Heavyweight Arab investor (ART TV’s Saleh Kamel) backs investment in Syria, asks for more reforms

Heavyweight Arab investor backs investment in Syria

ART TV’s Saleh Kamel asks for more reforms


Heavyweight Arab investor Saleh Kamel (owner of ART satellite channels) asks for more reforms in Syria. This is an exclusive photo by Forward Magazine-Syria (captured by Nabil Nijem)

 Exclusive English text  – by Forward Magazine, Syria


Speaking at the 13th Arab Businessmen and Investors Conference this week in Damascus, Saudi businessman Saleh Kamel raised eyebrows with what was described as a sharp and courageous speech, dealing with investment, red-tape, and corruption in Syria.

Kamel, owner of the popular ART TV, CEO and founder of Dallah al-Baraka Group, addressed President Bashar al-Assad directly in his speech,  saying: “When you came to power, I was among the optimists regarding what lay in store for Syria – a brighter future in all domains, especially economics.” The reasons for this optimism, he noted, still firmly stand, calling, nevertheless, on President Assad to initiate “an Economic Correction Movement that demolishes bureaucracy and dismantles its complexities!”

While praising Assad’s vision and intellectual acumen, Kamel noted there were several malpractices taking place on a regular basis, obstructing the work of investors coming to do business in Syria – “obstacles to which Syria shies away from, and which your aids do not report, in fear of you and for you.”

Kamel made it clear that a heavyweight investor like himself faces no such obstacles, “since if they close the doors before me, I simply, walk in through open windows. What is required is simplifying procedure for ordinary investors!”

Such systematic change will not happen, he warned, “only by passing strict legislation and firm bylaws.” It needs a strong will from the helm of power in Syria that trickles throughout the political command, all the way down to grassroots Syrians, “employees, executives, observers, and ordinary citizens.” Kamel added, “We need to transfer your beliefs and desires to all of those mentioned above. It is high time that different branches of the state catch up with your grand aspirations!” He pointed out in order to move forward, one must not have a situation in which “one wheel is working, while the rest are rusty.”

Tourism industry in Syria: Lagging behind?

Kamel then spoke of the historic and cultural value of Syria, with all its “God-sent endowments and gifts, abilities and privileges.” Syria was a country, he added, “envied by ill-wishers and coveted by the good-willed.” Why then, he asked, “was it lagging behind neighboring Lebanon when it came to tourism? The two countries, after all, share the same eco-space, yet not the same success story, given Lebanon’s flourishing tourism industry.”

 “What is difficult here is to change the mentality of people, transforming them from bureaucrats into tourism-makers, efficient at smiling before incoming visitors at Damascus Airport.” A tourism culture and industry, he added, were no less important than beautiful landscape and historical sites.

 Saleh Kamel floats the idea of starting a $20m company in Syria

Kamel then said that he has been involved in start-up companies that hunt for opportunities in Saudi Arabia, Mali, Senegal, Uganda, and Sudan, worth $2 billion. From the pulpit of the Businessmen Conference, he sought permission to establish a similar company in Syria, with a capital of $20 million. He personally vowed to contribute 50% of the initial capital, along with partners from other Arab states, granted that “we find serious Syrian investors to cover the other half.” The objective of the new company, which he described as “Syria Opportunities” will be to find new investment opportunities in Syria, jumpstart pending or suffocating ones, and expanding existing successful companies. He wrapped up that he wouldn’t call such a project, “Adventure Capital” but rather, “Initiative Capital,” claiming that God created Man to construct the earth, “and construction only happens when there is initiative.” If there were adventure and risk in construction, he said, “Allah the All Aware would not have ordered us to do so!”

Saleh Kamel’s speech elicited strong applause from the conference audience, which has been estimated at 1,000 businessmen from Syria and the Arab world. The 13th Arab Businessmen and Investors Conference, held in Damascus on March 3-4, 2010 is organized by a variety of players including the Arab League and the Syrian Union of Chambers of Commerce. It is held under auspices of President Bashar al-Assad, who was represented at the event, by Prime Minister Mohammad Naji al-Otari.

