Economy of Syria

The economy of Syria has deteriorated considerably since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War[4] Moreover, Syria's economic history has been turbulent. In 1963, the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party came to power, and instituted socialist policies of nationalization and land reform.[14] In 1970, General Hafiz al-Assad took power. The restrictions on private enterprise were relaxed, but a substantial part of the economy was still under government control. By the 1980s, Syria found itself politically and economically isolated, and in the midst of a deep economic crisis.[15] Real per capita GDP fell 22 percent between 1982 and 1989.[16] In 1990, the Assad government instituted a series of economic reforms, although the economy remained highly regulated.[17] The Syrian economy experienced strong growth throughout the 1990s, and into the 2000s.[16] Syria's per capita GDP was 4,058 US dollars in 2010.[18] There is no authoritative GDP data available after 2012, due to Syria's civil war.[17]

Economy of Syria
CurrencySyrian pound (SYP)
Calendar year
Trade organisations
Country group
Population 16,906,283 (2018)[3]
GDP$45 billion (2017 est.)
GDP growth
-10% (2014 est.)[4]
GDP per capita
$2684 (PPP; 2015 est.)[5]
GDP by sector
Agriculture (20%), Industry (19.6%), Services (60.4%) (2017 est.)
30% (2017 est.)
Population below poverty line
80.5% (2017 est.)[6][7]
0.536 low (2017)[8]
Labour force
4,797,280 (2019)[9]
Labour force by occupation
Agriculture (17%), Industry (16%), Services (67%) (2008 est.)
Unemployment50% (2017 est.)[5]
Main industries
petroleum, textiles, food processing, beverages, tobacco, phosphate rock mining, cement, oil seeds crushing, car assembly
176th (below average, 2020)[10]
Exports$1.786 billion (2017 est.)[5][11]
Export goods
crude oil, minerals, petroleum products, fruits and vegetables, cotton fiber, clothing, meat and live animals, wheat
Main export partners
 Lebanon 34.6%
 Jordan 11.6%
 China 9.4%
 Turkey 8.2%
 Iraq 7.7%
 Tunisia 4.9% (2016)[12]
Imports$5.649 billion (2017 est.)[5][11]
Import goods
machinery and transport equipment, electric power machinery, food and livestock, metal and metal products, chemicals and chemical products, plastics, yarn, paper
Main import partners
 Russia 22%

 Iran 19%

 Turkey 10%
 China 11.3%(2016)[13]
$5-10 billion (31 December 2017 est.)
Public finances
60% of GDP (2017 est.)
Revenues$1.033 billion (2017 est.)
Expenses$10 billion (2014 est.)
Economic aidRecipient $200 million (2002 est.)
Foreign reserves
$2.0 billion (31 December 2014 est.)
Main data source: CIA World Fact Book
All values, unless otherwise stated, are in US dollars.

Before the civil war the two main pillars of the Syrian economy were agriculture and oil, which together accounted for about one-half of GDP. Agriculture, for instance, accounted for about 26% of GDP and employed 25% of the total labor force.[19] However, poor climatic conditions and severe drought badly affected the agricultural sector, thus reducing its share in the economy to about 17% of 2008 GDP, down from 20.4% in 2007, according to preliminary data from the Central Bureau of Statistics. On the other hand, higher crude oil prices countered declining oil production and led to higher budgetary and export receipts.[20]

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the Syrian economy has been hit by massive economic sanctions restricting trade with the Arab League,[21] Australia,[22] Canada,[23] the European Union,[24] (as well as the European countries of Albania,[25] Iceland,[25] Liechtenstein,[25] Moldova,[25] Montenegro,[25] North Macedonia,[25] Norway,[26] Serbia,[25] and Switzerland)[27] Georgia,[25] Japan,[28] South Korea,[29] Taiwan,[30] Turkey,[31] and the United States.[32]

The sanctions, destruction and dislocation associated with the Civil War have devastated Syria's economy. By the end of 2013, the UN estimated total economic damage of the Syrian civil war at $143 billion.[33] The total economic loss from the Syrian Civil War will reach $237 billion by the end of 2015, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, with the Syrian opposition's capture of Nasib border crossing costing the government a further $500–$700 million a year on top of this.[34] In 2018, the World Bank estimated that about one-third of Syria's housing stock and one half of its health and education facilities had been destroyed by the conflict. According to the World Bank, a cumulative total of $226 billion in GDP was lost due to the conflict from 2011 to 2016.[35]

