Dardari: The Trojan Horse of Neoliberal Syria

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Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdallah Dardari waits before his meeting on 24 November 2008 with EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner at EU headquarters in Brussels. (Photo: AFP- Archive)

By: Ghadi Francis

Published Thursday, December 1, 2011

People who really know Syria inside out realize that Bashar Assad began to undermine his rule the moment he became president. His so-called reform freed the economy without renewing political life. The neoliberal suit had to fit the Baath straight jacket. Assad found the perfect man for the job, Abdallah Dardari.

The skillful highranking UNDP official had the international reputation, the ideological conviction, and the diplomatic know-how. The next ten years would be the Dardari era of the Syrian regime. The mastermind behind a decade of “economic reforms,” Dardari would rise to become deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, a close confidant of the president, and an ally of the man who built an economic empire on the shoulder’s of Dardari’s plan, Assad’s cousin Rami Makhlouf.

The plan transformed Syria’s economy and left many behind, especially the people of the countryside. Stripped of economic security, they had little to lose. The state, their former protector, had became their enemy.

This is why it was no coincidence that the countryside has been the heart of the Syrian uprising. Daraa, Dariya, al-Moadamiya, Doma, Harasta, al-Tell, Saqba, al-Rastan, Talbisa. Even the cities of Homs and Hama could be considered part of that rural region.

The economic malaise was enough to make these rural Syrians risk death in defiance of the regime. Many residents saw their well-to-do neighbors become richer while unemployment slowly crept into their homes.

The country’s agricultural and industrial sector that they relied on to survive was eaten up by a neo-liberal order sponsored by Assad and engineered by Dardari.

No Humble Beginnings

Dardari is a moderate but devout Muslim from Damascus, the son of an old and well-established family. His father was a hero of the 1973 October War, and his uncles are pillars of the Old City community in Damascus.

Dardari’s father worked as an adviser to the late-President Hafez Assad then joined the Arab League. As a child Dardari grew up between Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia.

He was educated with the sons of presidents, and he shook the hands of world leaders alongside his father. He was dispatched to London for his university education, where his economic ideas began to develop.

He started his career in the al-Hayat newspaper in London before moving on to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank. He went from supervising the UN offices in Syria to working as Bashar Assad’s close consultant.

Dardari quickly became the regime’s point man on restructuring the economy, and few – even the president – stood in his way.

He was the first to introduce and bolster the phenomenon of “civil society organizations” to Syria and the first to provide Michel Kilo and his opposition colleagues with shelter from Baathist retribution.

Dardari is a world-caliber civil servant, not fashioned in the Baathist model. He entered the government as an independent international correspondent, got past the Syrian bureaucracy, and overcame the barriers of family, sect, and party.

The Dardari Invisible Hand

From the moment Dardari took the helm, he began to implement parts of his sweeping economic plan.

In 2003, he popularized a convenient means for the regime to experiment with reform. He was given powers in Syria, and doors were opened for him to make change.

Dardari worked within the system and for nine years navigated its nuances, intricacies, and internal divisions. A few months after the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Dardari bowed out, escaping from the regime altogether, and returned to his former position as an employee of the UN.

After almost a decade of experience, Dardari had enough regional clout, and he landed the job of director at the UN Economic Development and Globalization Division in Beirut, where he is anticipated to have a big role in its upcoming forum on “Transition to Democracy” in January of 2012.

While in Syria, Dardari had played it clean and stayed aloof of corrupt dealings. He wanted to internationalize Syria’s economy by “liberalizing” it. He implemented the development strategies that he acquired at the UN.

Yet when the going got tough, Dardari decided not to risk weathering the storm. He acted quietly and left quietly, turning down a lucrative offer by Rami Makhlouf’s conglomerate Cham Holding.

But did Dardari’s mistakes and economic acrobatics burst open a social gap between the rich and the poor and clear the way for Western economic exploitation of Syria?

Today, Dardari says that he “is proud of his accomplishments that moved or at least attempted to move Syria towards development.”

Many who bore the brunt of his economic experiments counter that his development plundered the country and struck the heart of its economy.