* Text of Saleh Kamel’s speech was originally published in Arabic in the daily al-Watan, and translated into English with modification by Forward Magazine.

Syrian students banned from using supercomputer at KAUST University in Saudi Arabia

Syrian Students banned in KSA, Abdulsalam Haykal, Forward MagazineSyrian students denied academic access to IBM supercomputer at KAUST due to US sanctions

  • Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) honors US political restrictions over internationally-set academic freedoms and integrity

Damascus (October, 2009) –  The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), the new world-class research university in Saudi Arabia, has denied 15 students access to cutting-edge technology inside its premises due to sanctions against Syria.

Accordingly, KAUST’s breakthrough IBM supercomputer, called Shaheen (Arabic for falcon), will be allowed for all students from all nationalities except for Syrians. The Shaheen, one of 14-systems around the world and the largest in Asia by far, will be off-limits to Syrian students and researchers in what can be seen as a breach of academic freedom.

In a scoop editorial by Abdulsalam Haykal, CEO and publisher of Forward Magazine in Syria, the writer revealed: “It’s a shame that the 15 Syrian KAUST students are not allowed to use the Shaheen. Why? American sanctions had to be observed in the agreement between KAUST and IBM. Syrian students were told that it was not a KAUST decision, rather one that related to the state of affairs between the US and Syria.”

Haykal continued to say, “KAUST is then forced to bend to politics, and act against academic freedom.”

KAUST breach of academic integrity comes from the fact the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled on several occasions that, “[A university] can determine for itself on academic grounds, who may teach, what may be taught, how it should be taught, and who may be admitted to study.”

Forward Magazine, Syria’s leading English monthly and an offshoot of Haykal Media, announced early October it will be lobbying in US and Saudi circles arguing against such “unacceptable academic discrimination.”

Carter v.s Forward Magazine: 1st Syrian media outlet to conduct an interview with a U.S President

Forward Magazine is the first Syrian media outlet to ever carry out an interview with an American president. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter is the first American leader to speak to Syrian media – he spoke to Forward last month and broke many important news, including:

  • The appointment of a US ambassador to Syria is expected soon.

Jimmy Carter speaks to Syrian media outlet, Forwrad Magazine (1)

The 1st American president to give an interview to a Syrian media outlet…

Carter to Syria’s Forward Magazine: I’m carrying Assad’s good greetings to Obama

DAMASCUS (January, 2009) – Former American President Jimmy Carter said that Syria and the United States can expect there are “better times ahead” for their bilateral relations. In the first-ever interview for an American president with a Syrian media outlet, Carter told Forward Magazine, Syria’s first independent English monthly, Carter implied that the near future will see the return of the US ambassador to Damascus, filling a post that has been vacant since relations plummeted in 2005. Such a move will coincide with re-opening of the American school in Damascus, Carter said, in addition to reopening the American Language Center – both of which were closed by the Syrian government after US warplanes raided the Syrian town of Abu Kamal last October killing 8 civilians.

Speaking to Sami Moubayed, Forward’s editor in chief and Syria’s top political commentator, Carter confirmed that he “will be carrying some good greetings to the leaders of the new administration, through my meeting with President Assad.” During his visit to Syria, the fifth since 1983, Carter met with President Bashar al-Assad, whom he described as “popular among his people.” They discussed Syrian-American relations, in addition to regional developments in the Middle East, including the peace talks between Syria and Israel. Speaking of the involvement of the upcoming administration in Washington, Carter asserted that Obama cannot “put enough pressure on either Syria or Israel to yield on their basic principles.” He added, “My hope and my belief are that there are enough compatibilities between the two parties to reach a final agreement.”

