Syrians struggle with sky-high prices and empty tables
Damascus - The Central Bank of Syria is pumping dollars into the local market to shore up the exchange rate of the Syrian pound, which plunged to a record low in mid- May, driving up the prices of essential commodities for a people already suffering a vicious civil war.
Central Bank Governor Adib Mayaleh said he planned to add $200 million to the economy to offset the steep depreciation of the pound, which dived more than 600% from 47 pounds to the dollar before the outbreak of violence in 2011 to 320 in early May.
Two days after the May 10th measure, the pound regained about 20% of its value, rising to 260 per dollar. Speculation is that the currency would reach what Mayaleh said was a more “realistic” value of 200 to the dollar. On May 20th, the government sold each dollar at 217 pounds.
Mayaleh, speaking May 15th on state television, blamed the currency slide on “deception” by unspecified websites that “had shaken the people’s confidence in the national economy and the Syrian pound”. He did not elaborate.
Syrian economist Abdul-Qader Azouz said the increase in the dollar-pound exchange rate is the result of “speculation for personal benefit as well as the suspension of many productive sectors, such as tourism, which reflected negatively on the trade balance”.
Syrians have seen steep increases in the price of all commodities. In April, food prices shot up 30%, according to Trade Ministry figures.
The rebel seizure in April of the key Nasib border crossing into Jordan, considered an economic lifeline for the beleaguered Damascus regime, has taken a heavy toll, causing an unprecedented 30% hike in fruit and vegetable prices.
Even after intervention by the Central Bank, the cost of living remains cripplingly high and the costs of many basics are far beyond the reach of many Syrians, whose salaries have lagged way behind inflation.
According to the syndicate of banking and workers’ insurance, inflation in Syria reached 121% in 2014, compared with 90% in 2013 and 4.4% in 2010.
The syndicate said in a report that the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate, which stood at 4.8% in 2011, was minus 2.3% in 2014, fuelling inflation and forcing many Syrians to make drastic cuts or use savings.
“I can’t pay for many of the food items any more, and I’m having to ration things, depriving my children of many things,” said a middle-aged man, who was trying to buy grape leaves at a Damascus supermarket on May 14. He said he earns 30,000 pounds ($136) a month.
“There’s no more meat on my table and my children eat one kind of fruit just once a week,” said the man, a municipality clerk.
A family of five needs an average of 90,000 pounds — about $410 — a month to get by, according to a Trade Ministry study released in April. The government increased the wages of civil servants twice since 2011 but many Syrians find it hard to live with the rising costs. The average monthly salary of a government employee is around 25,000 pounds.
Damascus convenience store owner Abboud Mareini said inflation means he was “forced to change the prices of items I sell almost every other day”. For instance, he said, “I sold a can of Coke for 75 pounds just two days ago but today the price is 115,” he said.
A shopkeeper in the Tijara neighbourhood of Damascus, who identified himself only as Anas, said demand for basic foodstuffs has “gone down dramatically. People are only buying their essential needs because prices are so high.”
The prices of nearly all imported items have spiralled out of reach, making them luxuries few Syrians can afford.
While Azouz said the government intervened to adjust the deteriorating value of the pound “to attain financial stability”, that effort has not yet paid off for Anas and other shopkeepers or for workers such as Mohammed Natour.
Natour, 27, a bachelor from the southern province of Daraa, said that before the crisis he had a job as an electrician “but I was forced to work as concierge in Damascus at a salary of 15,000 a month”. He said he has had to take a second job washing cars for an extra 10,000 pounds a month.
“The 25,000 pounds I earn is hardly enough to cover my expenses,” he lamented. “I don’t pay rent, water or electricity bills. Still I’m deprived of a lot of food, fruit and meat. I see fruit only in stores and I make up for red meat with chicken I buy twice a month.”