This paper traces the emergence of a discourse of “national economy" in Syria in the early twentieth century. In the beginning of the century, a number of global and regional conditions led to a decline in the viability of liberalism as an economic doctrine. Factors such as the relative success of the locally financed infrastructure projects in Syria as well as the economic rise of Germany and the US using protectionist policies led a number of Syrian thinkers to grow interested in national political economic ideas as alternatives to ideas of Smithian political economy and Ricardian comparative advantage.
After the July 1908 Young Turk Revolution, this economic tendency grew hegemonic within the Syrian intelligentsia. After the ruling Committee of Union and Progress party relaxed Ottoman censorship laws, a number of new journals and newspapers were established in Beirut, Damascus, and other cities around Syria. Many existing Syrian journals also moved back to Syria from the diaspora. Through a close reading of a number of these publications, I show how Syrian intellectuals and political figures increasingly embraced a politics of national economy, calling for protection and development of local industries, increased state intervention and investment, and an end to trade capitulations and the dominance of foreign companies in the region. Such an argument goes against the conventional historiography, which portrays the Young Turk Era after 1908 as one which saw an Arab liberal faction coalesce against the more state-nationalist tendencies of the Turkish-dominated Committee of Union and Progress.
I argue that such novel approaches to political economy cannot simply be reduced to the reception and application of neo-mercantilist models from abroad. Instead, I historicize this new economic tendency by demonstrating what sociohistorical conditions made ideas of national economy attractive to Syrian political factions after 1908: the increasing presence of foreign-controlled companies and infrastructure in Syria, nationalist boycotts of aggressor states against the Ottomans, and elite anxiety over militant worker strikes, among other factors. Furthermore, I show how ideas of national economy during this era carried on into the post-Ottoman era, as many of the chief ideologues of this tendency went on to dominate the Syrian nationalist movement against the French Mandate, and participated in the institutional and discursive construction of a Syrian “national economy” in opposition to France’s economic vision for the region.