People walking past the Damascus International Fair in the Syrian capital countryside. The fair is scheduled to open on August 17 until August 26. Photo: AFP/Louai Beshara
People walking past the Damascus International Fair in the Syrian capital countryside. The fair is scheduled to open on August 17 until August 26. Photo: AFP/Louai Beshara

Twenty-one countries will participate in the forthcoming Damascus International Fair, which after a six-year absence is due to kick off in the Syrian capital this week starting on August 17. First launched back in 1954, the Damascus Fair was always a much-celebrated annual event that attracted businessmen and investors from across the Arab world and beyond.

The Damascenes waited for it passionately, as it always brought dazzling charm to their ancient city, topped with plenty of tourists and artistic performances. Entire families promenaded the fairgrounds at night, which were located on the southwest corner of the city’s modern center along the fabled Barada River, enjoying the cool September breeze and all the attractions that came with it, from concerts and plays onto lottos and restaurants.

Economics aside, it was a social event par excellence, allowing the city’s tiny elite to mingle at a time when Damascus’ entire population was only a fraction of what it has become today after years of grinding war. The Damascus Fair was forever cemented into the collective psyche of the Damascenes, a nostalgic reminder of the “golden years” of Syrian democracy and the economic boom of the 1950s.

Now, officials are trying hard to restore part of the Damascus Fair’s previous grandeur. It’s proving nearly impossible, though, namely because everything about the city has changed during the past six years, ranging from devastated infrastructure and social services to a deeply torn social fabric to a downcast investment atmosphere.

Just like in 1954, authorities are working day and night to give the city a face-lift ahead of the exhibition – paving roads, painting sidewalks and cancelling visa fees for the participating countries. Street beggars are being round up, new traffic lights are being installed, and DDT pesticide is being used to rid the city of flies and insects ahead of the event.

An installation outside the Damascus International Fair in the Syrian capital countryside. The fair is scheduled to open on August 17 until August 26. Photo: AFP/Louhai Beshara 

Fair authorities tried inviting Fairuz, now aged 81, the only living legend from the Damascus Fair’s heyday, but she has declined, citing security concerns due to the constant mortar attacks on the Syrian capital from its war-torn countryside. Instead, the organizers are putting on a series of shows by rouge commercial upstart artists from Syria and Lebanon—certainly no match for the fair’s musical history.

Two cabinet ministers plan to travel from Beirut to Damascus to attend the fair, creating an uproar in anti-Assad political circles in Lebanon, whose official stance has been “neutrality” on the Syrian crisis since it first broke out back in 2011. The two politicians, Agriculture Minister Ghazi Zuayter, representing Hizbullah, and Industry Minister Hussein Al-Hajj Hasan, a member of the all- Shiite Amal Movement, are both allies of Moscow and Tehran.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a staunch ally of Saudi Arabia, refuses to sanction the visit, saying that if the two ministers do make the journey they would be traveling at their own expense and in their personal capacities and not as Lebanese cabinet ministers.

Ten years ago, 45-50 countries participated in the Damascus Fair—a high number, no doubt, compared to the mere 21 registered to attend this year’s event. This year’s participants – with firms from Armenia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain scheduled to attend – are less than the ones that registered for the first round, down from 27 in 1954 to 21 in 2017.

Authorities are bidding to market the event as a revival of Syria’s economy. They hope to stimulate commercial ties with the outside world and burnish the nation’s profile after being smeared day and night in the international media for human rights abuses and war crimes. Prominent absences from the event will include Saudi Arabia, France, Great Britain, Turkey and the United States.

Men play chess in front of a damaged building in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Naaman town in Idlib province, Syria, October 19, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

It was at the Damascus International Fair where American corporations first brought television sets to Syria back in the 1950s, along with the famed Cinerama — a widescreen projection on a huge deeply curved screen—a novelty of the then motion picture industry.

The US was in direct competition with the Soviet Union back in 1954, which entered the Damascus fairgrounds with the largest pavilion, selling Soviet-made goods at slashed prices to win the hearts and minds of the Syrians at the height of the Cold War.

Attendance was high at the US stands, however, and relatively low at the Soviet one, despite the attractions and cut rates. This year, Russia will face no competition from the US or Western Europe, gracing the fairgrounds with its mega-pavilion and avalanche of goods, along with those of other participating allies like India, China, Cuba, Brazil and, of course, Iran and Iraq.

Syrian media has focused on the Chinese firms that will be present at the fair. Beijing’s last contribution came back in 2010 with 37 participating firms, higher than the total participation scheduled for this year’s event.

The Arab-Chinese Exchange Association dedicated a full day in Beijing to promote the fair in early August, sending out invitations and flyers to over 1,000 companies that might be interested in the reconstruction process.

Chinese and Syrian businessmen shake hands behind their national flags during a meeting to discuss reconstruction projects in Syria. Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee

Syrian officials have often repeated that they will give Chinese and Russian firms a “high priority” in the reconstruction process, due to their unwavering support, both militarily and at the UN Security Council, since 2012. The promotional day in Beijing was billed as the “First Project Matchmaking Fair for Syria’s Reconstruction” and was attended by China’s Asia Infrastructure Bank (AIIB).

“China is intending to invest US$2 billion in the creation of an industrial park in Syria that will initially bring together 150 Chinese companies,” said Qin Yong, the deputy chairman of the China-Arab Exchange Association. Before the Syria war started in 2011, China had invested billions in Syria’s oil and gas industry and hopes to get the lion’s share of energy-related reconstruction once the guns go silent.

A top diplomat in Damascus said that China will be the “biggest player” in the reconstruction process, “once a political settlement is reached.” China’s massive foreign currency reserves, estimated at more than US$3 trillion, and plans to splurge US$1 trillion on trade-promoting infrastructure in its global One Belt One Road initiative, will help to cover the expense of post-war reconstruction in Syria and solidify Beijing’s role in the region’s affairs.

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