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Saturday, February 26, 2005 

Syria to build cross-country highway

Syria's planning its first East-West highway. And unusually for the state-controlled country, it's to be built by a private company.



Syria is a vertical nation. Most people live along the Damascus-Aleppo axis - and it's those two cities that are the country's largest.

But the new road will run from the coast to the Iraqi border. It's hoped Syria can supplant Turkey and Kuwait's status as Iraq's gateway to the world. Iraqi exporters will get access to the Mediterranean, drastically cutting journey times from Iraq to Europe and America.

It's a sign of the massive changes afoot in Syria's that the private sector is being let in on such a massive - and political - project. Bashar Al-Assad came to power promising sweeping economic reforms, but most of these have yet to materialise.

But there has been some progress. Last year saw limited banking reforms, the removal of barriers to domestic business, the explosion of the internet, and the rapid spread of mobile phones.



Paradoxically for this state-controlled country, private enterprise is everywhere - in some cases it's more pervasive than in the West. The entire public transport system is so free-market it makes Margaret Thatcher look tame.

The bus system is made up of privately owned 8 seater minibuses running along Government-set routes. The owner-driver keeps all the fares which are set at 5 lira. Because the buses are so small, there are lots of them, so waiting time is kept to a minimum.

But even if you can't squeeze into a minibus (servees) in the lunchtime rush, there's bound to be a taxi along soon...

Few people own their own cars because of the high car tax, so there's a flood of taxis. One estimate suggests a quarter of Damascene cars are taxis! And that intense competition for customers keeps prices down.

Syria might officialy be Socialist, but there's more than a nod to Thatcher. And, erm, Bush.

I hope the private company doesn't start to charge you to use its roads. I live in the biggest city of a Western country and we have to pay money everytime we use a highway or major bridge.

I agree with you that the principles underlying the Syrian macro and micro economy are good, even better than Western ones. You just need to promote some legal and social responsibility in private bussinesses and government offices and apply the law to all.

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