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DUBAI: When Samy packed his bags and left for Russia in 2018, he was convinced better days were ahead. His hometown of Damascus was on its knees, crippled by nearly a decade of war and on the cusp of the worst economic crisis in more than a century. There were few opportunities for him and other young Syrians. Emigrating seemed the best option.

The charms of Moscow beckoned. Samy, who only gave his first name, had seen the bluster of Russian soldiers in Syria and heard stories about life back home.

He had also seen with his own eyes how Russian President Vladimir Putin’s soldiers had helped secure the position of Bashar Assad, the Syrian leader to whom his family has remained loyal. Moscow was safe, or so he thought, and for a time it was a safe haven where he could save and send money home.

Then came the war in Ukraine. Over the past fortnight, Samy’s world, and the lives of other Syrians like him who thought they had found a safe place to start over, have come crashing down. When the value of the rouble collapsed, his savings were wiped out and, with nearly every sector of the economy under pressure, his job was soon put in jeopardy.

An unprecedented global sanctions regime has crippled the Russian economy, cutting off exports of oil, wheat and raw materials, forcing the withdrawal of Western companies, isolating the country from the global financial system and sending its currency into a tailspin.

Economists predict Russia will default within two months as credit lines and the economy itself grind to a halt. Kremlin financial facilitators are the declared target of sanctions. The theft of the yachts of the oligarchs across the Mediterranean, beyond the clutches of European states keen to confiscate them, has been a source of amusement for many on the continent.

But the plight of regular Russians and the large Middle Eastern migrant community living among them has been largely ignored. As the economy disintegrates, Samy and other Syrians living in Russia face the second major economic collapse of their lives. And this one is likely to be much worse than the first.

Speaking from his apartment in Moscow, Samy told Arab News: “I am facing a financial dilemma. I considered taking all my money from the bank, which doesn’t even amount to much, and keeping it hidden in my apartment. But then I start thinking, what if I get robbed?

It’s not just Samy who needs this money to survive. “I have a family in Damascus that depends on me. My parents are old. They were among the lucky few who didn’t feel the need to ration their fuel too much to keep warm. I was so proud of myself that I was able to keep them warm. I fled one war to land in another.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union projected soft power across the Middle East and at different times maintained close relations with Egypt, Syria, South Yemen, and Algeria, among others. secular Arab states.

In the post-Soviet era, the Russian Federation has visibly extended its political, diplomatic, military and economic footprint in the Middle East and North Africa since the early 2000s.

Under Putin’s leadership, Russia’s engagement with the Arab world has involved intensive energy diplomacy, growing grain exports, penetrating the regional arms market, and deploying armed forces in 2015 to Syria to support its main regional client, the Assad regime.

Russia was hit hard after its invasion of Ukraine, finding itself ostracized by much of the international community. (AFP)

However, the outcome of the war in Ukraine could still deal a serious blow to Russia’s influence and position in the Middle East. Footage posted to social media last week showed long lines of Russian citizens queuing at ATMs to withdraw their savings or convert what they had into dollars before the currency depreciated further.

Millions of people have also found themselves suddenly unable to make purchases with Apple Pay or Google Pay, both of which have been cut by US tech giants as more companies cut ties with Russia.

The Russian central bank reacted to the monetary crash by raising its key rate from 9.5% to 20% to avoid an inflationary spiral. But the banking and financial system simply cannot cope with what amounts to a freeze of two-thirds of its reserves.

Elvira Nabiullina, the bank’s governor, told employees in a video address that they faced an “extreme situation”, according to Reuters. As economist and author Anders Aslund wrote in a tweet: “Putin destroyed the rouble”.


* $20 – Average monthly salary in Syria (equivalent to 70,000 Syrian pounds).

And yet, the sanctions are linked. US President Joe Biden has decided to sever ties with many of Russia’s biggest financial institutions, saying the measure “beyond anything we’ve ever done”.

Russia’s largest bank, Sberbank, along with 25 of its subsidiaries, representing a third of Russia’s financial assets, were on the list. Biden also banned American companies from doing business with them and froze the assets of Russian oligarchs close to the Kremlin.

The UK has imposed limits on the amount Russians can deposit in UK banks. It also excluded Russian banks from its financial system and froze their assets.

The EU, meanwhile, aims to target 70% of Russia’s banking sector and state-owned enterprises and reduce its imports of Russian gas by 66% before 2030. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said the continent no longer rely on a “supplier who has explicitly threatened us”.

Sanctions have seen Western brands desert the country, with authorities on high alert for signs of trouble. (AFP)

A long list of Western retailers, many driven by consumer boycott threats, have chosen to halt operations and close some of their stores in Russia. These include brands such as H&M, Levis and IKEA.

In a sign that the sanctions are already starting to hit supply chains, Russians have taken to Twitter claiming that some grocery stores in Moscow have limited the number of items they can buy at a time.

Meanwhile, in Syria, more than half of the country’s pre-war population is displaced, either living elsewhere in the country or having fled abroad. Those settled in Russia are presumed to have been controlled by both regimes. According to Russian Interior Ministry estimates, 9,100 Syrian citizens resided in the Russian Federation at the end of October 2018.

Moscow has remained a staunch ally of Assad since the 2015 military intervention, despite crippling sanctions and international condemnation of his regime.

There have been reports in recent days of Syrian mercenaries traveling to Russia to fight in Ukraine. This comes at a time when Syria’s dire economic conditions show no signs of improving.

In recent years, many wealthy Syrians transferred their money to Russia, which they considered safer. Assad himself is said to have lost around $10 billion when the currency crashed in neighboring Lebanon. Its losses in Syria are believed to be of a similar magnitude. Time will tell what the ruble’s collapse will cost it.

The average salary in Syria is 70,000 Syrian pounds per month, the equivalent of $20. The United Nations World Food Program estimates that around 12.4 million Syrians are food insecure while 1.4 million are severely food insecure. Electricity and fuel are also scarce.

Earlier this year, Assad announced a five-day public holiday in an effort to reduce fuel and energy consumption. Both are now extremely rare and a spike in oil prices caused by the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions on Russia could even halt travel to much of Syria, where the cost of filling a tank dwarfs what most people earn in a month. .

For those like Samy, who thought their life would be better on an ally’s land, it’s kind of the same thing. “I’m starting to think Syrians are cursed,” he said.

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