For decades, Syria, with its Soviet-style command economy and personality-cult leadership of Hafez al-Assad, looked and felt more like a grim Eastern European country under communism than the Middle East bazaar it once had been.
These days, however, Syria is enjoying something of a renaissance.
The country's art scene is flourishing, Damascus café life is blooming, shopping malls have cropped up and the moribund economy has awakened from a deep, state-imposed sleep.
"Syria is open for business," says Mohammad Daaboul, chairman and CEO of the Daaboul Industrial Group and president of the Association of Syrian-Canadian Businessmen.
Gone are the massive billboards and murals of the national leader on every street. In their place are promotions for new banks and construction projects - with a modest number of images of Bashar al-Assad, son of the late leader and the man responsible for the change in Syria. As recently as 2000, the year the younger Mr. al-Assad took power, there were no cellphones in use in Syria and getting a land line installed meant a two-year waiting list. The Internet wasn't permitted and the news media were heavily controlled. There were no colleges outside the state university, and there was not a single private bank. Today, there are 22 private banks, 13 private universities, the Internet and the media have been considerably unshackled and everyone has a cellphone. These days, you can have a phone line installed within 48 hours.
Mohamad al-Jleilati, CEO of the new Damascus Securities Exchange, epitomizes the transformation.
The son of a poor shoe-shop owner, Dr. al-Jleilati, 64, came of age at university during the radical sixties, with its blend of Arab nationalism and socialism. He received a PhD in economics in Moscow in 1975 - his dissertation was on the shortcomings of Western capitalism.
"I had strong socialist tendencies," Dr. al-Jleilati says, "out of a sense of injustice."
Today, Dr. al-Jleilati presides over one of the fundamental tools of the capitalism he once denounced. "I now see that economic development is good for all," he says, "as long as it's within the law."
The DSE opened its doors in March in a converted arts centre in suburban Damascus. It had six limited companies on a shiny new electronic board that spans the former stage. Today 11 companies are listed, and another will be added soon.
Trading is limited to three hours on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. To avoid runs or rushes, no stock can fall or rise by more than 2 per cent in a day.
The companies listed on the DSE are an elite club, with strict entry requirements as to the minimum number of shareholders and the need to have shown a profit for the previous two years.
As well, each company must use international accounting standards, something unheard of in Syria, where almost every company keeps two sets of books to avoid taxes.
"Five years ago, the corporate tax rate was 68 per cent," said Bassel Hamwi, deputy chairman and general manager of Bank Audi Syria, "Who's going to be transparent on their books with that kind of rate?"
Today the tax rate is about 18 per cent (25 per cent for banks) and a lot more people are coming clean, he says.
Mr. Hamwi, 43, son of a former Syrian diplomat, is the face of the new Syria. Educated in the West, he spent 15 years with the World Bank. "We helped set up Syria's first private bank in the early seventies," he said.
That was when he saw the country's potential. "I got really excited about it," he recalled.
Mr. Hamwi's Bank Audi, a subsidiary of a major Lebanese firm, was one of the first banks to set up in Syria. It showed a profit within six months and was one of the six corporations listed on the DSE's first day.
The stringent DSE requirements are "probably the strictest in the world," but for good reason. "The exchange needs to be trusted," Mr. Hamwi said. "People's experience here with equity has mostly been with pyramid schemes."
Rashad Halawani, brokerage manager at IFA Financial Services, agrees. "People here don't know how to deal in the market," he said. "They don't even know what a stock is."
Mr. Halawani, a Jordanian, learned to be a securities dealer in Jordan and Dubai. "We're all trying to educate people, to encourage them to invest in the market," he said. "But it's hard going. Most people like to buy goods or apartments, not shares."
It's also tough to persuade Syrian companies to offer shares in their businesses to the public. "Why should I go to the market?" asks Mr. Daaboul, 59. "We have the funds we need. If I need more for some major new business, it's easy to find partners the old-fashioned way."
Mr. Daaboul's story is similar to that of most prominent businessmen in Syria. He started out in the 1970s as a small maker of aluminum windows and doors. Today his worth is in the hundreds of millions of dollars and his company uses cutting-edge German and Canadian technology to corner the market in aluminum products, cable and glass.
In many ways, Syria was a society stuck in the 1960s, when the ruling Baath party nationalized many of the major companies and monopolized the economy.
Syria didn't even have real credit cards until two years ago, when Bank Audi introduced the first. Even today, just 39 per cent of Syrians have a debit or a credit card, and only 4 per cent of them have ever used one to make a purchase.
But things are changing. When the French company Lafarge wanted to raise money for a new cement plant in Syria, Bank Audi put together a $340-million project finance facility, the first of its kind here.
"We sat down with government regulators and made up the rules as we went along," Mr. Hamwi said.
Remarkably, the facility was oversubscribed by more than three times, he said. "And this is in a year when money is very tight worldwide."
Malda al-Sarayji is pleased to see such enthusiasm. The U.S.-educated 32-year-old drafted the industrialization section of the government five-year plan now ending. The plan called for tax cuts, a stock market and higher accounting standards.
The biggest remaining hurdle, Dr. al-Sarayji said, is to bring the informal economy into the formal sector. A whopping 40 per cent of Syria's GDP - mainly small businesses and individual enterprise - goes under the radar, untaxed and unregulated. Her own consulting company is part of it, Dr. al-Sarayji acknowledged.
Fathi is part of it, too.
The 26-year-old electrical engineer (he declined to give his surname) holds down two jobs and lives with his parents, all to save enough money to get married in two years.
He earns about $900 a month and pays no taxes - the Lebanese electrical company he works for is a private, unregulated operation, as is the office he tends at night.
In the past, bright young men like him dreamed of leaving Syria and enjoying greater opportunities.
"Not me," Fathi says. "Some of my friends went to the Gulf. But … I like the way Syria is going."