the country while the third, al-Baraka Islamic
Bank, is scheduled to begin operations during the second
quarter of 2010.

In early January 2010, the SARG passed Law No. 3 amending
some articles of Law No. 28 of 2001 and Decree 35 of 2005.
Law 3 stipulates an increase in the capital of private
banks from USD 60 million to USD 200 million and of Islamic
banks from USD 100 million to USD 300 million. Law 3 also
increased allowable foreign ownership of private banks from
49 percent to 60 percent. Law 3 gives licensed banks
operating in Syria a period of three years to increase
their capital to the required minimum.

Under current Syrian laws, investors are permitted to open
foreign exchange accounts with CBS, the Real Estate Bank
and the eleven existing private banks, and may retain 100
percent of their export revenues. Decree 8 allows the
repatriation only through Syrian banks of foreign currency
profits generated from the import of capital into the

Newly opened private banks can provide the same level of
banking services as CBS and Real Estate Bank, including
opening saving/checking accounts and issuing Letters of
Credit (L/Cs), provided the money originates from outside
the country. In some limited instances, private banks are
allowed to issue U.S. dollar-denominated L/Cs backed by
Syrian pounds.

In 2006, the government allowed private investors to have
access to foreign currency through CBS to finance the
import of raw materials. In 2007, the SARG authorized
foreign investors to receive loans and other credit
instruments from foreign banks, and to repay them as well
as any accrued interest from the proceeds of their projects
using local banks. In February 2008, the SARG permitted
investors to receive loans in foreign currencies from local
private banks provided that the loans are used to finance
capital investment, particularly the import of machinery
and production equipment. Debtors are free to repay their
loans from their foreign currency accounts in Syria or
abroad or by purchasing foreign currency from the lending

To boost investment in the tourism sector, the SARG allowed
local banks to provide financing to hospitality projects
developed on the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) model. Local
banks can now fund up to 50 percent of the cost of the
project and repayment will begin after the project enters
into operation.

Aside from the loosening of controls under the previous
Investment Law No. 10, Decree No. 7, and Decree 8, strict
foreign exchange restrictions were enforced until mid-2003.
Even though relatively recent legal changes permit the
possession of foreign currency, overseas borrowing and the
export of capital still require the approval of the Central
Bank. These restrictions, however, are often disregarded.
Foreign companies operating under the provisions of other
laws may transfer capital inside Syria only in accordance
with special agreements, usually in the form of a
Presidential decree. The SARG passed Law 24 in April 2006
which permits the operation of private money exchange
companies, provided such operations are licensed. To date,
there are ten currency exchange companies and 12 currency
exchange offices operating in Syria, although many more
continue to operate illegally on Syria's vast black market.

Outward capital and profit transfers are permitted to
companies licensed under Decree 8. Otherwise, they are
prohibited unless approved by the Prime Minister or
arranged separately, as in the case of production-sharing
agreements with oil exploration companies. Decree 8 allows
free repatriation of profits, dividends and invested
capital, on condition that all tax liabilities have been
met. In addition, if a foreign investor encounters
obstacles in setting up a project, and decides to withdraw
within six months of receiving a license, all capital
invested up to that point can be freely repatriated.
Foreign staff will be entitled to repatriate up to 50
percent of their net salaries, and 100 percent of any
end-of-service benefits.

In a bid to liberalize the Syrian Pound and to loosen
restrictions on hard currency outflows, in July 2009 the
SARG permitted local banks to open accounts for clients to
use for their international debit cards. These accounts may
hold a maximum of USD 10,000 or its equivalent in Syrian
Pounds or any other foreign currency. The holders of these
accounts will be able to withdraw up to USD 10,000 per
month while travelling abroad.

In the case of foreign oil companies, "cost recovery" of
exploration and development expenditure is governed by
formulas specifically negotiated in the applicable
production sharing agreement. Foreign oil partners in
production-sharing joint ventures with the state oil
company report delays in the recognition of "cost recovery"
claims, although payments are eventually approved.

In February 2007, the President issued Decree 15 permitting
the establishment of financial, banking and social
institutions that provide micro-financing and insurance to
small investment projects. These institutions target
clients in the suburbs and rural areas, and are expected to
provide loans as small as $100. Anyone with the required
minimum capital of $5 million may open such an institution,
though foreigners must first obtain approval from the Prime
Minister. The First Microfinance Bank (FMB), as the bank is
named, started operations in November 2008.

Expropriation and Compensation

The main period of the expropriation of private property
occurred from 1964 to 1966, after the BaQath Party seized
power on March 8, 1963. During this period, as well as in
the late 1950s after SyriaQs brief union with Egypt, the
government nationalized many private farms and factories
without paying any compensation. To the best of the EmbassyQ
s knowledge, no one has been compensated for the material
losses that occurred as a result of nationalization,
although we have heard anecdotal accounts that there were
some offers of derisory sums for compensation that
landowners rejected out of hand. Between 1967 and 1986
there were fewer cases of expropriation because the
government had already seized the most valuable properties.
The Embassy does not have any knowledge of private property
nationalized after 1986.

