President Asad replaced most of the senior economic officials in the government on 13 December, in a cabinet reshuffle that is widely seen as a prelude to reform of Syria's centrally planned economy. Prime Minister Mustafa Mero will stay on, as will the veteran ministers for foreign affairs and defence, but some 20 other cabinet positions have changed hands and the planning ministry has been axed altogether.
Among the newcomers are Economy & Foreign Trade Minister Ghassan al-Rifai and Finance Minister Mohammed al-Atrash. They replace Mohammed Imady and Khaled Mahayni, who have held these two portfolios since the mid-1980s. Al-Rifai, a liberal economist, comes direct from Washington where he was senior adviser to the World Bank. Al-Atrash was vice-governor of the Central Bank of Syria in the early 1970s and later became an executive director at the IMF.
The two ministers will be responsible to newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Mohammed al-Hussain who replaces Khaled Raad. Local analysts say that Al-Hussain, who holds a PhD in economics from Romania and is head of economic affairs for the Baath party, is a more conservative figure who is likely to oppose any radical moves to liberalise the Syrian economy. One potential source of friction in the cabinet will be economic entry requirements for the World Trade Organisation, which Syria applied to join in October.
Issam al-Zaim, who was brought into the first Mero cabinet in March 2000 as planning minister, has been appointed minister for industry. Al-Zaim is regarded as one of the leading proponents of market-led reform.
The appointment of Oil & Mineral Resources Minister Ibrahim Haddad may also herald changes in the energy sector. Unlike the previous incumbent, Maher al-Jamal, who came to the post from the Al-Furat Petroleum Company, Haddad is a former director-general of the Atomic Energy Commission and an outsider to the oil industry.
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