The full text of this exclusive interview appears in the January 2009 issue of Forward Magazine (Syria).

Storming back onto the world stage

President Basha Asad meets UK's MilibandBy Sami Moubayed

Former British prime minister Tony Blair showed personal interest in the domestic reform program begun by Syria’s new President Bashar al-Assad in 2000. Blair wrote an article at the time, saying that Syria was “a power in the Middle East, a leader of Arab opinion, central to any comprehensive peace deal with Israel, and a member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council”.

He visited the capital Damascus shortly after September 11, 2001, to recruit Syria into the international “war on terror” that was being launched on Afghanistan. The two men could not agree on a definition of terrorism; with Assad saying, “We should differentiate between combating terrorism and war. We did not say we support an international coalition for war. We are always against war.” The Syrian leader added, “We, and I personally, differentiate between resistance and terrorism. Resistance is a social, religious and legal right that is safeguarded by UN resolutions.”

London’s Guardian newspaper then reported that following this conference, Blair confided to friends, “I was saying to him [Assad], you have to help to renew the Middle East peace process. He was saying to me, if you want moderate Islam to defeat Islamic fundamentalists, I also need your help.” The newspaper added that Blair had been “dressed down” in Damascus.

When Assad went to London in 2002 it was generally believed the reason was to extend a friendly hand to the Western world in a public relations campaign aimed at polishing Syria’s image following 9/11. In London, Assad portrayed a very civilized, classy and well-groomed image. He met with Syrians living in Britain, visited businessmen, politicians and held a meeting with both Queen Elizabeth II and her son Prince Charles, who promised to soon visit Damascus. Assad found time to visit his former classmates and professors who taught him while he underwent his medical residency in Britain in the early 1990s.

The Syrian leader was showing the international community that Syria was a modern nation and that he was with the civilized world and not with the terrorists. To make his point clearly heard, and show that Syria was as far as possible from fundamentalism, he brought along a large business delegation composed of Syrian women entrepreneurs.

According to one observer who is close to both Syria and Great Britain, “They [Assad and his wife] were charming, modest and warm with just the right touch of informality that the British appreciate.” Another Syrian objective was to explain the Arab perspective with regard to the then-impending US war on Iraq. Some in the West, however, speculated that Blair would use the visit as an opportunity to recruit Assad into a war on Iraq.

But Syria worked against the US war on Iraq and relations with Britain remained lukewarm until Blair left office in 2007. Before leaving, however, he watched the US-imposed isolation on Syria crumble when Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos visited Syria in 2006, right after the end of the Lebanon war, followed by Javier Solana, the European Union’s chief foreign policy negotiator, in March 2007.

Solana offered the Syrians a series of economic incentives, including the signing of the EU Partnership Agreement, in exchange to finding a solution to the crisis in Lebanon. London’s perception of Syria began to change, as well as that of Europe. The British – as Foreign Secretary David Miliband clearly said this week from Damascus – now see Syria as a problem-solver, rather than a problem-seeker in the Arab world.

Among other things, it was reasoned that getting rid of Hezbollah in Lebanon through military force was impossible – as Israel found out in 2006. Israel clearly could not do it, and nor could UN Resolution 1701, which distanced the Lebanese group from Lebanon’s border with Israel. The only way was to get the Syrians to cooperate on changing Hezbollah’s behavior, either directly through their considerable weight in Lebanon, or indirectly through Iran.

Syria, for example, helped release the 15 British sailors taken hostage by Iran in 2007, and also helped release BBC reporter Alan Johnston from the hands of an Islamic group that was reportedly close to Hamas in Palestine. Syrian cooperation on Iraq and Palestine paid off, but the real breakthrough came when Syria started indirect peace talks with Israel, and helped solve the crisis in Lebanon last May.

