Will Ihab Makhlouf save his family’s economic empire in Syria?
Enab Baladi – Nour al-Deen Ramadan
Last April, discords erupted between the fifty-one-year-old famous Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf and his maternal cousin, the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad after the “Syrian Telecommunications and Post Regulatory Authority” of the Ministry of Communication and Technology in Syria accused “Syriatel” and “MTN” companies of not paying the state treasury’s 233.8 billion Syrian pounds, roughly 114 million USD.
Soon after, the social networking site “Facebook” turned into a media battlefield between Makhlouf and the regime’s government, over the Ministry of Communication’s entitlement to the amounts required from Makhlouf.
Then the regime’s government took a series of measures to curb and restrain Makhlouf’s activity, including the seizure of his assets and the money of his wife and children, the prevention of his departure, and the imposition of an official receiver on Syriatel, which Makhlouf described as his most important company.
Since the end of July, both sides made it into a sort of truce, as there were no more public statements from Makhlouf or government actions against himself.
At the same time, Rami’s brother, Ihab Makhlouf (47 years old), topped the scene, indicating that the younger brother of the Makhlouf’s family was being prepared to run the assets of the family’s economic empire, especially after the death of the brothers’ father, Mohammed Makhlouf, on 11 September, the financial pillar of the al-Assad and Makhlouf families since 1970.
Will Ihab Makhlouf win al-Assad’s trust?
These predictions were reinforced by what Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper quoted on 23 August from economic sources that it did not name. The sources said that the Syrian regime’s government decided to grant investment contracts of duty-free markets to Ihab Makhlouf, and a Kuwaiti businessman living outside his country with political attitudes supporting the Syrian regime.
Moreover, the Ministry of Economy terminated its contract with Rami Makhlouf, which was interpreted as a move to “substitute” Rami with his younger brother, Ihab.
Ihab sought to win al-Assad’s trust through his position on the dispute between the government and his brother Rami Makhlouf. Back then, Ihab announced his resignation from his position as a vice president of Syriatel company and attributed the reason to Rami’s way of dealing with the crisis.
Ihab Makhlouf has repeatedly posted statements on his “Facebook” page pledging his loyalty to Bashar al-Assad’s rule, in one of which he said “at the end, all the world’s money and companies will not influence my loyalty to our president and leader, Bashar Hafez al-Assad.”
Who is Ihab Makhlouf?
Following a rare press conference in 2011, Rami Makhlouf responded to a journalist’s question about the fact that Kuwaiti investors had acquired the duty-free markets of one of his companies in Syria by saying, “ask my brother Ihab,” according to what “Daraj” media website quoted from the journalist who asked the question.
Rami’s answer probably explains the roles Ihab played as an executive arm of his brother, in addition to his good relations with Kuwaiti investors and his partnerships with them, most prominent of which is Abdul Hameed Dashti.
Ihab is one of Mohammed Makhlouf’s sons, who is the brother of Hafez al-Assad’s wife, Anisa Makhlouf.
Ihab is the younger brother of Rami, Hafez, and Iyad Makhlouf, and the maternal cousin of Bashar and Maher al-Assad.
Ihab has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Damascus University and was born in 1973.
Rami Makhlouf’s younger brother, Ihab, held the position of the vice president to Syriatel, a mobile network provider company.
He is subject to US sanctions since 2017 and European sanctions since 2011.
According to the “al-Iqtisadi” website, Ihab Makhlouf is the founder and owner of the following companies:
- A founding partner of “Peshawar Investment Company” with a 99.8% share.
- A founding partner of “Bunyan al-Sham Company” with a 10% share.
- Director manager and co-founder of “Ama Nour Company” with a 50% share.
- A founding partner of “Sorouh Company” with a 0.001% share.
- A founding partner of the “International University for Science and Technology (IUST) in Syria with a 51% share.
- A founding partner of Fajr Company with a 40% share and a manager of “Hani Murtada University,” named after the businessman Mazen Murtada’s father’s name.
- A founding partner of “Syriatel for Services and Investments Company.”
- A founding partner of “Gardens for Investment Company” with a 52% share.
- Director manager and owner of “Al-Ghomur Company” with a 100% share.
A “safety valve” for the Makhlouf family against al-Assad
The economic analyst Younes al-Karim said to Enab Baladi that the death of Mohammed Makhlouf has no significant effect on the family’s economic empire, as his sons were the ones managing the family’s money and continue to do so.
Al-Karim added the impact of Mohammed Makhlouf’s death would be evident in the vacuum he will leave behind, as he was the one bringing the Makhlouf family together, who could stand against Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma and prevent any spat between Rami and his brother Ihab.
According to al-Karim, the Makhlouf family does not believe that Ihab is capable of saving the family. Instead, the family is placing their hopes on Ihab’s twin brother, Iyad, who has Asma al-Assad’s support and favor.
Compared to his brothers, the forty-seven year-old-man, Iyad Makhlouf, is a mysterious figure. He is an officer in the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, who was sanctioned by the European Union (EU) in 2011 for being responsible for his subordinates’ actions and his involvement in violent acts against civilians.
In May 2017, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Iyad and his brother Ihab and three other people.
Besides his security work involvement, Iyad has economic activities, too, as he owns 90 percent of shares of “Lama Company” for furniture, according to the “al-Iqtisadi” website.
Moreover, there is a partnership between the twin brothers that may be in Ihab’s interest to play a greater economic role in Syria.
With his brother, Ihab, Iyad used a company registered in Russia to buy half a floor in Moscow’s “Union” Tower, in February 2019, at the cost of 9.5 million US dollars (USD).
The two men also bought a property in their name, and two parking places in Moscow’s “City of Capitals” tower in June 2017, according to the “Global Witness” organization.
A message to Makhlouf family and Alawite community: al-Assad’s discord is with Rami
Al-Karim added, Bashar al-Assad’s decision to grant the investment contracts of the duty-free markets to Ihab Makhlouf delivers a clear message to the Makhlouf family, that al-Assad’s discord is with Rami Makhlouf as an individual separate from his family or the Alawite community, for Rami is the one who challenged al-Assad and therefore he must be punished.
Regardless of the new roles granted to Ihab Makhlouf, the economic analyst, al-Karim, pointed out that any future economic project in Syria would not pass without the Russians’ approval. This view was reflected in the declaration of 40 economic agreements during the Russian delegation’s visit to Damascus, in which the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov participated for the first time since 2011.
The Syrian economics professor and researcher at the “Middle East Institute” in Washington, Karam Shaar, said to Enab Baladi that al-Assad’s awarding of Ihab Makhlouf with the duty-free investment contracts could be an attempt by Bashar al-Assad to thank him for taking his side in the recent dispute with his brother Rami Makhlouf.
Shaar believes al-Assad is trying to appease the Alawites community in general, and the Makhlouf family in particular, to dispel their fears that their economic influence may diminish with the demise of Rami’s power.
Shaar supported his view by referring to keeping Hussein Makhlouf in the new government, formed on 30 August, as a minister of local administration, which confirms that al-Assad’s problem is only with Rami, and not with the Makhlouf family as a whole.
It is worth noting that the Makhlouf family has controlled the Syrian economy since 1970. The family descends from the Bustan al-Basha village in the countryside of Jableh in Lattakia province and benefited from their familial ties with the al-Assad rules (the father and the son).
Today, the Makhlouf family is working on preparing the third generation to manage its economic empire, after the first generation represented by the father, Mohammed Makhlouf, the second generation represented by his sons, and the third generation that started entering the Syrian investment market represented by the grandchildren, most prominent of whom are Rami Makhlouf’s sons, Mohammed and Ali.
The name of Ali Makhlouf also was highlighted, after his father, Rami, appointed him as a member of the board of directors of Syriatel company following his brother Ihab’s resignation.
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