Plummeting Syrian pound hits new black market low

A specialized website put the volatile exchange rate at 975 pounds to the dollar — more than double the official rate of 434 Syrian pounds. (AFP)
Updated 03 December 2019

Plummeting Syrian pound hits new black market low

  • The drop comes amid a spiraling liquidity crunch in neighboring Lebanon
  • A specialized website put the volatile rate at 975 pounds to the dollar — more than double the official rate of 434 Syrian pounds

DAMASCUS: The value of the Syrian pound on the black market sank to 1,000 to the dollar at some money changers Tuesday, marking a new record low for the nosediving currency.
The drop comes amid a spiraling liquidity crunch in neighboring Lebanon, which has long served as a conduit for foreign currency entering the heavily sanctioned government-held areas of Syria.
One currency exchange office in the Syrian capital Damascus said he was selling dollars on the black market for 1,000 pounds for the first time on Tuesday.
A specialized website put the volatile rate at 975 pounds to the dollar — more than double the official rate of 434 Syrian pounds posted by the central bank on its website.
At the start of the war in 2011, the rate stood at around 48 pounds to the dollar.
In the Old City of Damascus, a trader who preferred not to give his name said everything from food to transport had become more expensive in recent weeks.
“Prices have doubled in the past two months,” the trader said.
“Everybody prices their items according to the new dollar exchange rate” on the black market, he explained.
Syria analyst Samuel Ramani said the pound had fallen by 30 percent since anti-government protests erupted in Lebanon on October 17.
An economic downturn has accelerated since the protests started, and a liquidity crunch has become more acute in a country that has long served as an economic and financial lifeline for dollar-starved Syrian businesses.
As Western sanctions tightened on Syria during the war, many in the country have opened businesses in neighboring Lebanon, stashed their money in its banks and used the country as a conduit for imports.
But Lebanese banks started introducing controls on dollar withdrawals over the summer, straining the supply of the greenback to Syrian markets.
“Lebanese banks are significant for Syria’s economy as they give Syria back door access to the US dollar,” he said.
“Based on commentaries from Syrian businesspeople, it appears as if the economic crisis in Syria is even worse than that in Lebanon as a result of the protests,” Ramani said.
In another part of Damascus, a 30-year-old working in a shop selling computers and mobile phones imported from Lebanon said the store had to increase all prices.
“In the end this is going to be reflected in the market and most people won’t be able to pay according to the new prices,” the young salesman said.
“We fear further collapse,” he added.
Syria’s eight-year civil war has battered the country’s economy, and depleted its foreign currency reserves.
An array of international sanctions has targeted President Bashar Assad’s regime and associated businessmen since the start of the war in 2011.
Authorities estimate that since 2011, Syria’s key oil and gas sector has suffered some $74 billion in losses.
The United Nations estimates the conflict has caused some $400 billion in war-related destruction.
It has also killed 370,000 people and displaced millions more.

Frank Kane’s Davos diary: Swiss efficiency lapses, but so far Davos lives up to the cuckoo-clock image

Updated 22 January 2020

Frank Kane’s Davos diary: Swiss efficiency lapses, but so far Davos lives up to the cuckoo-clock image

Davos comes and Davos goes, but over the last five decades, the one thing you can rely on is Swiss efficiency, right? The trains run on time, the cuckoo clocks chime on the hour, and the snow is swept from the pathways within minutes of the first fake falling. That is the common (even cliched) view of the Alpine nation and its showpiece event, the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos.

But — and whisper it very gently beneath your breath — maybe the legendary standards of Swiss efficiency are slipping as the WEF celebrates its 50th birthday. Evidence of a lapse from the highest levels of attainment came at Zurich Airport, when the luggage belt seized up inexplicably, and a full 10 minutes elapsedbefore a maintenance man came to attend to it. Tut tut.

Further signs of falling standards were on display at the railway station. The booking desks were besieged, as usual, by WEF delegates keen to complete the final leg of their journey up the Magic Mountain — a two-hour rail journey involving two stops at increasingly higher altitudes.

But only two of the 10 grills were manned, and the line grew longer and more grumpy with each passing minute. The mood was not helped when some trains were canceled and an extra hour was added to the journey. There was much muttering and dark looks shot when the train finally pulled into Klosters.

But thankfully, once you got to the heart of WEF-land, normal service was resumed. There had been a reasonable fall of snow that morning, which gave the place its usual fairytale appearance, but no traffic snarl ups as in previous years, when massive snowfall had caused the place to grind to a halt.

The shuttle buses that are the arterial life-channels of Davos — for those whose budgets do not extend to the black Mercedes limo — were running with their usual Swiss punctuality: Every 10 minutes or so, or even more frequently during peak rush hours.

These, in my experience over the past few years, are becoming frequently extended. Having battled through the registration process and attended one event at the nearby Seehof hotel, I imagined it would be easy to catch a ride on a virtually empty shuttle back to Klosters at around 9.30 p.m. But even at that hour, there was a long queue of unhappy souls waiting to make the same 20-minute trip to the other side of the mountain and their warm, welcoming hotel rooms.

It was the same thing on the opening morning of the annual meeting. I left my hotel — the homely and comfortable Cresta in Klosters — at 7 a.m. in the dark, and at minus 5 degrees Celsius. Again, there was a crowd of people standing huddled at the shuttle stop, shivering and stamping their feet.

The WEF shuttle service was up to the job, however, and I got into the Congress Hall with little trouble. The airport-style screening process — maybe a little more thorough than usual in view of the impending arrival of US President Donald Trump — passed smoothly. One request though: Please WEF, install some hot-air machines in the security hall. The body shock when you remove outer clothing to pass through the metal detectors was wicked.

Then down to business, which for a journalist at Davos means finding somewhere in the congress complex where you can rest a laptop while also providing a good people-watching vantage point. Over the years, I have learned that the Central Lounge — strategically located between the main plenary meeting halls and the (private) members lounge and bilateral rooms — is the perfect spot. Now, who will come my way in Davos 2020?