10 July 1969 |
|Relatives||Hafez Makhlouf (brother)
Bashar al Assad (cousin)
Rami Makhlouf (Arabic: رامي مخلوف, born 10 July 1969) is a wealthy Syrian businessman and the maternal cousin of President Bashar al-Assad. He is considered Syria's wealthiest man and one of the most powerful men in Syria; according to Syrian analysts he is part of al-Assad's inner circle and no foreign company can do business in Syria without his consent and partnership. Makhlouf owns Syriatel, the largest mobile phone network in Syria, along with other retail, banking and real estate companies.
Rami Makhlouf is related to the Assad family through his aunt, Anisa Makhlouf, who is the wife of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. His personal wealth was estimated in 2008 to be about $6 billion. He was born on 10 July 1969.
Rami Makhlouf is the main owner of Syriatel, one of two licensed mobile phone companies in Syria. Besides Syriatel, he is involved in real estate, banking, free trade zones along the border with Lebanon, duty-free shops, and luxury department stores. According to the Financial Times, he is thought to control as much as 60% of the Syrian economy through his web of business interests.
Makhlouf was among a diverse group of connected insiders who monopolized the small, but growing, Syrian private sector in the 1990s. As President Hafez al-Assad prepared for his son's succession, the distribution of assets from privatization began to shift clearly in favor of the Makhloufs. Assad believed the Makhlouf family could be relied upon to support Bashar without reserve in the uncertain political environment that would follow upon his death, unlike other insiders, who had close financial ties to billionaire Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, such as former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam. Rami and his brother Ihab therefore enjoyed easy access to opportunities such as an exclusive license to operate a network of duty-free retail shops, where a significant portion of goods were redistributed inside the country. By the time Bashar assumed power in 2000, Rami Makhlouf was well established.
Rami Makhlouf is thought to have tried in 2004 to take over the Mercedes concession in Syria, by ensuring passage of a law denying Mercedes the right to import parts unless Makhlouf was made the exclusive agent for Mercedes in Syria. Mercedes wanted to keep the Sanqar family, who had had the concession since the 1960s. Mercedes ceased all activity in Syria until the dispute was resolved, and the Mercedes concession is now once again controlled by the Sanqar family.
Makhlouf's current business interests are extensive. He is the majority owner of Cham Holding which has investments in luxury tourism, restaurants, and real estate through Bena Properties. Cham Holding also controls Syrian Pearl Airlines, the first private airline to be allowed in the country. He is also invested in several private banks established in Syria, such as the International Islamic Bank of Syria, Al Baraka Bank, International Bank of Qatar, Cham Bank, and the Bank of Jordan in Syria; in insurance and financial services companies, such as Cham Capital. Like his father, Mohammed Makhlouf, he is active in the oil sector, via the British oil company Gulfsands Petroleum. He is also invested in real estate companies such as Sourouh, Fajr, Al Batra, and Al Hada'iq; in tourism companies such as Al Mada'in and in in media companies such as the daily Al Watan, radio/television station Ninar and satellite station Dunya TV, advertising companies like Promedia; in education companies such as the Chouwayfat schools; in industry through the Eltel Middle East company; and in public works companies such as Ramak TP. Rami Makhlouf has extensive land holdings in the United States Virgin Islands, which were the subject of court litigation. Because of this litigation he transferred his U.S. holdings to his brother Ihab. The Makhloufs also have a monopoly on the import of tobacco into Syria. In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the U.S. assets and restricted the financial transactions of Rami Makhluf.
Makhlouf maintains a close relationship with Bushra al-Assad, Bashar's older sister, and her husband Assef Shawkat. He also operates a number of business projects in Lebanon with Maher al-Assad, Bashar's younger brother. There are reports of tensions between the two, which is thought to explain why parts of the Makhlouf business were shifted in 2005 to Dubai. Some observers believe the transfers were made because the Makhloufs were worried that they were going to be made the scapegoats of an anti-corruption propaganda campaign.
On 5 July 2012, it was reported that the Central Bank of the UAE ordered the banks and financial institutions to search for and submit details of any financial assets and transactions performed by the Syrian ruling elite, including Rami Makhlouf. This search was based on the decision of the Ministerial Council of the League of Arab States dated 27 November 2011, to impose multiple sanctions on Syria, and on and decisions issued by the European Union and the United States involving economic sanctions on Syria.
Accusations of corruption
In February 2008, the United States Department of the Treasury designated Makhlouf as a beneficiary and facilitator of public corruption in Syria. His influence and connections within the government have allowed him to control the issuance of certain types of profitable commodities contracts, it said. According to the US Treasury, “Makhlouf has manipulated the Syrian judicial system and used Syrian intelligence officials to intimidate his business rivals. He employed these techniques when trying to acquire exclusive licenses to represent foreign companies in Syria and to obtain contract awards.” On 10 May 2011, the European Union placed sanctions on him for "bankrolling the government and allowing violence against demonstrators". Makhlouf's brother Hafez Makhlouf was until 2014 head of Syria's intelligence agency, the General Security Directorate.
Political observers generally accept that Makhlouf's great wealth is a result of his close family ties to the Syrian government. It is reported that Bashar al-Assad before he became president would during official meetings try to make business contacts for Rami. In US diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks, Rami Makhlouf is described as a powerful government financer. Makhlouf has further been accused of illegally diverting Lebanese telephone calls through Syria with the help of businessman Pierre Fattouch for the benefit of Syriatel.
Worse, Makhlouf's business skills may have helped keep al-Assad in power and prolonged hostilities in Syria. Makhlouf controlled three Syrian companies close to the government of Bashar Al-Assad – Maxima Middle East Trading, Morgan Additives Manufacturing and Pangates International. These companies used Mossack Fonseca shell companies registered in the Seychelles and British Virgin Islands to ease the pressure global sanctions put on his cousin's regime. He paid for the Syrian Air Force helicopter fuel through shell companies, for example. The US Treasury sanctioned Makhlouf, charging that Pangates had supplied the Assad government with a thousand tonnes of aviation fuel.
Makhlouf was able to continue unimpeded operations through the shell companies, since neither jurisdiction fell under US law; however the EU sanctions did affect the companies in the British Virgin Islands. HSBC told the law firm that the Swiss authorities had frozen Makhlouf's accounts, and that "they have had no contact with the beneficial owner of this company since the last 3 months". The Swiss Federal Administrative Court in 2015 rejected an appeal of the block on his use of an undisclosed sum in his Swiss accounts.
Rami Makhlouf was seen by the rebels as a symbol of corruption in Syria. In Daraa during the Syrian Civil War, demonstrators called him a "thief". Syrian dissident Riad Seif was arrested and imprisoned for several years because of his criticism of Rami Makhlouf. Seif, a member of parliament and one of the most ardent critics of the Syrian government, became known outside of Syria because of his criticism of the government during the Damascus Spring of 2001. Despite several warnings from the Syrian government not to interfere, Seif began an anticorruption campaign in September 2001 against the way the two GSM mobile phone licenses were awarded, of which one to Maklouf's Syriatel. Shortly thereafter Seif lost his parliamentary immunity and was arrested and imprisoned for five years. United Nations observers at its Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, set up in 2011, have documented "mass arrests by regime forces, leading to the enforced disappearance of large groups of fighting-age men."
Makhlouf was implicated in the leaked 2016 Panama Papers, which detailed his control over Syria's national industries. His name also surfaced as part of the Swissleaks investigation. Frederik Obermaier, an investigative reporter at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, told Democracy Now: "[Mossack Fonseca] realised that [Makhlouf] was the cousin, and they realised that he was sanctioned, and they realised that he's allegedly one of the financiers of the Syrian regime. And they said, 'Oh, there is this bank who still does business with him, so we should still keep with him, as well'."
Syrian Civil War
Some opposition activists during the Syrian Civil War accused Makhlouf of financing pro-government demonstrations both across Syria and abroad, by providing flags, meals and money for those participating. The tycoon insisted his businesses are legitimate and provide professional employment for thousands of Syrians.
On 16 June 2011, Rami Makhlouf stated that he would "quit the Syrian business scene". Syria Files examined by Al Akhbar showed that Makhlouf continued to invest in several banks during 2011 and 2012. In late January 2012, he bought about 15 times as many shares (by value) as he sold, buying £S 127,000,000 and selling £S 8,670,000 of shares, mostly in Qatar National Bank–Syria and Syria International Islamic Bank.
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