"Our Country is Predestined for Cultural Tourism"
Tuesday, November 18th, 2008
Interview with the Syrian ambassador, H.E. Dr. Hussein Omran
Syria’s image has been dominated until now by the unresolved conflict in the Near East. The terms used for this Levantine country have stretched all the way to “rogue state.” But politically movement can be noted both, both internally and externally. One of Syria’s special hallmarks is an incomparably rich history that continues to have en effect to this day, above all through the co-existence of numerous religions. ARAB FORUM spoke with the Syrian ambassador, H.E. Dr. Hussein Omran, about the reform-oriented future and millennia-old traditions and his personal relationship to Germany.
ARAB FORUM: Your Excellency, it has often been repeated that no solution in the Near East is possible without Syria with your country being assigned a key role. There is now movement in the Near East peace process with your neighbor Turkey also playing a role. In your opinion, what would a solution look like?
Dr. Omran: Syria is basing its peace efforts on UN resolutions 242 and 338, which demand the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied Arab territory and the granting of the legitimate rights of the Arab Palestinian people. The Madrid Conference of 1992 is based on the principle of land for peace. In the subsequent negotiations between Syria and Israel, Syria sought to gain the return of the Golan Heights that Israel has been occupying since 1967 and ensure that all nations in the region can live in stability and prosperity. An accord in all the basic issues of a peace agreement was reached after years of negotiations with Israel. But developments following the murder of former Israeli Prime Minister Rabin und his successor’s distancing himself from Rabin’s assurances of returning all of the occupied Syrian territory to Syria led to a set-back. Additional reasons for this were the occupation of Iraq by American forces and the stagnation of the peace process on all tracks. After the USA failed to install a new or greater Near East, it became clear that only peace could safeguard everyone’s interests and that Syria can be neither isolated nor bypassed. So Turkey took over the role of the negotiator in indirect negotiations between Syria and Israel, which are currently taking place in Turkey to determine the Israeli side’s seriousness and its willingness to fulfill the obligations of a peace agreement. The solution is the fulfillment of UN Resolutions 242 and 338. And, as I said, an agreement has already been reached about the basic issues of security guarantees.
We are of the opinion that a permanent peace can only be achieved through just and comprehensive solutions. That means the return of all of the occupied territories and the granting of the rights of the Palestinians. 750,000 of them live today in Syria ready to offer permanent peace in exchange for their rights.
ARAB FORUM: A yet to be resolved problem is Syria’s eastern neighbor, Iraq. On the one hand, Syria, bordering on the Mediterranean, offers a bridgehead for companies who want to become involved in Iraq and, on the other hand, Syria is confronted with the problem of a large number of Iraqi refugees. What does being Iraq’s neighbor mean more at the moment, opportunity or risk? What are possible solutions that would be in Syria’s interest?
Dr. Omran:We are very sad about what has happened in Iraq and what is still happening and hope that this spiral of violence will be stopped. We too are affected. As a result of the occupation of Iraq, millions of our Iraqi brothers and sisters have left their country and have found asylum in neighboring countries. Almost two million of them are in Syria. The Syrians share everything with their Iraqi brothers. Brotherhood obligates. But we hope that the security situation in Iraq improves so that our Iraqi guests may return to their country. And we will help our Iraqi brothers and sisters in every way we possibly can. We will also participate with all our strength in the reconstruction, if our Iraqi brothers so desire. I personally do not believe that the process of rebuilding in Iraq can get running effectually and smoothly before the occupation forces have a set timetable for withdrawal.
ARAB FORUM: Syria has been afflicted with a negative image in Western countries until now. What can Syria do, what can Western countries do to counter this image or what has already been done?
Dr. Omran: Yes, unfortunately. The image of Syria spread by some media in the Western countries has nothing to do with the true image of Syria. Americans, French and Germans return amazed and have to admit that certain sources have been deceiving them. Syria, the land of the first alphabet, the cradle of the first cultures and civilizations and the country where tolerance and diversity are noticeably alive, with the openness and human warmth of its people repeatedly impressing their welcomed guests – how can this country be described in negative terms? Is it negative when Syria insists on its right to regain its occupied territory in accordance with the decisions of the international community?
We try to correct this manipulated image of our country in the Western countries through our behavior toward other people, through our open-mindedness and tolerance. We expect truth and objectivity from the truly free press and opinion-forming media. And we are happy that we have won many sincere friends in Germany.
ARAB FORUM: What importance is given to maintaining an image in tourism? Which Syria can a tourist expect to find and how important is the tourist trade for Syria’s economy?