The Syrian economy suffered from conflict-related hyperinflation. The Syrian annual inflation rate is one of the highest in the world.[36][37]

Basic information

During the 1960s, along socialist lines, the government nationalized most major enterprises and adopted economic policies designed to address regional and class disparities.[15] Economic reform has been incremental and gradual. In 2001, Syria legalized private banking. In 2004, four private banks began operations. In August 2004, a committee was formed to supervise the establishment of a stock market. Beyond the financial sector, the Syrian Government has enacted major changes to rental and tax laws, and is reportedly considering similar changes to the commercial code and to other laws, which impact property rights. (Ohachq) Syria has produced heavy-grade oil from fields inside in the northeast since the late 1960s. In the early 1980s, light-grade, low-sulphur oil was discovered near Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria. This discovery relieved Syria of the need to import light oil to mix with domestic heavy crude in refineries. Recently, Syrian oil production has been about 379,000 barrels per day (bpd). Syria's oil reserves are being gradually depleted and reached 2.5 billion barrels in January 2009. Experts generally agree that Syria will become a net importer of petroleum by the end of the next decade. Recent developments have helped revitalize the energy sector, including new discoveries and the successful development of its hydrocarbon reserves. According to the 2009 Syria Report of the Oxford Business Group, the oil sector accounted for 23% of government revenues, 20% of exports, and 22% of GDP in 2008. Syria exported roughly 150,000 bpd in 2008, and oil accounted for a majority of the country's export income.[20]

Ad hoc economic liberalization continues to add wealth inequality, impoverishing the average population while enriching a few people in Syria's private sector. In 1990, the government established an official parallel exchange rate to provide incentives for remittances and exports through official channels. This action improved the supply of basic commodities and contained inflation by removing risk premiums on smuggled commodities.

Foreign aid to Syria in 1997 totaled an estimated US$199 million. The World Bank reported that in July 2004 that it had committed a total of US$661 million for 20 operations in Syria. One investment project remained active at that time.

YearGross Domestic ProductUS Dollar ExchangeInflation Index
Per Capita Income
(as % of USA)
198078,2703.94 Syrian Pounds8.1012.178,971,343
1985146,2253.92 Syrian Pounds1411.6410,815,289
1990268,32828.80 Syrian Pounds574.3712,720,920
1995570,97535.30 Syrian Pounds984.1814,610,348
2000903,94449.68 Syrian Pounds1003.4916,510,861
20051,677,41756.09 Syrian Pounds1223.7019,121,454
201059,633,00047.00 Syrian Pounds21,092,262

External trade and investment

Pre-civil war Syria Export Treemap
Syria Export Treemap by Product (2014) from Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity

Despite the mitigation of the severe drought that plagued the region in the late 1990s and the recovery of energy export revenues, Syria's economy faces serious challenges. With almost 60% of its population under the age of 20, unemployment higher than the current 9% is a real possibility unless sustained and strong economic growth takes off.

Commerce has always been important to the Syrian economy[38], which benefited from the country's strategic location along major east-west trade routes. Syrian cities boast both traditional industries such as weaving and dried-fruit packing and modern heavy industry. Given the policies adopted from the 1960s through the late 1980s, Syria refused to join the "global economy". In late 2001, however, Syria submitted a request to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to begin the accession process. Syria had been an original contracting party of the former General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade but withdrew in 1951 because of Israel's joining. Major elements of current Syrian trade rules would have to change in order to be consistent with the WTO. In March 2007, Syria signed an Association Agreement with the European Union that would encourage both sides to negotiate a free trade agreement before 2010.

The bulk of Syrian imports have been raw materials essential for industry, agriculture, equipment, and machinery. Major exports include crude oil, refined products, raw cotton, clothing, fruits, and cereal grains.

Over time, the government has increased the number of transactions to which the more favorable neighboring country exchange rate applies. The government also introduced a quasi-rate for non-commercial transactions in 2001 broadly in line with prevailing black market rates.

Given the poor development of its own capital markets and Syria's lack of access to international money and capital markets, monetary policy remains captive to the need to cover the fiscal deficit. Although in 2003 Syria lowered interest rates for the first time in 22 years and again in 2004, rates remain fixed by law.


