AMMAN, March 14 (Reuters) - In the alleyways of the old market in Damascus, an exchange dealer gets a phone call from an anxious client looking to transfer his savings out of Syria’s rapidly sinking currency.
“Is it true the dollar reached 95 pounds today?” asks the jittery caller, before selling his Syrian money close to the record low it hit after a year of unrest and economic turmoil.
The fall in the pound accelerated last week as the currency slumped to around half the value it had on March 15 last year - when it stood at 48 to the dollar before protests erupted against President Bashar al-Assad, pushing up prices and deepening hardship for the 23 million Syrians.
Foreign reporters are frequently barred from entering Syria but members of the business community contacted from neighbouring Jordan described to Reuters through anecdotes and hard facts the day-to-day problems of carrying on their work.
As the crisis drags on, Syrians say dollars are ever more scarce as people try to protect their savings from collapse.
“A currency trader has 10 people asking for dollars and ... ends up supplying one of them,” said Wael Dahbour, a dealer in Damascus-based United Exchange firm.
A lawyer in a prominent legal firm said many middle class Syrians have already switched savings into foreign currency and smuggled them abroad to banks in neighbouring Lebanon or Jordan.
“Affluent Syrians transferred most of their income into dollars and their spending is now coming from dollars changed to Syrian pounds,” said the lawyer who runs a firm in the heart of the commercial district of Saba Bahrat in Damascus.
But millions of poorer Syrians, with no savings to cushion them against the economic crisis, are struggling more than ever to make ends meet as the pound’s plunge pushes up the cost of imported goods. A 15,000 pound monthly salary, typical of lower-paid public and private sector employees, has fallen in dollar terms from over $300 to barely $150.
“The working class ... are in a much worse situation. The pound’s purchasing power has eroded,” said Salameh Ali, an industrialist who imports plastic and whose plant in the industrial centre of Homs has stopped working.
Bankers say Syria’s central bank is reluctant to continue the kind of major intervention in support of the pound that it is believed to have carried out in the first eight months of the unrest, as it seeks to reduce depletion of its foreign reserves, estimated at $17 billion before the protests began.
One diplomat who recently visited Damscus said top officials were discussing an idea for issuing new currency notes, though it was unclear how that might arrest the pound’s fall.
The uncertainty has further eroded trust in the pound and in the banking system itself, pushing more people to resort to age-old practices of hoarding cash under the pillows or tiles.
Bankers say another aspect of the unrest has been a rise in delinquency rates of payment of personal loans.
Lawyers have been pressing thousands of cases against clients who either tried to take advantage of the unrest or were defaulting on loans because of hardship or business losses.
“We have many bank customers who are saying ‘Why pay for something today that is worth $150 and in less than a few months will be $100?'” said one Damascene banker.
“Today I owe 10 million in Syrian pounds and I have $3,000 in the bank. I am not going to pay. I am going to wait until those $3,000 are worth 10 million pounds and then pay back the loan,” a Damascene banker said.
Others were simply unable to pay back their debts, including tourism firms hardest hit by collapse in visitors to Syria, an important source of foreign revenue.
As many Syrians hold back on repaying debt others have stopped paying taxes or utility bills, especially in troubled areas, compounding the pressures on state finances already strained by a heavy subsidies on fuel and some basic commodities.
In rural regions which have been at the heart of the uprising, widescale economic disruption has cut the flow of goods. Army road blocks, shelling of towns and prolonged siege of restive areas has paralysed business activity, residents say.
“Our livelihoods have been shattered. I am living on my small savings and a year of disruption has left me with little disposable income to pay for my family of seven,” said Husam Huri, a shopkeeper in Herak, a town in southern Syria and scene of regular clashes between protesters and security forces.
Yahya al-Bahra, an Aleppo-based industrialist in the textile trade, said the troubles had severed parts of the sprawling northern city from markets in the adjoining rural districts.
“Now there is no movement. If I want to even make a deal with someone in the rural towns it’s become physically impossible with the security risks and the many checkpoints. Banks are not operating except in large cities and in rural areas they have almost stopped,” said Bahra.
Businessmen say that a prolonged conflict could bring full-scale economic disaster, but believe that the country can still hold out for now.
“Investors are shunning investing and a lot of projects have stopped. People are waiting to see where they are heading,” said Nabil Sukkar, a leading economist who worked with World Bank. “But I don’t see economic collapse in the foreseeable future.”
Not everyone has lost from the crisis. Alaa al-Shalah, a 49 year-old businessman, bought a flat in the once bustling central Damascus district of Maydan a few weeks ago after the fall in the Syrian currency brought the asking price within his reach.
“I wanted to buy the flat before the crisis but the 15 million pounds that the owner offered was too high for me then. Now with the depreciation of the pound, it is affordable,” said the father of six who has moved into the small three-room flat.
Real estate agents say property prices have plunged in restive cities such as Homs in central Syria and Deraa, once a thriving border town in southern Syria.
By contrast prices in parts of old Aleppo and affluent neighbourhoods of Damascus have been resilient and even risen to offset the drop in the local currency, although few contracts have been exchanged recently.
“Only real estate that is offered at bargain prices by distressed sellers is seeing movement, but these are few and far between,” said one businessman.
“For wealthy Syrians who can afford to buy property and sleep on it, it’s the best investment because everyone expects a housing boom after the end of the crisis,” said Jamal Jaleelati, who owns a small furniture workshop in Aleppo, the country’s largest city and economic hub.
Some investors who used to trade on the fledgling Damascus stock exchange - where daily turnover has slumped to 10 million pounds from 35 million a year ago - have switched their attention to currency speculation, traders say.
“After investors saw they can make over 200 percent return in just a few days in the currency market they have deserted the (share) market,” said Hussein Faisal, an investor.
Some businessmen have also profited from selling old stock imported at lower exchange rates, prompting accusations of profiteering by a business class that learnt long ago how to survive in adversity.
Many others say they are still able to get hold of the foreign goods they need, despite shortages caused by the unrest, Western sanctions, and rising costs.
“At least in Damascus, businessmen are still getting what they want,” said one affluent Damascus trader. He said material could take longer to arrive and he had to adapt his finances, but “there is no product that I used to able to get last year that I cannot get”.
“Yes, they are more expensive, but they are still so far available.”