Crushed by war, Syrian tourism eyes expat uptick

A visitor uses a mobile phone as she walks at Al Azem Palace in Damascus, Syria July 31, 2022. (REUTERS)
A visitor uses a mobile phone as she walks at Al Azem Palace in Damascus, Syria July 31, 2022. (REUTERS)
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Updated 10 August 2022

Crushed by war, Syrian tourism eyes expat uptick

A visitor uses a mobile phone as she walks at Al Azem Palace in Damascus, Syria July 31, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • Foreign visitors to Syria today come mostly from countries that have good relations with President Bashar al-Assad's government
  • Syria's economy is in dire straits, hurt by factors including a precipitous decline in the currency's value since 2019, prompted by neighbouring Lebanon's financial collapse

DAMASCUS: Somar Hazim had high hopes when he opened a hotel in Damascus in 2009, adding to a growing number of boutique guest houses in the Old City that were proving to be a hit with tourists, before war broke out and forced him to close down.
Although security returned to Damascus years ago, big-spending foreign visitors have not, with Syria still fractured by war.
Hazim has no plans to reopen his Beit Rose Hotel, an 18th century house with rooms set around a picturesque courtyard, a decision that reflects the weakness of tourism and the wider economy of a country suffering from 11 years of conflict.




People sit at a rooftop lounge in Damascus, Syria August 3, 2022. (REUTERS)

“The number of foreign tourists in Syria — as they were before 2011 ... are still few,” said Hazim, smoking a water pipe at a cafe he owns in another old Damascene house. But he sees a glimmer of hope: more Syrian expats are visiting.
At its peak in 2010, Syria attracted 10 million tourists, many of them Westerners. That all changed in 2011 with the onset of the war that has killed at least 350,000 people and uprooted half the population, forcing millions abroad as refugees.
Foreign visitors to Syria today come mostly from countries that have good relations with President Bashar Assad’s government. They include Iraqis, Lebanese and Iranians on pilgrimage to sites revered by Shiite Muslims.




A man and a woman play backgammon at Somar Hazim's cafe in Damascus, Syria July 31, 2022. (REUTERS)

Visitor numbers rose to 750,000 in the first half of 2022 from 570,000 in the same period of 2021, Tourism Minister Mohammed Rami Martini told Reuters, attributing the rise to the easing of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
He expects visitor numbers this year to recover to levels last seen in 2018 and 2019.
“We have close to 100,000 Iraqis, and there are Lebanese and others from friendly states. But the biggest number are the expatriates,” he said, describing this as a boost to the economy because they spend amounts similar to foreign tourists.
Syria’s economy is in dire straits, hurt by factors including a precipitous decline in the currency’s value since 2019, prompted by neighboring Lebanon’s financial collapse.




Sami Alkodaimi, a Syrian expatriate who lives in Saudi Arabia, uses his laptop at his home in Damascus, Syria August 6, 2022. (REUTERS)

Subsidies on essential goods have been gradually lifted, with prices of items such as fuel rising to unprecedented levels.
Although the currency’s collapse has boosted the purchasing power of expatriates visiting with wads of foreign currency, the gaps in some basic provisions has been frustrating.
Sami Alkodaimi, a Syrian expatriate who lives in Saudi Arabia, stayed away from the country from 2011 to 2019, during the peak of the country’s conflict.
In Syria this summer, Alkodaimi said he felt less hope during this visit, noting higher prices, fuel shortages, and poor electricity provision in the heat of summer.
“I came in my car from Riyadh. The gasoline issue is very annoying. We are trying to obtain it, but with difficulty,” he said.


Kuwaiti-funded schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon start their 10th academic year

Kuwaiti-funded schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon start their 10th academic year
Updated 12 sec ago

Kuwaiti-funded schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon start their 10th academic year

Kuwaiti-funded schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon start their 10th academic year
  • The pupils thanked the authorities and people of Kuwait for their assistance, which is enabling them to continue their education