Under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, national debt in relation to GDP went from 152.09% 2000 down to 30.02% in 2010.[39] Syria has made progress in easing its heavy foreign debt burden through bilateral rescheduling deals with virtually all of its key creditors in Europe. In December 2004, Syria and Poland reached an agreement by which Syria would pay $27 million out of the total $261.7 million debt. In January 2005, Russia and Syria signed a deal that wrote off nearly 80% of Syria's debt to Russia, approximately €10.5 billion ($13 billion). The agreement left Syria with less than €3 billion (just over $3.6 billion) owed to Moscow. Half of it would be repaid over the next 10 years, while the rest would be paid into Russian accounts in Syrian banks and could be used for Russian investment projects in Syria and for buying Syrian products. This agreement was part of a weapons deal between Russia and Syria. And later that year Syria reached an agreement with Slovakia, and the Czech Republic to settle debt estimated at $1.6 billion. Again Syria was forgiven the bulk of its debt, in exchange for a one time payment of $150 million.

Sectors of the economy


Agriculture is a high priority in Syria's economic development plans, as the government seeks to achieve food self-sufficiency, increase export earnings, and halt rural out-migration.[40] Thanks to sustained capital investment, infrastructure development, subsidies of inputs, and price supports, Syria has gone from a net importer of many agricultural products to an exporter of cotton, fruits, vegetables, and other foodstuffs. One of the prime reasons for this turnaround has been the government's investment in huge irrigation systems in northern and northeastern Syria.[41] The agriculture sector, as of 2009, employs about 17% of the labor force and generates about 21% of the gross domestic product,[42][43] of which livestock accounted for 16% and fruit and grains for more than 40%.[40]

In 2015, Syria's main exports included spice seeds ($83.2 million), apples and pears ($53.2 million).[44]

Most land is privately owned, a crucial factor behind the sector's success.[40] Of Syria's 196,000 km² (72,000 square miles),[41] about 28% of it is cultivated, and 21% of that total is irrigated. Most irrigated land is designated "strategic", meaning that it encounters significant state intervention in terms of pricing, subsidies, and marketing controls. "Strategic" products such as wheat, barley, and sugar beets, must be sold to state marketing boards at fixed prices, often above world prices in order to support farmers, but at a significant cost to the state budget. The most widely grown arable crop is wheat, but the most important cash crop is cotton; cotton was the largest single export before the development of the oil sector. Nevertheless, the total area planted with cotton has declined because of an increasing problem of water shortage coupled with old and inefficient irrigation techniques. The output of grains like wheat is often underutilized because of poor storage facilities.[40]

Water and energy are among the most pervasive issues facing the agriculture sector. Another difficulty suffered by the agricultural sector is the government's decision to liberalize prices of fertilizers, which have increased between 100% and 400%. Drought was an alarming problem in 2008; however, the drought situation slightly improved in 2009. Wheat and barley production about doubled in 2009 compared to 2008. In spite of that, the livelihoods of up to 1 million agricultural workers have been threatened. In response, the UN launched an emergency appeal for $20.2 million. Wheat has been one of the crops most affected, and for the first time in 2 decades Syria has moved from being a net exporter of wheat to a net importer.[45] During the civil war which began in 2011, the Syrian government was forced to put out a tender for 100,000 metric tonnes of wheat, one of the few trade products not subject to economic sanctions.[46]

Less than 2.7% of Syria's land area is forested, and only a portion of that is commercially useful.[4] Limited forestry activity is centered in the higher elevations of the mountains just inland from the coast, where rainfall is more abundant.[47]

Energy and mineral resources


Phosphates are the major minerals exploited in Syria. According to estimates Syria has around 1,700 million tons of phosphate reserves.[48] Production dropped sharply in the early 1990s when world demand and prices fell, but output has since increased to more than 2.4 million tons. Syria produced about 1.9% of the world's phosphate rock output and was the world's ninth ranked producer of phosphate rock in 2009.[49] Other major minerals produced in Syria include cement, gypsum, industrial sand (silica), marble, natural crude asphalt, nitrogen fertilizer, phosphate fertilizer, salt, steel, and volcanic tuff, which generally are not produced for export.[47]

Oil and natural gas

Syria is a relatively small oil producer, accounting for just 0.5% of global production in 2010.[50][51] Although Syria is not a major oil exporter by Middle Eastern standards, oil is a major pillar of the economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, oil sales for 2010 were projected to generate $3.2 billion for the Syrian government and account for 25.1% of the state's revenue.[52]

