"Under the 'tutelage' of the Ottomans, Syria was a largely self-sufficient agrarian and trade-based economy (Lesch 1999: 94). 'The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as well as the continuing economic problems of the Ottoman Empire in general by the 1870s (climaxing with its bankruptcy in 1875), forced a downturn in the Syrian economy that lasted into the early twentieth century' (Lesch 1999: 94). According to Beinin (2001: 16), 'the Ottoman agrarian regime was neither an Asiatic nor a feudal mode of production', although it shared a number of characteristics with both. The Ottoman state administered the largest share of the land. Interestingly, the 'Ottoman peasants who farmed state administered lands had more rights than European feudal tenants because they could not be evicted so long as they maintained cultivation and paid taxes' (Beinin 2001: 15).
Aoude (1997: 191) writes, 'by 1970, Syria became a net importer of food stuffs, which eventually, along with industrialisation and consumer goods imports, increased the trade deficit and developed a serious foreign exchange crisis'. The ruling class decided to use this crisis to restructure Syrian capitalism. Once Asad felt secure, he launched the first attempt at liberalisation in 1973. Pretentiously referred to as 'the infitah [opening] of abundance' (1973-1981), the measure was intended to increase the rate of exploitation by restructuring both rural and urban environments. In the countryside land reform allowed middle-ranking peasants to forge a profitable alliance with wealthy farmers and agribusiness at the expense of small peasants and rural wage-slaves (Aoude 1997: 192). Since the state bourgeoisie (meaning Asad, the Baath party, high ranking military officers and the trade union hierarchy) still had the upper hand within the ruling class, they managed to draw a red line around nationalised industries such as banking, mining, oil, insurance and manufacturing of strategic goods. Entrepreneurs would have to wait many years before gradually resting these segments of the economy away from the state bourgeoisie. However, Asad was more than willing to use the 'infitah of abundance' to create a mixed economy in areas such as tourism.
The reasons they moved into tourism are not very different from the Corleone family seeking interests in the tourist industries of Cuba and Las Vegas. 'First', explains Gray (1997: 58), 'the potential for tourism to generate foreign currency is important, all the more so in states ... suffering balance of payment problems. Second is the fact that tourism is labour intensive, and creates employment throughout the economy; tourists spend money on hotels, transport, and meals, but also on a wide variety of goods and services. Third, is the fact that the tourism industry does not, on the whole, require expensive or complex technology or a highly skilled workforce [with the exception of the need to operate an airline]'. Syria, by all accounts, has a whole host of tourist attractions, spread across the country and easily accessible. Traditional industries in the countryside (bedrock of the Syrian ruling class) could potentially benefit. Finally, and this is very significant for a regime as paranoid as the Syrian state, 'tourists themselves pose little threat to the stability or popularity of the regime' (Gray 1997: 60)."
From a long, fascinating article from libcom.org signed by Melancholic Troglodytes on class struggle in the Syrian-Lebanese relations. Very radical class analysis, read at your own risks. Take for example this paragraph from the conclusion:
"We feel those proletarians in the 'West' who wish to assist our 'Middle Eastern' counterparts in escalating the social conflict can do so on a number of fronts: First, we should step up the struggle against those sections of the bourgeoisie we have an impact on (this is sometimes the bourgeoisie 'at home' and sometimes vulnerable pockets of the ruling class 'abroad' and sometimes both at the same time); Second, we should acknowledge, demarcate and foreground the qualitative class divisions within 'our movement' by articulating the distinction between middle class 'anti-globalisers' and working class anti-capitalists. Middle class 'anti-globalisers' represent a neo-libertarian trend paralleling the ideology and structures of neo-liberalism. Tourist summit-hopping and joint-activities between some sections of the 'anti-globalisation' movement and reactionary scum like Hezbollah are merely the most obvious and superficial manifestation of this symbiosis; and finally, we should establish better channels of communication with our comrades in the Middle East, learning from their experience whilst informing them of ours."