Investment laws enacted in 1985-86 for specific sectors,
i.e. tourism and agriculture, included clauses that
protected against expropriation and nationalization. Decree
7 of 2000 explicitly stated that projects licensed under
Investment Law No. 10 could not be nationalized or
expropriated. Likewise, Decree 8 of 2007 explicitly states
that projects could not be nationalized or expropriated.
Decree 8 opened many sectors to private investment
including petroleum refining, electricity generation,
cement production, sugar refining, infrastructure, air
transportation, environment, and services. Projects in the
fields of oil and gas production, private schools and
universities, banking and insurance, and tourism and real
estate continue to be regulated under separate, specific

In late 2008, the SARG authorized the private sector to
invest in salt extraction and mining projects subject to
licensing by the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral
Resources. In late 2009, the SARG issued legislation
governing the private extraction and investment of
quarries. The law allows companies which obtain the
required licenses to invest in a quarry for a period of
three years, extendable. The law also permits the
formation of partnerships between the private and the
public sectors to operate in areas that were previously
restricted to the public sector.

Despite these protections, the rule of law is weak in Syria
and the SARG does occasionally seize the property and
business interests of political opponents and officials who
have fallen out of favor. In early 2006, alleging corrupt
practices, the SARG confiscated all residential, commercial
and business assets of former Vice President Abdul Halim
Khaddam, his wife, and all other members of his family,
including his children, their spouses and their children.
In early 2008, the Ministry of Finance seized the assets of
the board members of al-Nama' Company due to corruption and
for providing misleading information.

Dispute Settlement

On June 8, 2005, Syria signed the Washington International
Convention on Investment Dispute Settlement. In addition,
as a party to the New York Convention on Arbitration, the
SARG accepts binding international arbitration of disputes
between foreign investors and the state in cases where the
investment agreement or contract includes such a clause.
Otherwise, local courts have jurisdiction. Arbitration
cases involving the public sector must be tried by the
State Council, which attempts to ensure the integrity of
the process; however, they have no authority to enforce
their decisions.

In March 2008, the SARG issued the countryQs first
arbitration law. Law 4 authorized the establishment of an
official arbitration center in Syria, which was registered
with the Ministry of Justice and included a registry of
accredited arbitrators. According to the law, public-sector
entities were permitted to resolve disputes through
arbitration. In December 2009, Syria launched its first
economic arbitration center the "Hammurabi Arbitration and
Reconciliation Center," for the protection of local, Arab
and foreign investments in the country. According to the
SIA, 11 new centers are expected to open shortly after
applicants obtain the necessary licenses from the Ministry
of Justice.

A number of U.S. suppliers and companies have asserted
claims against state enterprises for non-payment of goods
and services delivered. The government has made an effort
since 1996 to settle some of these cases on a case-by-case
basis and one American supplier finally received payment in
2002 for goods delivered in 1982. Long delays are common in
settling disputes through negotiation and arbitration. In
the past several years, fewer investment disputes have been
filed or brought to the EmbassyQs attention as U.S.
business activity in Syria has decreased steadily over that

While property and contractual rights are protected on
paper, the government regularly interferes in the judicial
process. Judgments by foreign courts are generally accepted
only if the verdict favors the Syrian government. Although
an official bankruptcy law exists, it is not applied fairly
because a creditor's ability to salvage any investment is
contingent on the amount of influence he can exert and not
on the letter of the law. Monetary judgments, if granted,
are made in local currency and cannot be converted to hard

Performance Requirements and Incentives

Investment Law No. 10 and its amendment, Decree No. 7, did
not stipulate formal performance requirements as a
condition for establishing, maintaining, or expanding an
investment or for determining eligibility for tax and other
incentives. Decree No. 8, however, raised the minimum
investment capital from USD 200,000 to USD 1,000,000 if the
investment projects are located in greater Damascus,
Aleppo, Homs, Latakia, Tartus or Hama and to USD 600,000 if
the projects are located in the rural areas of Dayr al-Zur,
al-Hasakeh, al-Raqqa, Dar'a, Quneitra, Idleb, or Sweida.
Furthermore, Decree 8 offered tax deductions if investors
chose to locate their projects in one of SyriaQs industrial
zones, for high job-creation projects, and for
share-holding projects.

To encourage investments in the least developed eastern
region of the country, namely in al-Hasakeh, Dayr al-Zur,
and al-Raqqa the SARG passed a law in September 2009
exempting investment projects located in those regions from
taxes and fees for a period of ten years, provided the
projects were licensed before December 31, 2012. Projects
licensed after this date would not benefit

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