Electrical generation

In 2001 Syria reportedly produced 23.3 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity and consumed 21.6 billion kWh.[47] As of January 2002, Syria's total installed electric generating capacity was 7.6 gigawatts (GW), with fuel oil and natural gas serving as the primary energy sources and 1.5 GW generated by hydroelectric power.[47] A network totaling 45 GW linking the electric power grids of Syria, Egypt, and Jordan was completed in March 2001.[47] Syria's electric supply capacity is an important national priority, and the government hopes to add 3,000 megawatts of power generating capacity by 2010 at a probable cost of US$2 billion, but progress has been slowed by a lack of investment capital.[47] Power plants in Syria are undergoing intensive maintenance, and four new generating plants have been built.[47] The power distribution network has serious problems, with transmission losses estimated as high as 25 percent of total generated capacity as a result of poor quality wires and transformer stations.[47] A project for the expansion and upgrading of the power transmission network is scheduled for completion in 2005.[47]

As of May 2009 it was reported that the Islamic Development Bank and the Syrian government signed an agreement stating that the bank would provide a €100 million loan for the expansion of Deir Ali power station in Syria.[53]

Nuclear energy

Syria abandoned its plans to build a VVER-440 reactor after the Chernobyl accident.[54] The plans for a nuclear program were revived at the beginning of the 2000s when Syria negotiated with Russia to build a nuclear facility that would include a nuclear power plant and a seawater atomic desalination plant.[55]

Industry and manufacturing

The industrial sector, which includes mining, manufacturing, construction, and petroleum, accounted for 27.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2010 and employed about 16 percent of the labor force.[4] The main industrial products are petroleum, textiles, food processing, beverages, tobacco, phosphate rock mining, cement, oil seeds crushing, and car assembly.[4] Syria's manufacturing sector was largely state dominated until the 1990s, when economic reforms allowed greater local and foreign private-sector participation. Private participation remains constrained, however, by the lack of investment funds, input/output pricing limits, cumbersome customs and foreign exchange regulations, and poor marketing.[47]

Because land prices are not controlled by the state, real estate is one of the few domestic avenues for investment with realistic and safe returns. Activity in the construction sector tends to mirror changes in the economy. Investment Law No. 10 of 1991, which opened the country to foreign investment in some areas, marked the beginning of a strong revival, with growth in real terms increasing over 2001 and 2002.[47]


Services accounted for 60.4% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017[4] and employed 67% of the labor force, including government, in 2008.[43] As of May 2009, it was reported that Damascus office prices are skyrocketing.[56]

Banking and finance

Since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, there has been a capital flight to nearby countries. Syria has been subject to sanctions by US, Canada, EU, Arab League and Turkey because of the civil war.[57][58][59] The currency of Syria is the Syrian pound (SYP). The pound's exchange rate has deteriorated significantly, falling from 47 SYP for US$1 in March 2011 to 515 SYP for US$1 in July 2017.

The Central Bank of Syria began operations in 1959. It controls all foreign exchange and trade transactions and gives priority to lending to the public sector. The Central Bank has been subject to US sanctions since May 2004, which has accused the Bank of money laundering.[60] These US sanctions may have increased the role of Lebanese and European banks because a ban on transactions between U.S. financial institutions and the Central Bank of Syria created an increase in demand for intermediary sources for US$ transfers.[43] The US, EU, Arab league and Turkey all also imposed sanctions on the Central Bank because of the Civil War.[61] [62]

The six specialized state-owned banks — the Central Bank of Syria, Commercial Bank of Syria, Agricultural Co-Operative Bank, Industrial Bank, Popular Credit Bank, and Real Estate Bank — are major financial operators. They each extend funds to, and take deposits from, a particular sector. The Industrial Bank also is directed more toward the public sector, although it is under-capitalized. As a result, the private sector often is forced to bank abroad, a process that is more expensive and therefore a poor solution to industrial financing needs. Many business people travel abroad to deposit or borrow funds. It is estimated that Syrians have deposited US$6 billion in Lebanese banks.

In the 2000s, Syria started reforms in the financial sector, including the introduction of private banks and the opening of the Damascus Securities Exchange in March 2009.[63] In 2001, Syria legalized private banks and the sector, while still nascent, has been growing.[20] Foreign banks were given licenses in December 2002, under Law 28 March 2001 which allows the establishment of private and joint-venture banks. Foreigners are allowed up to 49% ownership of a bank, but may not hold a controlling stake.[43] As of January 2010, 13 private banks had opened, including two Islamic banks.

