I spent a week over Whitsun on a parliamentary delegation abroad. When I told people that I was going to be one of a ten-strong parliamentary delegation to Syria there was much sympathy.
Most people seemed to think that I was likely to be heading into the middle of a war zone and already one or two of my aspirant political friends were calculating the chance that there might be a by-election in the offing before too long!
I must confess I didn’t quite know what to expect as we landed in Damascus late at night at the end of May. At a time when so much attention is quite rightly focused on the problems in the Middle East I hope it will be valuable if I share with you a few of my impressions of my visit to an important political force in the region.
Naturally, as part of a parliamentary delegation, it is difficult to have a genuine feel for day-to-day life within a country. We spent much of our time with a police escort being driven between meetings. This made for a very convenient life. It was also evident that one of the purposes of a police and diplomatic guard was to keep us away from engaging in conversation with everyday Syrian folk, even during our forays into the souks that make the Middle East such an exciting commercial centre.
Syria, like many Middle Eastern states, is a highly planned, but essentially conservative society with a great deal of emphasis being placed on conformity. The businessmen whom we met spoke perfect English and were urbane, well travelled and cultured. However, it is fair to say that within what is essentially a socialist society their position is to be dictated not by cut and thrust entrepreneurialism but the benefits that are afforded to those who have monopolistic licensing agreements with leading global companies.
Many of the Syrians who we met were shocked by the reputation that the country has been branded with in recent years. In particular, I was impressed by President Assad, who became Head of State three years ago on the death of his father. He is a man who is only a few months younger than me but seemed entirely aware of the need for political and economic reform within Syria. The difficulty is going to be delivering on both of these desirable goals.
Syria lacks open democracy as we would understand it here but at the same time realises the importance of substantially increasing her overseas trade in order to create wealth for its fast-growing population. The country’s population has risen six-fold since 1945 and indeed doubled to some 18 million in the past 15 years.
With this increase in population President Assad is making significant developments in the country’s education policies. He has already instituted a course of action whereby both French and English will be taught compulsorily from the age of eight and all schoolchildren will receive technology and computer lessons from the time they commence their education.
The President struck me as a straight-talking and realistic man with a keen eye to the future provided he can ensure that his advisers, many of whom are somewhat older, from a perhaps more gentle generation, recognise the importance of driving through these changes and I have every hope that Syria will cease to be regarded as a pariah state and will again play a leading role in Middle Eastern affairs.
Certainly in comparison to London it is a safe place in which to live! No one has any difficulty with walking the streets during the early hours of the morning and when I asked the Head of the Damascan Police about crime prevention programmes he looked at me rather quizzically. We don’t have to worry about that he assured me.