BEIRUT – When it opened its doors in December 2005, the towering Four Seasons Hotel complex instantly became the most recognizable landmark in Damascus, the centerpiece of President Bashar al-Assad's program for a new Syria. "It is to be a calling card, announcing to the world that Syria is open for business, for tourism and for people with lots of money looking for someplace to spend it," the New York Times described it then. It's almost hard to remember now -- one year into an uprising that has killed at least 9,000 people and sent another 40,000 fleeing to neighboring countries -- that just a few years ago many in the international community saw Syria as a country on the mend, a formerly repressive regime that had decided to liberalize. As the country began a slow opening to global markets, dozens of foreign chains set up shop in Syria. Costa Coffee opened up in Damascus Boulevard, the outdoor mall adjacent to the Four Seasons, and launched seven other locations throughout the country. From fried chicken to French cuffs, other brands followed -- KFC in 2006, Mango in 2006, and Zara in 2011 -- all trying to capitalize on Syria's established middle class.
Now, as then, the Four Seasons embodies the state of Assad's nation, but not quite in the way he'd planned. At the beginning of the month, the Rotana Cafe, a hookah and latté joint owned by Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, closed its doors until further notice, citing poor business and security concerns. Costa Coffee remains open, but of the eight cafes it once had country-wide, the one in Damascus Boulevard is the only one left standing, said a spokesman for the company. Still, the manager of Damascus Boulevard, Mohamed al-Awa, said in a phone interview that business is "normal" and everything in Damascus is "good."
But from the looks of it, nothing is normal in Syria these days. While the spiraling violence has largely left Damascus untouched, except for scattered bomb attacks and occasional fighting throughout the city, the country's economy is in shambles, with a tightening noose of sanctions and closed borders putting the brakes on international trade. While foreign hotels, food, and clothing in Syria are not the target of sanctions, they are finding it increasingly difficult to do business in a country so isolated from the rest of the world.
The hotel itself is a ghost town. "Let's put it this way, the Four Seasons was very excited about the mission of Kofi Annan -- not because they were hopeful he'd come away with a solution to the crisis, but because they were finally getting some business. And they knew he'd be back," said one prominent businessman, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. The hotel's Damascus-based spokeswoman disputed the characterization, saying they were still making summer plans and hosting visiting delegations, journalists, conferences, board meetings, and weddings, but admitted that business is "as you would assume" and occupancy is "lower than it should be."
Amid an uprising and government crackdown, central Damascus has largely been able to exist in a bubble of privilege. But after a year of crisis, it too is finally feeling the pinch. Last year was unsurprisingly a bad one for business in Syria, with the International Monetary Fund predicting a 2 percent contraction, but the past two months have been the worst by far since the start of the revolution.
With insurance rates soaring, logistics risky, and the plummeting Syrian pound making import purchases increasingly expensive, the cost of doing business in Syria has skyrocketed. As business owners raise prices to compensate, middle-class customers with shrinking purchasing power are increasingly staying away, even from previously insulated retail spots like the Cham City Center, a mall that brought in foreign brands like Cinnabon and United Colors of Benetton when it opened in 2007. "It was very puzzling to me, but until the last week of December, Cham City Center mall was packed whenever I went, even during the middle of the week," said one foreign banker based in Damascus until last month, when his bank closed up its Syria office.
The strain has not gone without notice in the Assad regime's propaganda department, which has tried to convince consumers they can do just fine without the rest of the world. All over downtown Damascus, added the banker, billboards are preaching self-sustainability as part of a governmental public awareness campaign to put a euphemistic spin on things: "Let us wear what we weave," the billboards tell Damascenes. "Let us drink what we squeeze." "Let us eat what we grow."