Syria has taken gradual steps to loosen controls over foreign exchange. In 2003, the government canceled a law that criminalized private sector use of foreign currencies, and in 2005 it allowed licensed private banks to sell specific amounts of foreign currency to Syrian citizens under certain circumstances and to the private sector to finance imports. In October 2009, Syria further loosened its restrictions on currency transfers by allowing Syrians travelling abroad to withdraw the equivalent of up to US$10,000 from their Syrian pound accounts. In practice, the decision allows local banks to open accounts of a maximum of US$10,000 that their clients can use for their international payment cards. The holders of these accounts will be able to withdraw up to US$10,000 per month while travelling abroad.[20]

To attract investment and to ease access to credit, the government allowed investors in 2007 to receive loans and other credit instruments from foreign banks, and to repay the loans and any accrued interest through local banks using project proceeds. In February 2008, the government permitted investors to receive loans in foreign currencies from local private banks to finance capital investments. Syria's exchange rate is fixed, and the government maintains two official rates—one rate on which the budget and the value of imports, customs, and other official transactions are based, and a second set by the Central Bank on a daily basis that covers all other financial transactions. The government passed a law in 2006 which permits the operation of private money exchange companies. However, there is still a small black market for foreign currency.[20]


Non-Arab visitors to Syria reached 1.1 million in 2002, which includes all visitors to the country, not just tourists.[43] The total number of Arab visitors in 2002 was 3.2 million, most from Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.[43] Many Iraqi businesspeople set up ventures in Syrian ports to run import operations for Iraq, causing an increased number of Iraqis visiting Syria in 2003–4.[43] Tourism is a potentially large foreign exchange earner and a source of economic growth.[43] Tourism generated more than 6 percent of Syria's gross domestic product in 2000, and more reforms were discussed to increase tourism revenues.[43] As a result of projects derived from Investment Law No. 10 of 1991, hotel bed numbers had increased 51 percent by 1999 and increased further in 2001.[64] A plan was announced in 2002 to develop ecological tourism with visits to desert and nature preserves.[65] Two luxury hotels opened in Damascus at the end of 2004.[65] Since March 2011 tourism in Syria has fallen due to the ongoing civil war.


Syria has a population of approximately 21 million people, and Syrian government figures place the population growth rate at 2.37%, with 65% of the population under the age of 35 and more than 40% under the age of 15.[20] Each year more than 200,000 new job seekers enter the Syrian job market, but the economy has not been able to absorb them.[65] In 2017, the Syrian labor force was estimated to total about 3.767 million people.[4] An estimated 67 percent worked in the services sector including government, 17 percent in agriculture, and 16 percent in industry in 2008.[4] Government and public sector employees constitute about 30% of the total labor force and are paid very low salaries and wages.[20]

According to Syrian Government statistics, the unemployment rate in 2009 was 12.6%; however, more accurate independent sources place it closer to 20%.[20] About 70 percent of Syria's workforce earns less than US$100 per month.[65] Anecdotal evidence suggests that many more Syrians are seeking work over the border in Lebanon than official numbers indicate.[65] In 2002 the Unemployment Commission (UC) was established, tasked with creating several hundred thousand jobs over a five-year period.[65] As of June 2009 it was reported that some 700,000 households in Syria - about 3.5 million people - have no income.[66] Government officials acknowledge that the economy is not growing at a pace sufficient to create enough new jobs annually to match population growth. The UN Development Program announced in 2005 that 30% of the Syrian population lives in poverty and 11.4% live below the subsistence level.[20]

Opportunity Cost of Conflict

A report by Strategic Foresight Group, an India-based think tank, calculated the opportunity cost of conflict for the Middle East for 1991—2010 at US$12 trillion in 2006 dollars.[67] Syria's share in this was US$152 billion, more than four times the projected 2010 GDP of US$36 billion.[67]

The Syrian Center for Policy Research stated in March 2015 that, by then, nearly three million Syrians had lost their jobs because of the civil war, causing the loss of the primary source of income of more than 12 million people; unemployment levels "surged" from 14.9 percent in 2011 to 57.7 percent at the end of 2014.[68] As a result, 4 in 5 Syrians were by then living in poverty, with 30 percent of the population living in "abject poverty" and frequently unable to meet basic household food needs.[68]

See also


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  7. Note that a large part of the Syrian population is not poor financially and is relatively able to sustain itself, but has poor living conditions (which also counts as poverty) caused by the enormous destruction of infrastructure during the Syrian Civil War, which caused the price of certain goods/services to skyrocket/become unavailable, hence why the amount of poor people is so high.
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Works cited

  • Economy of Syria textual and chart data from the world bank and CIA factbook, hosted by the Lebanese Economy Forum

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