The fact that Syria was willing to enter into indirect talks with Israel – under the auspices of a world-recognized honest broker like Turkey – was proof that the Syrians were not as bad as the world had thought since 2003. Before that, the Syrians had gone to the Annapolis peace conference in the US in 2007, despite objections from allies like Hamas and Iran, aimed at showing the Americans that they were in fact serious about finding solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The turning point came when French President Nicolas Sarkozy began engaging both Damascus and Hezbollah, to find constructive solutions to the presidential crisis in Lebanon, in 2007. When the Doha agreement – which had Syria’s fingerprints all over it – was hammered out in May, Sarkozy invited Assad to Paris in July. In September, he went to Damascus – signaling a clear break from the policies of his predecessor Jacques Chirac – and met with Assad to discuss the indirect talks between Syria and Israel, via Turkish mediation.

Miliband steps in

Based on the above, Miliband arrived in Damascus on November 17 for talks with his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moualem and Assad. His visit, the first for a senior British official since 2001, signals a new start in Syrian-British relations.

Speaking on his arrival in Damascus on Monday, shortly before visiting the historical Umayyad Mosque in the heart of the Old City, Miliband said that Syria had an “essential role” to play in securing Middle East peace.

The young secretary (43) was clearly pleased by his visit, being taken to the famous Bakdash ice-cream parlor in the Old City, and given a chance to meet with Syrian statesmen and activists in civil society. Miliband, who had hosted Moualem in London in October, hailed Syria’s “new approach” to dealing with Middle East problems, saying, “I think it is important for us to find ways for Syria to play a constructive role in the future of the Middle East. Syria is a secular state in the Middle East. It has the potential to play a stabilizing role in the region.”

The secretary added, “In a significant way, there has been an important change in the approach of the Syrian government, notably the historic decision to exchange ambassadors with Lebanon.” Miliband’s Syria agenda revolves around four topics: cooperation in combating terrorism, Lebanon, Iraq and the Middle East peace process.

He noted, “We have been consistently emphasizing the importance of Syrian cooperation on all four of those dossiers,” and acknowledged Syrian cooperation on border security with Iraq, adding, “The funneling of foreign fighters and arms into Iraq over the last 15 to 16 months has certainly been curtailed.” This is new talk from London, in light of an upcoming change in US policy towards Syria, after the victory of president-elect Barack Obama.

In 2006, Blair sent senior diplomat Sir Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus, where he presented five British concerns to Syria after having met with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington. They were: support of the political process in Iraq, backing for Mahmud Abbas in Palestine, combating terrorism, Iran and ending the political tension in Lebanon. Syria immediately responded by sending Walid al-Moualem to Baghdad, where he extended his country’s support for the US-backed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He talked Hamas into accepting a Palestinian government and relinquishing the post of prime minister. That declaration was specifically made by Hamas statesman Musa Abu Marzkouk from Damascus, telling the British that the initiative also had Syrian fingerprints on it. Syria’s performance in combating terrorism was already advanced, given its own national interest in doing so.

More recently, it showed that it can provide results as well – such as during the sailor crisis with Iran, and in Lebanon through the Doha Agreement. David W Lesch, a Syria expert who teaches at Trinity College in the US and who authored a biography of Assad, told Asia Times Online, “Foreign Secretary Miliband, who is an ambitious politician jostling for possible leadership of the Labour Party, is striking out in the hope of enhancing his own personal stature as well as paving a path London hopes the new Obama administration will soon follow.”

Lesch, who recently wrapped up a meeting with Assad, added, “From Syria’s perspective, it continues the more than a year-long process of breaking out from US-led isolation, and clearly sends positive signals to the new US administration, and offers an opportunity to, perhaps, assess the possibility of a new US policy direction in the Middle East through the eyes of a trusted US ally.”

It is also reported that the main focus of Miliband’s visit was the reestablishment of high-level intelligence cooperation between Britain and Syria, which apparently began in secret a few months ago, before The Times of London broke the story. The newspaper reported: The newly revived intelligence relationship could be hugely beneficial to Britain. Syria is known to have one of the best intelligence-gathering systems in the Middle East, in particular in tracking the movements of Islamic extremists into Iraq and around the region.

