The Current Discussion: Australia is suffering from a drought of men - about 100,000 of them, most of whom have gone overseas to travel and work. China has the opposite problem - a shortage of women. Which is the more worrisome problem? Should we be worrying about a "depopulation bomb?"
When Syria declared its independence in 1946, an optimistic Prime Minister Jamil Mardam Bey famously declared:
"Syria has been subjected to more trial since the armistice (in 1918) than any other Near Eastern country. All is not lost, however, there is room for hope. The territory we have been left with, greater than the area covered by Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland put together, is a vast playing field for our young people and for their entrepreneurial spirit. The Syrian soil is fertile, we produce cereals, cotton, fruit. We have oil. Our artisans are some of the most ingenious in the world. Our people are sober, tough, resigned and hard-working. Syrians are found all over the world, and everywhere they occupy important positions. The past and the future are ours. We have every reason to believe that Syria will survive."
Mardam Bey never imagined that Syrians would start flocking out of Syria in large numbers as a result of the never-ending coups and counter-coups that shocked Damascus starting in 1949, and climaxed with the ill-fated Syrian-Egyptian Union of 1958. The only logical thing for an optimist like him was for Syrians to learn, live, work, and die in Syria. He never imagined that one day, during his life-time, major depopulation would start in Damascus.
Sixty-years later, in a 2006 meeting of a council made up of businessmen from Syria and the United Arab Emirates, a leading figure in economics from the UAE addressed his Syrian guests saying, "You ask us for advice on how to build your economy when our entire nation was built with Syrian hands! You need the advice of nobody, dear Syrians."
The UAE official was speaking of the thousands of Syrians who had emmigrated from Syria to the Gulf, seeking better jobs in the 1970s and 1980s. There is no doubt how important those workers were in creating the modern success stories of the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Yemen, and from the 1940s onwards, Saudi Arabia.
For many years, Syria suffered from major depopulation, when its best and brightest were forced to pack up and leave due to political upheavals taking place at home. In addition to the two world wars, Syrians stormed out of Syria during the Syrian Revolt of 1925, under Gamal Abdul-Nasser's United Arab Republic (UAR), during the early Baath years and throughout the difficult 1980s. Nasser was responsible for the police state created in Syria, and the destructive socialism that ruined the Syrian economy. He was responsible for the destruction of the civil, Westernized, and educated Syrian middle and upper class. He was responsible for land redistribution, nationalization of schools and banks, confiscation of property, martial law and arbitrary arrests. He was the first person ever to order the Syrian Post Office to conduct espionage on correspondence between Syrians and the outside world. He was the first person to monitor phone calls in Syria. Promising Syrian businessmen were forced to leave Syria to evade his socialist dragnet. They ended up establishing businesses and opening banks in Lebanon and throughout the Arab World, depriving Syria of their industrial, banking, and commercial services.
The situation changed after 2000 when many Syrians working or studying abroad, myself included, decided to return home to take part in nation-building. Reform was in the air, promised by a young president -- only 34 at the time -- who knew what problems Syrians were facing and what it took to get them to return. One of the reasons why a Ministry of Expatriate Affairs was created in 2002 was to reverse -- or control -- depopulation of Syria. According to the ministry, there are 18 million Syrians living in the Diaspora. Many of them are second and third generation Syrians. There are 700,000 Syrians in the United States and 18,000 Syrians working as practicing doctors in Germany. One wonders whether it would be better to get these Syrians to return home, or make the best out of them by keeping them at their respectable jobs in Europe and the U.S. The depopulation reversal of 2000 was aided by the horrific 9/11 attacks in 2001, which made many Syrians come back to Syria, no longer feeling comfortable or safe in the United States. Today, seven years later, I can safely look back at the situation. Briefly, depopulation was in fact reversed and thousands packed up and returned to Damascus. Bankers found employment at the private banks that mushroomed throughout Syria. Academics found jobs at the eight private universities that started in Syria. Young Syrians, trained in IT or finance, for example, came back to get lucrative jobs in the Syrian private sector.
The trend came to a grinding halt in 2005, when the future of Syria seemed in doubt, thanks to a stand-off with the United States after the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Harriri. The Syrian Accountability Act had scared away investors, meaning less money for ordinary Syrians, and a troubled relationship with Saudi Arabia put the brakes on Saudi money streaming into Syria. There was talk of war with Israel and regime-change in Syria, triggered by the Bush Administration. Depopulation started all over again, seemingly bringing the Syrians back to square one. All the hope that led so many bankers, academics, and young professionals to return home in 2000 vanished into thin air. George W. Bush was certainly worse than Gamal Abdul-Nasser.
Thing started changing again recently. The Syrians feel that President Bush, who they blame for turmoil of the years 2003-2008, has begun his long march into history. Many Syrians are unhappy with the slow pace of reforms since 2000. Some blame the government for biting off more than it could chew. Others claim that had it not been for regional turmoil, and the standoff with the United States, the state of reforms in Syria, would have been different. It all boils down to Syria's threat perception. When Syria thinks of threats, it looks towards countries like Russia or Iran. When it thinks of opportunities, economic reform, and change, it heads towards countries like Turkey, France, and Qatar. Only when the threat perception really changes, and when the Syrian government feels at ease, will it embark on a serious reform campaign. Only then will Syrians pack up and start coming back to live and work in Syria, thereby reversing depopulation.
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