Dr. Omran: We lay great store in the cultural aspect of tourism. Our country is predestined for cultural tourism. Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, even if Aleppo is in the competition. Cain is said to have murdered his brother Abel in the mountains near Damascus. According to the Bible, Saulus became Paul after his experience on the road from Damascus. That still holds today; many change their preconceived opinions after they have visited Damascus.
Tourists notice that Syrians are friendly and not importunate and pushy. The diversity and the tolerance among the people of Syria, where mosques’ minarets rise up alongside church towers and where you can only tell if a store’s owner is a Muslim, Christian or Jew by its closing days, repeatedly impress the country’s guests. But now to tourism’s economic importance for Syria. I have to admit that Syria has been rather late in recognizing the economic importance of the tourist trade and so has set up a special ministry to take care of the necessary infrastructure. Syria currently has a population of 20 million. It is said that almost as many Syrians and people of Syrian descent also live abroad. Just imagine what a boost that would give our tourist industry if only a part of them spent a three-week vacation in Syria.
The second largest group of tourists comes from Arab countries, particularly from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who spend the whole summer in Syria’s moderate climate.
Added to that are the pilgrim tourists who visit important Islamic and Christian shrines, as well as cultural tourists from all over the world, whose numbers have increased greatly in recent years.
Syria’s regular participation in the ITB, the international travel trade show in Berlin, is an expression of its determined intention to open up wider and attract more tourists. Especially since tourism is making an important contribution to the diversification of the national income, it plays an important role in the program of modernization, development and opening up to the world that Syria is successfully undertaking under the direction of President Bashar Al-Assad.
Perhaps I can describe the economic importance of tourism in one sentence. Syria has set the goal of developing tourism in such a way that the revenues of this industry will compensate for the drop in income from the oil industry.
ARAB FORUM: Syria is presently experiencing a process of reform, particularly regarding the economy. What is the motivation behind these reforms and what are their goals?
Dr. Omran: The fruits of the successful march forward on Syria’s path to modernization and development under the leadership of our president, Bashar Al-Assad, can be seen everywhere in the country. The challenges of globalization make it necessary to complete the process of comprehensive modernization and developmen in which the structural reorganization of the economic and political systems take precedence. It has been possible to implement important steps on the way to a social market economy, above all in regard to the legal framework. The central goal of the reform process is the mobilization of all the potential and the harmonizing of all sectors with each other so that all energy is bundled to raise the standard of living of the Syrian people. Coping with the enormous challenges in the areas of education, health services and the building industry in face of the developing population numbers is an urgent task within the framework of securing a stable future for coming generations.
ARAB FORUM: What status do Germany and German industries have in this as trading partners?
Dr. Omran: Germany also traditionally enjoys a very good reputation and Syria is no exception. That is why German companies and businesses are much sought after as trading partners. It is a seal of quality when a project is realized by a German company. We have had good relations with German companies in the past. Many economic ventures have been carried out for us by German companies. We hope very much that our cooperation with German partners will continue to develop. Small and medium-sized companies in Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt, who are involved in the realization of a series of important projects in Syria, have reported gratifying developments in this area.
ARAB FORUM: What sort of impetus do you expect from Ghorfa’s 12th German-Arab Economic Forum in June 2009, at which Syria will be the partner country?
Dr. Omran: Of course, we are pleased that Syria will be the partner country at it. I hope that Syrian businessmen will take advantage of this welcomed opportunity to suitably present themselves and their country at the 12th German-Arab Economic Forum and activate their contacts to Germany. I am convinced the year 2009 will bring positive developments in the trade relations between Syria and Germany. The 12th Economic Forum will certainly make a strong contribution to it.
ARAB FORUM: What is the significance of its relations to Germany for Syria as a European partner in general?
Dr. Omran: The relationship between Syria and German rest on deep roots. We Syrians have harbored a great sympathy for Germany and the Germans for as long as anyone can remember. Thousands of Syrians have studied in Germany and many of them hold high offices in Syria. This emotional connection that many Syrians have to Germany makes them hope that the relations between Syria and Germany will continue to develop in the interest of both sides.
ARAB FORUM: You yourself have studied in Germany and graduated with a degree in German in Leipzig and have had a lot to do with Germany in your career. How much of Germany is in you?
Dr. Omran: Two hearts beat in my breast; one for Syria and one for Germany. I was born and raised in Syria and in Germany I studied and earned a degree. In Syria I represented Germany as a professor for German language and literature and in Germany I represent Syria as its ambassador. As you can see, I have very much of Germany in me.
Interview: Rainer Schubert