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With empty pockets and shrinking menus, Syrians greet ‘hardest’ Ramadan yet

Syrian Muslims greeted Ramadan this week with empty pockets and shrinking menus, as the country grapples with the unprecedented expense and scarcity of basic goods and services. 


24 March 2023

PARIS — Abu Muhammad did not do any Ramadan shopping this year. In the past, he would start preparing the week before the holy month began, buying many foods and items. 

This Ramadan, the 30-year-old, who works at a roadside stand selling fuel in Jassim city, in the north of Syria’s southern Daraa province, set aside his money for “heating,” he said. “The weather is still cold, and fuel prices are high.” He needs SYP 25,000 a day, $3.30 according to the black market exchange rate of SYP 7,400 to the dollar, to buy mazot diesel.

As Ramadan begins, Syria is in the grips of an unprecedented rise in the prices of basic goods and services, which are scarce, as the economic situation deteriorates in the country as a whole and the Syrian pound falls to its lowest-ever exchange rate against the US dollar. 

Data Syria Direct collected about the cost of basic commodities in Damascus during the month of Ramadan over the past three years—2021, 2022 and 2023—shows how costs have increased by three-to-six times. The average public sector salary went up only once during this period. Decree 19 of 2021, issued by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, added “50 percent to salaries and fixed wages, effective from the date of issuance of this decree, for both civilian and military workers” in the public sector. 

In 2021, a kilogram of mutton cost SYP 15,000, a kilogram of chicken cost SYP 5,000 and a flat of eggs cost SYP 7,500. In 2022, those items sold for SYP 30,000, SYP 9,500 and SYP 13,000, respectively. This year, prices have more than doubled once more, with mutton selling for SYP 70,000 ($9.46), chicken for SYP 21,000 ($2.84) and eggs for SYP 23,000 ($3.11). 

Meanwhile, the monthly public sector salary in 2021 was around SYP 70,000 per month, around $23 according to the exchange rate at the time. In 2022 and 2023, the monthly salary was SYP 125,000, but the actual value of the wage against the dollar fell from $31 in 2022 to $16 this year. 

The ‘hardest’ Ramadan

“Prices are going up more and more, in a way that doesn’t match individual income,” said Abu Muhammad, a father of four. He estimated that goods cost “between 100 and 200 percent more than last year.” His family started Ramadan on Thursday by eating the same dishes they normally do at their home. 

Abu Muhammad earns about SYP 700,000 ($94) per month selling fuel. While fuel costs are rising, his income has not changed, while his wife’s monthly salary as a public school teacher went up 50 percent to SYP 125,000 ($16). 

“This income was acceptable to cover last Ramadan’s expenses, but now it’s very difficult,” Abu Muhammad said. This year’s Ramadan is “the hardest,” he added, noting that “the cost of the cheapest iftar meal, without chicken or meat, costs SYP 25,000 [$3.30]…do I borrow money to cover this month’s deficit?”

The situation is worse for Um Osama, who owns a beauty salon in the northern Daraa city of Inkhil. She used to share family expenses with her husband, who “worked at a store, with an excellent salary,” but he was conscripted into the military. Currently, he earns SYP 170,000 ($23), SYP 100,000 ($13.50) of which he sends to his family. This sum “only covers five days, [even] before Ramadan,” she told Syria Direct

Um Osama’s income has also declined in recent months. Over the past week, “nobody came to the salon,” she said. She has tried to borrow money from her relatives, but was not able to. Now, she is waiting for her husband to receive leave from the military, so he can “work as a day laborer during it. Until he returns, my four children and I will rely on the provisions we have at home.” 

Across Damascus-controlled areas, Syrians share a similar struggle with deteriorating economic conditions and the difficulty of preparing for Ramadan. Amal al-Dimashqi, a journalist living in the Syrian capital, agreed with other sources Syria Direct spoke to that “securing Ramadan necessities is harder than last year—the prices are up two-to-four times over last Ramadan, while family income remained the same.” 

“Usually, on the first day of Ramadan in Damascus, we say we want to make it white, meaning that we eat foods containing cooked yogurt, such as shakriyyeh [chicken and yogurt stew] and sheikh al-mahshi [stuffed zucchini in yogurt sauce]. This year, we won’t be able to. The cost of cooking these types [of foods] is more than SYP 100,000 [$13.50],” she said.

Paralyzed markets and missing goods

At the start of March, the Damascus government added onions to the list of goods that can be purchased at a subsidized price via the electronic “smart card” system in place since 2019. Under the move, consumers were limited to buying two kilograms of onions per card per week for SYP 6,000 per kilogram. Damascus later increased the ration to four kilograms per week in mid-March, without making an official announcement. 

Syrian markets have seen an additional rise in prices in recent days. Damascus’ Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection said on Wednesday that the prices of various goods have gone up between 30 percent and 56 percent. The Ministry attributed the rise to an “inability to open a letter of credit” due to sanctions on Syrian banks, which “increases the costs of financing imports.” 

The day before Ramadan began, a member of the Poultry Breeders Committee, Hikmat Haddad, expected demand for chickens to go up by 50 percent during the first days of the month, driving up the cost in the market. 

Worsening conditions for consumers have hit the business of Abu Adnan, who owns a wholesale food distributor in the Daraa countryside. His sales are down 70 percent this Ramadan season, he told Syria Direct

Ramadan used to be “a good season for profits, due to increased demand for some Ramadan items, such as jams, cheeses, halawa [a tahini-based sweet] and others, but this year most of the goods are still in the warehouse,” he said.

In previous years, Abu Ammar, who owns a small grocery store in Inkhil, filled his shelves with in-demand products for Ramadan one week before the month began. Last year, he bought 30 kilograms of halawa, 30 jars of jam and similar quantities of cheese and butter. He was able to sell all of it by the first day of Ramadan, bought the same amount again, and sold that during the rest of the month. 

This year, Abu Ammar bought half as much as he did last year, but had not sold most of his goods as of Thursday evening, the first day of Ramadan, he told Syria Direct. He expected the quantity he has will not run out until the end of the month. 

Apart from the goods not selling, most of the sales that Abu Ammar did make this week were on credit, with the customer paying “at least half of the bill,” he said. “A flat of eggs, a jar of jam, halawa and cheese together cost almost SYP 100,000 [$13.50], which is the salary of a [public sector] employee for a full month. I am forced to sell on credit, whether during Ramadan or otherwise.” 

This year, “halawa and butter aren’t on the list of Ramadan goods, due to the economic situation,” he added, noting that the price of butter has reached SYP 16,000 ($2), while a kilogram of halawa runs SYP 30,000 ($4)—“more expensive than chicken.” 

But for Abu Muhammad, all Ramadan items are off the menu this year—not just halawa and butter. 

 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.