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Salad Becomes Syrian Luxury as Prices Surge in Wartime Economy

Syrian concierge Jameel Abdul-Razzak says he can no longer afford to buy cucumbers, tomatoes and lettuce for the daily salad his family is used to.

The price of some vegetables in Damascus has jumped fivefold since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March last year, according to official figures. Busing workers to the fields and transporting the produce to market has become risky and expensive. For people like Abdul-Razzak, who said in a phone interview he makes about $200 a month, that means changing spending habits.

Syrians across the country are being squeezed by inflation, as the violence makes food and other staples harder to obtain. Sanctions on oil sales have hurt Syria’s ability to earn foreign currency that can be used to buy imports. Gross domestic product is set to shrink 10.2 percent this year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, as growing numbers of people see their lifestyles pared to subsistence levels.

“This is a survival economy now,” said Ibrahim Saif, an economist who is a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “You give up on many things during times of crisis, you stop going to restaurants, you stop lending money.”

Agriculture Minister Subhi al-Abdullah urged Syrians to “plant whatever they can plant and raise whatever animals and poultry they can raise,” state-run newspaper Al-Thawra reported Sept. 24. He said Syria is “in a state of war and we should all pool our resources.”

Only Essentials

The economy alone probably won’t bring down the Assad government, said Ayesha Sabavala, an economist at the EIU.

“They’ve managed to go along with low foreign exchange reserves by reducing their imports and by getting only essential imports,” she said in a phone interview.

The EIU estimates that Syria’s currency reserves will shrink to $3 billion, equivalent to 4.2 months of imports, by the end of next year, from $19.5 billion at the end of 2010. The country is getting financial support from allies Russia and Iran, Sabavala said.

Cities and towns throughout Syria have been devastated by the conflict, especially the commercial hub Aleppo, scene of the most intense fighting in recent months as it was subjected to air and artillery bombardment.

More than 30,000 people have died nationwide, according to opposition groups. Syria’s Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi has estimated damage at 2 trillion Syrian pounds ($29 billion). That’s equal to about half of 2010 GDP, according to IMF estimates. Official inflation was above 36 percent in July.

Computer Repairs

The retreat from economic activity extends from big-ticket items down to basic groceries.

Auto dealer Samir Tarbeen said by phone from Damascus that he hasn’t made a sale in more than four months. “Banks have stopped lending and this made things worse for us,” he said.

About 30,000 cars were sold in the first half of this year, a drop from 103,000 a year earlier, according to the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.

“People aren’t even bringing their computers for repair as much as they used to,” never mind buying new ones, said Nour Assa, who has a technology store in the capital. “They want to keep their money for food and drinks.”

Abboud Mardini said customers in his shop are buying one-third of their usual quantities of pasta, sugar and canned food.

The government, which says the rebels are foreign-backed terrorists, has been urging the continuation of normal business life since early in the revolt.

‘Most Dangerous Thing’

“The most dangerous thing we will face is the weakness or the collapse of the Syrian economy,” Assad said in a June 2011 speech at Damascus University. “We should defeat the problem by returning to normal life.”

Recovery plans include boosting tourism and attracting investors from friendly countries such as China and Russia, Zuhair Ardarmouli, a top official at the Tourism Ministry, told Tishrin newspaper last month. Tourism income slumped by three-quarters from a year earlier to 12.8 billion pounds in the first quarter of 2012, Al-Thawra said.

One obstacle is the danger of traveling in much of the country. Roads have been blocked, taken over by rival factions or controlled by highwaymen, and the rail network has been attacked.

It’s the same problem that has hit farmers and a previously thriving agro-industry, which produced goods such as jams, pickles and canned vegetables, according to Carnegie’s Saif.

Many Syrians typically make their own preserves. Abdul-Razzak said his wife pickled only 10 kilograms of makdous, aubergine stuffed with walnuts and chilli, this year instead of her usual 30 kilograms, because of the high prices.

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