Dardari’s plan was calculated, and it had an impact. His policies did in fact spark an investment boom, but not without painful side effects.

Syria increasingly became vulnerable to the global economy, while growth imbalances and income inequality multiplied. Cell phones and internet reached Suweida long before much-needed irrigation projects.

The banking, services, and tourism sectors in their current form are largely the result of a plan developed by Dardari over the years to liberalize the economy. Rami Makhlouf, who controls a massive share of the Syrian economy, is in many ways a manifestation of Dardari’s project.

When you reach the region of Sabboura near the Lebanese Syrian borders, the fruits of Arab investment welcome you to Dardari land.

When the countryside cries out in agony because of its desperate situation, that is just part and parcel of Dardari’s plan.

When angry voices of the people rise up because of the heating-oil crisis, that is Dardari’s plan in action. When the people of Syria’s breadbasket, Houran, recall the days of agriculture that are slowly approaching death, that too is a facet of Dardari’s plan.

A Dancer with the Wolves

Back in his new office in Beirut, Dardari is at ease, taking pride in his development plan and explaining his actions. He does not see why he is to blame if the Syrian regime did not carry out political reforms to match his economic ones.

He said he always told Assad that “economic liberation will not be complete without political liberation.” It was no coincidence that the man who recommended Dardari to Assad was no other than Nibras al-Fadel, the first close aide of Assad to turn against him and join the Syrian National Council.

Dardari dislikes opposition figure Qadri Jamil. His problem with the communists in the opposition is that they reject the Islamists. Marketing himself as an Islamist, he says that Syrian Islam is a Sufi variety and not dangerous, and in rejecting it, one could push the Islamists to extremism.

Even though he may have contributed to the Syrian crisis, Dardari does not shy away from using economic problems he likely helped create to justify his current anti-regime stance.

He said that the unequal distribution of jobs among Syria’s different communities can be attributed to favoritism among the security officers.

Sometimes, he blames himself for being a partner of the regime, and sometimes he is proud that he opened the country up to development. He arouses questions and speculation. In the ESCWA Palace, people exchange whispers in search of the role that this Syrian has come to fill, while in ruling circles in Syria, many whisper about Dardari’s responsibility for the crisis.

Dardari stood out in the last decade. He was a public relations man on the international level, coordinating with Turkey and European countries. German officials and powerful economic brokers consider him a symbol of reform.

From early on, he also played a central role in the new era known as the Damascus Spring. He championed modernization of the banking sector and the liberalization of Syrian commerce, removing obstacles to the free market.

His relationships and his ability to round the corners and convince others allowed him to emerge victorious over his rivals. Quarrels within the government over policy ended approval of Dardari’s theories. Nobody but him dared to raise the subject of opening the Syrian economy to the West in front of the inner circle of the Baath Party in 2003. And he convinced them.

“We used to say don’t bring Dardari to explain a project that we oppose, or else he will convince us,” a former minister said.

Whatever the verdict is about his shifting allegiances and his role in the Syrian crisis, Dardari played the bureaucratic game clean and came out on top.

He convinced everyone to get on board, then he hopped into a lifeboat and paddled safely to the UN. Today, Dardari thinks that the popular uprising in Syria is not sectarian, but it does have a sectarian flavor.

As for the resilience of the Syrian economy, the man who has memorized all of its ins and outs predicts that it can hold out for a long time. The sanctions will have an impact, but how bad will things get? “Are the other Arab countries capable of closing themselves off from Turkish transit in Syria?” Dardari asks.

Today, thanks to his new position, Dardari can speak about rebellion and say that he was one of the “first revolutionaries,” at least by his standards of revolution.

However, by reasonable standards, it is hard not to resent Dardari any less than Makhlouf and Assad. When all is said and done, Makhlouf is just a partisan tycoon, but Dardari is the one who made Makhlouf and his kind.

He too is from the ruling club of Bashar Assad. Long before the “conspiracy theory” that sprang from Deraa, another more sinister one had been brewing in the heart of the regime many years before. It was only a matter of time before it spread to the communal, regional, and international levels.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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