The Right Honorable Sir Gavyn Arthur became the 675th Lord Mayor of London in November 2002. It wasn’t easy living up to the expectations of a job that has been constantly occupied since 1189. One of his prime tasks was promoting financial services in the City, the hotbed of the UK financial industry.
Born in Africa in 1951, Sir Gavyn studied at Harrow School, the University of Vienna, and Christ Church, Oxford. As a lawyer, he specialized in family finance law, and was elected Sheriff of the City of London, presiding over the Central Criminal Court, the famous Old Bailey, in 1998-1999. He was chairman of the Arab Financial Forum and director of a number of banks worldwide and Vice-President of the British Red Cross.
In August 2007, he gave an interview to Forward Magazine, Syria’s leading English monthly, conducted by its editor-in-chief Sami Moubayed at the Four Seasons Hotel. Gavyn Arthur died at the age of 65 in June 2016.
How many times have you visited Syria and what have your impressions been?
This is actually my eight visit to Syria. I first came as a tourist to look at antiquities back in 1994. My first official visit as Lord Mayor of London was in 2002. Clearly what has changed is the growth of financially services, which were non-existent when I first came to Syria. They still have a long way to go, however, but they are on the right track. One of the things that has not changed, and which I witnessed both in my official capacity and as a private tourist, is the hospitality of the Syrian people.
It is always difficult to counter-act ignorance. There is a prevailing culture in the west to blame Syria for all the problems of the Middle East. How do we overcome it? One way is to bring people to Syria. All those who visit this country leave with a totally different impression. My own wish is that Syria would launch an international touring exhibition of artifacts from its great wealth of art and antiquities. This could include world capitals like Paris; certainly London. Even as we speak, the Tutankhamen collection is coming to London from Egypt. Exhibitions of that sort bring a lot of attention to a country, especially one rich in history like Syria. I think if we could get 100,000 Londoners queuing to see such an exhibition of Syrian antiquities, it would help show the real Syria to the rest of the world.
What are the elements, in your view, that can help Syria develop itself?
One of the greatest triumphs for Syria is an in-born instinct for business and innovative commerce, found among its people. You invented trade. That in itself is very important. Syria is being held up by not receiving the amount of investment that it needs and deserves. To date, investment has come from family and friends. You need to outgrow family and friends so that SMEs (Small-Medium Enterprises) become large entrepreneurial setups. The banks that are operating in Syria are regional. The great international banks have not come to Syria because Syria needs to do a few things to encourage foreign investment. First, the country must move swiftly. Big banks are not interested in subsidiaries; they want branches. They would be interested in coming here if allowed to set up branches.
Second, the bureaucracy, which although has improved, needs yet to be simplified. For example the investment pool in the City of London stands at $12-13 trillion USD yet even that is not sufficient to meet the world’s demands. If a country puts obstacles, like bureaucracy, in the way of investment, especially in a small market like Syria, then international investment will simply move on to the next country on the list. Due to a wrong and false international reputation, people aren’t coming to Syria. The jewel in your crown is Palmyra. It is for Syria what Petra is for Jordan. It is one of the greatest sites in the world. There is a huge worry, however, that it may develop in the wrong way. Beauty is in its isolation in the desert. Insensitive development, like casinos in Palmyra, could destroy the greatest source of potential wealth in Syria, if not handled carefully.
Forward Magazine, September 2007