BEIRUT: The 10th academic year has started at 12 charity-run schools for Syrian refugees in North Lebanon that were established and are funded by Kuwait.
The pupils thanked the Kuwaiti authorities and people for their assistance, which is enabling them to continue their education, the Kuwait News Agency reported on Wednesday.
It came as a delegation that included representatives of the International Islamic Charitable Organization, the Kuwaiti Society for Humanitarian Excellence, the Islamic Development Bank, and the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development visited the schools and reviewed their needs.
The news agency said the pupils organized receptions for the delegates, during which they presented various educational activities.
Khalid Al-Subaihi, chairperson of the Society for Humanitarian Excellence, told the agency that the schools cater to more than 9,000 students and are model examples of what charitable work can achieve. He noted that the grades achieved by pupils at the schools are higher on average than those achieved by their peers in mainstream schools in Northern Lebanon.
He also pointed out that the education of students facing dire situations and with great needs, such as refugees, requires much greater effort than teaching youths in normal circumstances.
Hamid Al-Rifai, a board member of the Excellence Society, said: “We realized the difficulties in teaching these refugees and guiding the teachers 10 years ago, when we started to build the schools with contributions from Kuwaiti philanthropists. We solved the problems facing the learning process and developed the teaching techniques to a higher level.”
Atiq Rafiq, director of the education department at UNICEF’s office in Lebanon, thanked Kuwait for the support it provides to refugees, especially in education.
“I am happy to see that these children are receiving education and attending schools,” he said.
Mohammed Al-Jawabra of the Islamic Solidarity Fund said: “Our visit to the schools reveals the strategic work that affects the life of the refugees, and the requirements and needs of the refugee students.”
He thanked charitable associations and organizations in Kuwait for their contributions and said his organization is proud of those who help in the fight against poverty and efforts to provide education.


Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel

Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel
Updated 53 min 30 sec ago

Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel

Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel
  • A career diplomat with decades of experience, Torunlar was Turkish Consul General in Jerusalem from 2010 until 2013

ANKARA: Turkey appointed Sakir Ozkan Torunlar as its new ambassador to Israel late on Wednesday following a mutual decision taken last month to restore full diplomatic ties, two Turkish foreign ministry officials said.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu briefed Torunlar on Wednesday night as part of the ministry’s new appointments abroad, the officials told Reuters.
A career diplomat with decades of experience, Torunlar was Turkish Consul General in Jerusalem from 2010 until 2013.
Israel has already named Irit Lillian as its next ambassador to Ankara.
Relations between Turkey and Israel have been rocky since 2011, when Ankara expelled Israel’s ambassador following a 2010 Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara aid ship to Gaza, which killed nine Turkish citizens.
The rift healed when full diplomatic relations were restored in 2016 and the two countries exchanged ambassadors.
Tensions escalated again in 2018 when Israeli forces killed a number of Palestinians who had taken part in the “March of Return” protests in the Gaza Strip.
Turkey recalled all diplomats and ordered Israeli envoys to leave the country.
The latest developments come five months after Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Ankara as part of his first visit to Turkey by an Israeli leader since 2008.


Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group

Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group
Updated 59 min 29 sec ago

Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group

Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group
  • Human Rights Watch demands international pressure to end regime violence

LONDON: New evidence shows that Iranian security forces continue to use lethal force against peaceful protesters around the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned.

Through videos captured by demonstrators and reporters, as well as interviews with witnesses and security officials, HRW uncovered evidence of the use of excessive and lethal force in more than a dozen cities around Iran.

Weapons including shotguns and assault rifles were deployed against protesters during the security response to the demonstrations, which began last month in the wake of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was killed by a mob after “improperly” wearing the hijab after President Ibrahim Raisi strengthened laws on the headdress.

Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “The Iranian authorities’ brutal response to protests across many cities indicates concerted action by the government to crush dissent with cruel disregard for life. The security forces’ widespread shooting of protesters only serves to fuel anger against a corrupt and autocratic government.

“People in Iran are protesting because they do not see the death of Mahsa Amini and the authorities’ crackdown as an isolated event, but rather the latest example of the government’s systematic repression of its own people.”

A 35-year-old woman from Sanandaj city told HRW: “We had gathered to chant when security forces on motorcycles came toward us.

“We ran toward the alley as they followed us and started throwing tear gas and some started shooting bullets. A man behind us was shot in the leg and fell on the ground. People dragged him into another alley and inside someone’s home. His wound was bleeding very heavily and was very deep.”

At least four videos reviewed by HRW show security forces using shotguns against crowds of protesters.

