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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 

Bashar in India - how did he do it, and what's going on?

Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad has arrived in India - the first Syrian head of state to visit in three decades. And the most important foreign trip Bashar Al-Assad has ever made.

Politics - Israel, America, Iraq and Lebanon - may be Bashar's immediate concern. But with the oil set to dry up within two years, Syria is starting to court foreign economic powers. And the world's strongest economies over the next decade will be India and China - not America or Europe.

So who won the bid to run Syria's largest oil company - an Indian-Chinese joint venture, taking over from a Canadian firm.

But how did Bashar make it to India? A neutral party in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and close to the US, a few things must have gone through the Indian Prime Minister's head. Most importantly, how will this affect our new relationship with Israel. The answer - if Israel can talk to Syria, surely we can.

And what a visit - five days will be spent in the country. To put that in context - most political visits last a few hours, or a day at most. When Sarkozy came to Lebanon on his landmark visit, he stayed for three hours. He barely had time to get through passport control.

Bashar's taken a huge team to India - including the economy and trade minister, and the telecoms and technology minister.

The reason for bringing the economy minister is obvious. But why the telecoms and technology man?

Well, my personal - off-the-radar and slightly leftfield - prediction: India's Reliance Telecom or Bharti wants to buy Syriatel, which has been up for sale for a while. Both Reliance and Bharti have been trying to get their hands on MTN (a South African company which also has a foot in Syria) - but Syriatel would be a quick hit, and give the Indians exactly what they want - easy access to a developing market.

But reason number two for bringing the telecoms and technology minister - Bashar has already said he wants Syria to be a call-centre country, like India. He wants foreign countries to outsource their call centres to Syria. And India is the world leader in that field.

And reason number three - Syria has a huge amount to learn from India's technology industry. Tech is India's oil.

It's the economy stupid.

So what makes us so sure Bashar is so economy-obsessed? Look at many of Bashar's key appointments since 2000. The Deputy Prime Minister - Abdullah Al-Dardari - has an economic background. There are experts who used to work in the World Bank. And Syria's ambassador to Washington is - tellingly - a businessman, not a politician, not even a Ba'ath Party member.

One of Syria's sharpest minds is the ambassador to UAE - which is set to become the Arab World's financial powerhouse. And the eloquent Buthayna Sha'aban - who started out as the President's spokesperson, and one of his closest allies - now has the job of enticing Syrians living abroad to come back home and use their skills to build the economy. And it seems to be working.

The economy is the new politics.

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