Syria is certainly storming back onto the world stage.

Sami Moubayed is Forward Magazine’s editor-in-chief, Syria.

Abu Hussein’s pending invitation to Damascus


Sami Moubayed

In the Muslim world, men take pride in their first born baby boy and are often called “the father of X” for the remainder of their lives. In turn, first born boys are named after their grandfathers, and this explains why Syrians have been effectionaly been calling Barack Obama, “Abu Hussein” (father of Hussein). He does not have a baby boy—just two beautiful girls—yet that doesn’t really matter for the overwhelmed Syrians who woke up to hear the good news coming in from Washington on November 5: “Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States.” As far as they are concerned, his father’s name is Hussein and when Obama gets a baby boy, he is going to call him Hussein. That is the tradition in the Muslim world after all, and Obama comes from Muslim lineage in Kenya. Gamal Abdul-Nasser of Egypt was “Abu Khaled,” Hasan Nasrallah is “Abu Hadi,” Yasser Arafat was “Abu Ammar” and for masses in the Arab world, Barack Obama is “Abu Hussein.” This terminology was coined by ordinary Syrians who watched the presidential race with enthusiasm—glad to see the end of George W. Bush. Educated Syrians are also amusingly calling him “Abu Hussein” but they have no illussions that the new president-elect is going to be a savior for the Arabs. They hope that he will be more fair and even-handed when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and end the tension that started between Damascus and Washington DC under the Bush Administration. They realize, however, that his election shows just how far America has come in terms of racial equality, and everybody in Damascus—young and old—is impressed.

In August, hosted by an American organization called Search for Common Ground, three Syrians went to Washington DC and met with think-tanks, newspapers, and loyalists of Barack Obama, discussing ways to move billateral relations forward once Bush leaves the White House. For the past 12-months, Damascus has welcomed a wide array of US officials, who are either members of the Obama team, or supporters of the new President. All of them came carrying a similar message: No dialogue with Damascus under Bush has been un-productive for the region and the United States. That is going to change, they said, when Barack Obama reaches the White House. All of them were warmly received by the Syrians, at a popular and official level, including top advisors former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer and former National Security Advisor under Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The latter even spoke to students at one of the new private universities in Syria, who applauded stronly whenever he mentioned the name, “President Obama.” Syrians were especially thrilled when Obama refused to praise the US strike on Syria last October, unlike his Republican opponent, John McCain. Syrian dailies and magazines have been running front page news of Obama—almost neglecting McCain—and Syria’s leading English monly Forward ran a cover story asking, “What Michele Obama can learn from Asma al-Assad (the First Lady of Syria).” In another article called “Obama and Syria” the Damascus-based monthly wrote, “If Obama wins and becomes president, expect an updated version of the foreign policy of Jimmy Carter. And expect warm relations between Syria and the US.” On November 5, Syrians congratulated one another with SMS messages carrying Obama’s three words, “Yes, we can!”

Officially, Syria is yet to comment on Obama’s victory, and President Bashar al-Assad was often quoted during the presidential race saying that Syria waits to see the positions of either canddiate towards the Middle East once he reaches the White House. Official Syria was worried, after all, at Obama’s strong support for Israel—although it came as no surprise—during his visit to Tel Aviv. They have not forgotten the overwhelming support Arabs showed for George W. Bush in 2000, thinking that he would be a much better president for the Arabs, than Al Gore. Therefore, officially, its still a “wait-and-see” policy although there is universal unsaid conviction that McCain would have been an extension of Bush and at least, Obama—a man who champions change—is going to be “different.”