Another witness said: “Security forces ran toward a 13-year-old boy who was standing among the crowd.

“He was so delicate and small that he didn’t even resist. He was on the grass protecting his head while they were beating him. I yelled ‘Leave him alone!’ and walked towards them. They fired in the air and people started fleeing while they dragged the boy across the street.

“While I was running, I kept yelling ‘He is my brother!’, thinking that was going to provoke their mercy. I saw an officer turning, sitting down, and aiming at me. I saw the fire from his weapon. I got scared and ran away. I had a burning sensation until I got home and realized that I was hit in my chest.”

The human rights organization has gathered a list of 47 people who died during the violence as a result of lethal force, many having been shot.

However, HRW said that the true number of deaths is likely far higher than Iranian state media has reported. At the end of September, state television claimed that the death toll stood at about 60.


Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban
Updated 06 October 2022

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban
  • Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry
  • Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge on Thursday fined and issued a six-month travel ban to a woman who stormed her bank with a fake pistol and took her trapped savings to cover her sister’s cancer treatment.
Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency since 2019, tying up the savings of millions of people. About three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty as the tiny Mediterranean country’s economy continues to spiral. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.
Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch in Beirut with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry protest group, and stormed into the manager’s office. They forced bank employees to hand over $12,000 and the equivalent of about $1,000 in Lebanese pounds.
Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks.
Her lawyer, Ali Abbas, said that Hafiz turned herself in Wednesday night, and that the bank had pressed charges. Another sister involved in the heist was with Sali.
“The judge decided to let them go on a bail of 1 million pounds each, and a six-month travel ban,” Abbas said in a phone interview from the Justice Palace.
One million Lebanese pounds was once worth over $666, but has since devalued to $25.
Following the incident last month, the Depositors’ Outcry had vowed to support more bank raids, and about a dozen of similar incidents have since occurred.
On Wednesday, Lebanese lawmaker Cynthia Zarazir staged a sit-in at her bank branch with a lawyer, demanding to withdraw $8,500 to cover expenses for a surgery.
These developments have rocked the Lebanese banks, who say they have been unjustly targeted for tiny Mediterranean country’s fiscal crisis. The Association of Banks in Lebanon temporarily closed for a week, before partially reopening last week, citing security concerns.
Lebanon for over two years has been struggling to implement a series of reforms to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program and make its battered economy viable again.


Iran state TV airs footage of French couple accused of spying

Iran state TV airs footage of French couple accused of spying
Updated 23 min 31 sec ago

Iran state TV airs footage of French couple accused of spying

Iran state TV airs footage of French couple accused of spying
  • Iran’s intelligence ministry said in May it had arrested two Europeans for allegedly fomenting “insecurity” in Iran
  • France has condemned and demanded immediate release of Cecile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris

DUBAI: Iranian state television aired a video on Thursday in which two French citizens detained for “spying” in Iran in May appeared to confess to acting on behalf of a French security service, amid weeks of unrest that Tehran has linked to foreign foes.
France’s Foreign Ministry accused Iran of the practices of the “worst dictatorial regimes” over the video confessions and categorically denied that the two were members of the French intelligence services.
Iran’s intelligence ministry said in May it had arrested two Europeans for allegedly fomenting “insecurity” in Iran. France has condemned and demanded immediate release of Cecile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris.
“I am Cecile Kohler, I am an intelligence and operations agent at the DGSE (Directorate General for External Security) ... We were in Iran to prepare the ground for the revolution and the overthrow of the regime of Islamic Iran,” Kohler said in the video, while wearing a headscarf.
State TV said the two French citizens had entered Iran with “chunks of money ... which was meant to fund strikes and demonstrations.”
“Our goal at the French security service is to pressure the government of Iran,” said Paris in the video.
In May, state TV aired a video of the couple saying they traveled to Iran as tourists “but they took part in anti-government protests and met members of the so-called Teachers’ Association,” referring to protests by Iranian teachers across the country demanding better wages and working conditions.
The “confession” coincides with weeks of anti-government protests in Iran over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody last month.
The nationwide protests have received wide international support, prompting Tehran to lash out at its critics by accusing the United States and Israel of exploiting the unrest to try to destabilize the Islamic Republic.