After concluding a five-day goodwill tour of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, President Pratibha Patil touched down at the historic city of Damascus on Friday morning.

The Syria visit, first by an Indian President, will focus on bilateral issues — political, economic and cultural — and exploration of investment opportunities in both countries, government sources said. On the regional and international fronts, the Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) and Syria's relations with its neighbours will figure in the President's discussions.

The sources said there was a strong possibility of a cultural agreement being signed between the two countries, as well as between Doordarshan and the Syrian national broadcaster, and one between the Press Trust of India and the official Syrian news agency. The India-Syria Business Council, which will be launched during Ms. Patil's visit, is expected to boost economic relations.

Her official engagements start on Saturday, when she will be accorded a ceremonial welcome at the Presidential Palace, after which she will hold talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He paid a state visit to India in June 2008, when bilateral political and economic ties were strengthened. India's engagement in the economic sphere increased substantially after President Assad's visit.

An IT centre is coming up in Syria with Indian assistance and will be functional soon. MECON is giving final shape to its feasibility study on utilisation of phosphatic resources of Syria; a power project awarded to Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. is partially funded by India through a $240-million line of credit; and Apollo International of India is upgrading a steel plant in Hama, for which also India has extended a line of credit of $25 million.

Two-way trade

Unlike with the UAE, the two-way trade level with Syria stands at a modest $530 million. The Indo-Syrian Joint Commission, which met in June this year, has decided to work towards doubling trade shortly. The President's visit is expected to boost economic relations, identify areas of mutually beneficial cooperation and register Indian interest in sourcing phosphates, which will help in achieving food security.

Ms. Patil's meeting with President Assad will be followed by delegation-level talks which are expected to cover bilateral relations, regional issues such as the MEPP and international issues. She will meet Prime Minister Mohammed Naji Otri and Speaker of Parliament Mahmoud al-Abrash. Ms. Patil will also visit the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas in Aleppo.

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