The Syrians are willing to cooperate with Barack Obama on a variety of issues, prime on the list being Iraq. In the words of Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem, Syria will help secure an “honorable exit” for the US from Iraq. They were this close to suspending diplomatic relations with Baghdad, after Prime Minister Nuri al-Malki failed to prevent the October strike on Syria—which was launched from Iraqi territory—but did not do that, to keep channels open with the Obama Administration and in order to better deliver seucirty in Iraq. Troops have been reduced from the border—but not withdrawan completely—in objection to the raid, but security coordination with Baghdad (at a ministerial level) remains in-tact, to prevent jihadists from crossing the border into Iraq. If Obama sends off positive signals to Syria, troops can return to the Syrian-Iraqi border. Syira’s newly appointed Ambassador Nawaf al-Fares remains at his job in Baghdad, building bridges with Iraqi Sunnis (he himself hails from a prominent tribe that overlaps between Syria and Iraq). On the day of the Obama victory, President Assad receieved a delegation sent to Damascus by Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr. Scores of Iraqi leaders—Shiite, Kurd, and Sunni—have been coming to Syria for the past 4-years, meeting with Syrian officials who are trying to build bridges between waring factions, to help normalize and stabilize Iraq.

Syria can also still use its weight in the region to moderate the behavior of non-state players like Hizbullah and Hamas, and find solutions for the US standoff with Iran over its nuclear program. What the Syrians are expecting 11-weeks from now, when Obama is sworn-in as president, is the following:

  1. Appointing a US ambassador to Syria. The post has been vacant since Margaret Scooby was withdrawn when relations plumeted over Lebanon in 2005. That would be accompagnied by greater room to maneuver for Syria’s Ambassador Imad Mustapha, who has always been persona non grata with the Bush Administration, because of his criticism of how outgoing President Bush treated Syria since 2003.
  2. An end to the anti-Syrian rhetoric coming out of the White House and State Department since 2003. That would automatically reduce the massive anti-Syrian material coming out of the US media.
  3. Recognition of Syria’s cooperation on border-security with Iraq.
  4. Cooperation with Syria to deal with the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria.
  5. Lifting—in due course—sanctions that were imposed over Damascus and abolishing the Syrian Accountability Act.
  6. Willingness to sponsor the indirect peace talks with Israel, currently on hold in Turkey. That is something Bush curtly refused to do since the talks started in April 2008, claiming that Syria was more interested in a peace process, than a peace treaty. Syria is sincere—because it wants to restore the Golan Heights—and the new White House must acknolwedge that in order to deliver peaceful results in the Middle East. American guarantees and willingness to serve as an honest broker can make these talks successful, the Syrians believe, transforming them from indirect to direct negotiations. Syria is determined to regain the occupied Golan Heights (taken by Israel during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967) and Obama must help Syria achieve that, if he is sincere about change in the region.
  7. Regonizing that no problems can be solved in the Middle East without Syria, vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Iraqis, and Lebanese. Bush launched his famous “Roadmap” for peace between Israel and Palestine, but bypassed the Syrians. If another “Roadmap” were to be launched, Syria would have to be included.
  8. Help Syria combat Islamic fundamentalism that has been streaming into its territory from north Lebanon and Iraq. The deadly September 27 attack in Damascus—which left nearly 40 Syrians between dead and injured—should have been a wake-up call for the Americans that unless cooperation is forthcomming from the US, Syria might become a battleground for the extremists, as the case in the 1980s. Intelligence cooperation and technical assistance with the Americans is needed to curb and combat the Islamic threat.
  9. Apology, compensation, and explanation for the air raid on Syria that left 8 Syrian civilians killed in October 2008.
  10. Help normalize relations between Syria and America, on a people-to-people level, which have been strained since Bush came to power in 2001. That would include lifting the horrible surveilance conducted on Arabs in the US by Homeland Security after 9-11, and give visas to Syrians wanting to study or work in the US.

When that is done, Syria is willing to open both its arms to Abu Hussein, receiving him perhaps as a guest of honor in Damascus, the way it did with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus.