Enab Baladi – Owis Akkad
Mohieddine al-Manfoush, the Syrian businessman accused of monopolizing the market in Eastern Ghouta during the siege imposed on the area by the Syrian regime forces between 2013 and 2018, has returned to the spotlight through a company he owns in Turkey, which paved the way for him to resume his activities in Europe. Enab Baladi has tracked the businessman’s new trade activities.
Al-Manfoush was a broker, who exclusively brought goods to Eastern Ghouta during the siege, and controlled several economic and services sectors. However, the businessman has recently appeared in the Turkish press as an “honest investor,” who is expected to significantly contribute to the region’s prosperity.
Al-Manfoush, known as Abu Ayman, comes from Mesraba in Eastern Ghouta. He owns the license of the Almarai Aldemshkieh Company, which was established in 2003 and specializes in the production of cheese and dairy.
Although Almarai Aldemshkieh’s factories are located in Eastern Ghouta, the company’s products are also commercialized in Damascus and the rest of the Syrian governorates and were exported to the neighboring countries, even during the siege.
In May 2017, the company participated in the Food Expo, an exhibition for food and packaging industries at the Dama Rose Hotel in Damascus. Also, the former Syrian Minister of Tourism, Bisher Yaziji, visited one of the company’s branches.
Active in Turkey during Ghouta siege
The businessman officially established al-Manfoush Factory for Cheese and Dairy in Sakarya, near Istanbul, on July 11, 2016.
The commercial record of the company, which was reviewed by Enab Baladi in the official Turkish commercial registry, shows that it is owned by Mohieddine and Emad Eddin Al-Manfoush as well as Manal Al-Takala.
The company was built on an area of 3,714 square meters as part of a seven acres land al-Manfoush has purchased.
According to an official announcement published in the Official Gazette on July 26, 2017, the capital of the company is 25 million Turkish Pounds, and Mohieddine Al-Manfoush owns a 60 percent share of the establishment, in addition to a 25 percent share for Manal Al-Takala and a 15 percent share for Emad Eddin Al-Manfoush.
Bekir Pakdemirli, the Turkish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and member of the ruling Justice and Development Party visited the company’s headquarters on January 5, 2019.
Pakdemirli tweeted: “We visited the dairy factory established by the Syrian investor Mohieddine Al-Manfoush in Sakarya. I think that when the factory starts operating, it will contribute greatly to the economy of Turkey and the region.”
Enab Baladi did not manage to communicate with the administration of Al-Manfoush’s company in Turkey, to verify whether the company started operating or not.
One foot in Turkey and other in Europe
In February 2016, Mohieddine al-Manfoush and Irfan al-Lahham registered a limited liability company in Slovakia, specialized in production and trading goods under the name GOLDEN INVEST.
Enab Baladi was able to obtain the official contract of the company, with the assistance of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
The official contract indicates that the company’s headquarters is located in Zilina while stating al-Manfoush’s address in Syria as the following: Building No. 12 Autostrade Mezzeh, which is a building located several meters from the headquarters of Almarai Aldemshkieh, located in building No. 27.
During the company’s registration process, an amount of 5,000 Euros was paid, 50/50 between Mohieddine al-Manfoush and Irfan al-Lahham. But, Enab Baladi did not manage to verify whether the company started operating or not.
Al-Manfoush founded on June 25, 2015, a trading company under the name “United Golden Group” Ltd in Hungary, in partnership with al-Lahham also. The company is specialized in providing hotel services, and other services, such as selling wholesale perfumes, clothes and shoes, in addition to alimentary products and tobacco products in retail.
The registered capital of the company amounted to 10 million Hungarian Forints (about $33,000, at the exchange rate of January 11, 2020).
How did al-Manfoush appear in Syria?
With the beginning of the siege on Eastern Ghouta in the middle of 2013, al-Manfoush’s commercial activity flourished thanks to his connections with officials of the Syrian regime. While only a few businessmen were able to enter goods to the besieged area, he was able to break the imposed restrictions, trade-in commodities and monopolize its prices.
Enab Baladi had documented in an investigative report, published on 9 July 2017, the nature of the relationship between al-Manfoush and the merchants inside Ghouta, which was controlled by opposition factions.
At that time, he used to enter food convoys from al-Wafideen Border Crossing, which was named after al-Wafideen Refugee Camp near Douma, particularly two convoys per day, unless the crossing was permanently closed, in agreement with the checkpoints of the Syrian regime and its officers.
The prices used to be doubled several times after the shipment and entry to Douma and the delivery of the goods to the “small” merchants, with possible increase of 20 times sometimes, after the checkpoints receive royalties under a fixed contract for every kilogram, ranging between 300 and 500 Syrian Pounds, (the Dollar was equivalent to about 500 Syrian Pounds), stated merchants—who received the goods and drivers who worked to enter the convoys— Enab Baladi on condition of anonymity.
The latest contract al-Manfoush had signed during the siege, was in November 2017, worth $ 20 million, to enter 5,000 tons of foodstuffs, divided into 160 tons per day, in exchange for a royalty of 2,000 Syrian Pounds per kilogram, confirmed different sources to Enab Baladi at the time.
For more information, Enab Baladi contacted two relief activists from Eastern Ghouta who were in direct contact with al-Manfoush Factory. They explained that besides controlling the food sector, al-Manfoush had a share in other sectors inside Ghouta, most notably the foreign exchange, benefiting from the funding of civil, development and relief organizations that were reaching the area.
A-Manfoush’s trucks had been leaving Ghouta loaded with milk products and returning with barley, wheat, fodder, and fuel. To achieve his interest, the businessman was investing his monopoly by imposing his rules on the market. For example, he was dealing with farmers on the basis of a kilo of milk for a kilo of fodder, to allow them to obtain fodder in exchange for a milk monopoly in the region.
However, the two relief activists pointed out that, regardless of its morality, al-Manfoush’s policy was an outlet for the estimated 300,000 besieged people and the only “difficult” solution.
An Amnesty International report confirmed that “government forces” continued to besiege Eastern Ghouta until April 2018, when armed opposition groups surrendered after the relentless bombing of civilian areas, and following three local agreements that led to the evacuation of fighters and the displacement of some civilians.
The organization stressed that during the siege, “government forces” prevented about 250,000 people from Eastern Ghouta from obtaining medical care, as well as goods, basic services, and humanitarian aid. In addition, doctors and medical staff were unable to provide appropriate medical care for those who were injured by the airstrikes, artillery shelling, and other attacks, or for patients due to a lack of surgical and medical equipment, and medicines, especially those for chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart diseases, and diabetes.
The lack of access to food, humanitarian aid, and other life-saving necessities has led to high rates of acute malnutrition.