What is the Syrian professional scene like? Here is a closer look at what happens within the sector; a critique by the article’s author as well as the interviewer who asked for anonymity.
Critiquing the Damascene business scene: An Inside look
The need for private-sector reform is most needed at this point in time
“Working here [in Syria] is close to working at a Falafel stall,” said the media expert I had dinner with a few days ago. As head of one of the most prominent institutions in Damascus, this foreign-educated young leader said he had a serious problem finding the proper manpower to employ.
“Most institutions here rely on the motto ‘everything goes,'” he said. “And unfortunately most employees adopt the same attitude,” he continued.
Throughout our discussion, we tackled several issues pertaining to improving the corporate culture here, which in many cases does not exist as a reality, only as a PR facade. In other words, there was a “lot of vision” when it came to Syrian corporations mushrooming around the different sectors. But when it came to adopting professional standards to run a business, many institutions here cared only about what gave them a good name. Breaking bread with them, however, would reveal a lot of “cut and paste,” poor attention to professionalism, and not much experience in running the show.
Corporate culture is also non existent in many institutions who considered “taking out employees for an iftar party during Ramadan” as a sure sign they had satisfied their share of building their corporate culture and identity. Codes of ethics in running a business are also very fluid and not much attention is grasped in instilling such codes in the mindsets of administration and subordinates alike.
An attempt to cut expenses without a real study of what successful budgeting is all about is also observed. Most importantly long-term planning does not seem to be employed in upraising employees, annual/5-year targets or plans for growth have no place in the upper management mindset, and “create-as-you-go” seems to be the norm in institutions that claim to be pioneering and “new.”
Such institutions will fail drastically if they were to build serious affiliations with Dubai-minded companies looking to expand in the Syrian market. Perhaps this failure will teach many that there are basics to adhere to when running a business, especially when it came to the successful observation of workable management models.
Syria is moving towards an “opener” market economy, through adopting a host of reformative processes geared towards changing the landscape of economy. Many policy-level efforts are being exerted to achieve this reality. But are these efforts trickling down to touch the very roots of existing companies?
The private-sector here operates on the World Bank-myth that considers it as an “active player” in changing the face of the economy. Inspecting several institutions around the country, one would be appalled by the level of professional conduct such institutions operate within. “To be an active player in changing economic realities, we need private-sector reform,” I told the aforementioned interviewee. “These institutions operate on public-sector mentality and have nothing to offer more than better looking ties, more posh cars, and prestigious events and functions.”
Syrian corporations, specifically in the private-sector, are actually benefiting from the classic negative image – the world has been advertising – haunting their “contender,” the public-sector. It is giving them an undeserved good image that appeals to any outsider who doesn’t know what’s going on inside them.
The hypothesis that the private-sector is a leader in change might be true in other parts of the world, but in Syria, the sector might pose a danger to the country’s economic future: “Private-sector advocates want to throw Syria into the lap of globalization, but they don’t have the fiantest idea of what it takes to play the game properly,” the expert said.
When it comes to the Syria-EU Association Agreement, a few are aware that they have no chance in competing with the EU once the agreement is signed. This, however, is not deterring the “open-minded and progressive-looking” camp from actually pushing a vibe towards signing the agreement at any expense.
“For a few shallow-minded young businessmen, any agreement of any kind makes for a good name for Syria. They calculate everything around values such as prestige, image, and short-term political gain. But on the long-run, getting stuck in commitments that require deep-rooted change needs a lot of attention to detail,” he said.
Acquiring ISO Certificates to help local products enter foreign markets are but the tip of the ice-berg. Corporate Social Responsibility, which in many cases is mistaken for philanthropy or image-building/marketing philanthropic stunts, is a serious matter that many are toying with, without understanding that CSR is a lot more complicated as a concept than skin-deep giveaways.
A closer look at the private-sector in Damascus will reveal administrative and managerial reforms are critically needed in both monitoring the sector, and in encouraging it to adopt sound professional strandards that go beyond the usually-employed PR stunts.
Syria and the WTO
Many figures in the Damascene private-sector are pro the admission of Syria into the World Trade Organization (WTO). To them this move will be crucial in liberalizing the economy.
In deed, Syria, very recently, has won the observer status at the WTO after the US dropped its opposition to the move.
But what is lacking in this enthusiasm towards propelling the country towards an opener economy is the “details.” Without adopting “professional methodology” to realize their vision for more openness and growth, Syrian institutions will be devoured by multi-national companies looking to expand their activities in Syria when the economy is open and liberalized.
Although many Syrian businesses are still far-removed from the notion of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) – a WTO must-have – one would expect “visionaries” in the private sector to adopt measures inside their institutions to protect them from the advent of WTO provisions that prohibit IPR trespasses. Instead, you would find a lot of effort exerted towards adopting the “form” without the “content” of new trends, such as entrepreneurship.
In a new contest to award “Syrian entrepreneurs” with “novel ideas,” a project with a poor conceptual rationale won the award, under the glamorous use-of-the-word, “entrepreneurship.” However, when looking closer at the awarded project, one would observe it was in great breech with recognized IPR laws. Those might not be adopted as of yet in the country, but one day they will be.
The question is, when private-sector leaders say they are pro moving towards opening the market, what models of conduct are they employing? What work ethics? What actual change in their work environments are they advancing?
One day Syrian institutions will no longer be able to hide under their reputations. For now “everyone is doing the same thing,” so no one really cares when a google image is grabbed off the net to create a brochure, or a project is funded without much attention to labor and environmental laws. But one day the critic will be born when corporations with long-standing experience, vision and corporate culture enter the scene and propose new and well-thought-of (not cut-and-paste) ways of running a business.