Syria Fine Art Embargo To Be Enforced By EU

June of this year saw the confirmation of a luxury goods embargo on Syria by the European Union, a political sanction implementing the EU’s opposition against the escalating violence in Syria. Under the umbrella term of “luxury goods” lies art alongside sports cars and designer goods, limiting cultural exchange between the middle east and the west.

The ban aims to target wealthy Syrians, living lavish lifestyles as their countrymen suffer publicly both physically and economically. Namely, the ban will impact Bashar Al-Assad and the First Lady Asma Al-Assad, both of whom were the subject of a publication by the British newspaper, The Guardian, earlier this year exposing the spending habits of the couple and in particular Asma Al-Assad. The newspaper revealed the First Lady to be a keen internet shopper, spending thousands of dollars on designer goods during the peak of civilian protest in 2011. She was also found to have attempted purchasing artworks by the Zambian artist Nick Jeffrey from a London based dealer.

There are mixed opinions, however, towards whether sanctions on cultural property are an appropriate response to the political turmoil in Syria. Firstly, the past has proven that cultural sanctions do very little to put significant pressure on targeted individuals. The sanctions will impact wealthy citizens only so long as their assets remain on Syrian ground. Most individuals however rarely choose to keep their private collections within the country, and so will remain unaffected by the sanctions. To give it some perspective, the total amount of art exported to Syria in 2011 values at £51,125 whilst the amount exported to Qatar during the same period totals at £32.5m, implying that art trade with Syrians must be taking place elsewhere than inside the country’s borders. Asma Al-Assad herself is a British national, and therefore would not be impacted by the trade restrictions when visiting the UK.

Secondly, past experience with luxury goods embargos have proven them ineffective. 2007 saw the UN impose luxury goods sanctions on North Korea, only for it to become apparent that it had little real impact on the flow of luxury goods in and out of the country.

It can be argued that the flaw of the sanction lies within its poor signalling to both civilians government bodies. In the perspective of citizens on the ground, having an external government body with real power, such as the UN, imply that limiting army generals from buying their next sports car will help the political situation is insulting. To political leaders, the sanctions will be nothing but a mere nuisance in their lives. Trade of luxury goods will go on uninhibited, but simply outside the country’s borders. Such weak sanctions signal a weak UN.

It is true that the type of individual that these sanctions aim to target is likely to be enjoying an extravagant lifestyle, but it is unclear as to whether luxury-goods sanctions are the right way to go about reaching them. Whilst they may provide a short-term inconvenience for the wealthy, they are no long-term barrier. Assets can easily be stored and exchanged overseas, rendering the sanctions useless and leaving nothing but a reinforced cultural barrier between the Middle East and the West upon Assad’s departure. 

Words: Paniz Gederi  © ArtLyst 2012

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