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Syrian expatriates return home in hopes of new wealth

Many Syrian-Americans are leaving for Damascus, lured by the opportunities offered by a newly open economy.

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For Louay Habbal, sipping his latte in an upmarket coffee shop in Damascus, the US will always be home.

The warmth of the people, the possibility of achieving success from nothing, and the vast open spaces are unparalleled, he says, delight filling his face as he remembers 28 years spent in America working for a succession of leading banks, including Merrill Lynch and Riggs.

"America is the only country on earth where a foreigner is not called a foreigner," he says. "It's the only country in the world where you can land at [John F. Kennedy Airport] and within 24 hours be working, with a place to live and a license to drive."

But, in January, Mr. Habbal uprooted his wife and two US-born children and returned to Damascus to establish a new bank.

President Bashar al-Assad's economic liberalization policies have spurred many Syrian-Americans, like Habbal, to leave their comfortable American lives and return to Syria. "There are tremendous opportunities right now in Syria. Things economically are accelerating rapidly and every day there are new unorganized opportunities," Habbal says.

New laws are easing over 40 years of private investment restrictions, opening up most economic sectors to private capital, dramatically loosening Syria's tight foreign exchange regulations, and rationalizing tax rates.

According to the International Monetary Fund, nonoil GDP growth in 2006 was a strong 6 to 7 percent.

An estimated 20 Syrian-Americans play leading roles in Syriatel , the country's leading communications firm. Others have set up IT companies, established manufacturing firms, and even opened high-end American-style cafes.

Expatriates are successful, says Syrian economist Samir Seifan, because they combine a Western work ethic with a native's knowledge of the notoriously labyrinthine Syrian business system.

"The business mentality they bring and the experience of managing are important, but at the same time you need local experience. We have more bureaucracy than America, we have more difficulties, and we don't have the mentality for business and a market economy," he said.

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