Qaterji family at forefront of “money whales” with support of Presidential Palace
Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa
The rumors of the detention of the heads of the Qaterji family and the seizure of their companies have not been a secret in the past months in anticipation of a fate similar to that of Rami Makhlouf.
Opposition media outlets reported the news of Hussam Qaterji’s arrest by Syrian regime intelligence during August and September 2022, saying that he was “held in a security detention facility” in addition to “suspending his activities and freezing all his accounts” until the “end” of his investigation on unknown charges.
On the other hand, a picture said to be recent of the member of the People’s Assembly, Hussam Qaterji, was circulated on local Facebook pages at the end of September 2022. Additionally, none of the family’s companies officially declared a halt, particularly the oil transport trade from northeastern Syria, where tanks continued to operate routinely.
In December 2022, the regime’s government’s Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection issued a decision allowing the family-owned company BS Company for Oil Services to sell diesel and gasoline fuels for economic activities at a price of 5400 SYP per liter of diesel and 4900 SYP per liter of gasoline, further confirming the family’s extended influence and the reinforcement of its presence in the country’s economy.
The Qaterji family obtained a license to open the Afaq Cement Company in Aleppo, according to the Official Gazette, in December 2022. The Qaterji Trade and Transport Company acquired a government project to transport passengers, tourist groups, cargo, containers, and livestock.
During the past years following the conflict, the Syrian regime relied on names that appeared “suddenly” in the world of economy, had no history or background of economic or financial activity, and held economic positions and activities historically considered as areas of activity of the Assad family, according to a study published by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies at the end of May 2022.
Rami Makhlouf, the maternal cousin of the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, managed the family’s activities as a partner and treasurer of its business. Parallel changes in the war economy and foreign sanctions led to the emergence of the new war profiteers, along with the remnants of the old active elites in the country, to form “facades” for the Assad family, according to the study.
The Syrian researcher in the field of local administration and political economy at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Ayman al-Dusouki, told Enab Baladi that the activity and expansion of the Qaterji family is the opposite of rumors that spread a while ago through obtaining concessions and establishing new companies.
The researcher interpreted the rumors by rivalry among warlords, representing alliances and extensions with centers of power within the Syrian regime.
Al-Dusouki added that Hussam Qaterji’s ability to expand in the Syrian economy stemmed mainly from being “Presidential Palace-approved” on the basis of a security recommendation for his loyalty and his success in exploiting his network of community relations that cross spheres of influence in Syria to play the role of mediator on behalf of the regime in order to make deals with the latter’s opponents and competitors to provide essential materials and commodities.
The Qaterji family name topped the list of “money whales” during the last years of the war in Syria, after secret dealings in the Syrian regime’s favor with the Islamic State (IS) on the one hand and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.
In 2016, the Qaterji family purchased the stock of grain silos in Deir Ezzor from the Islamic State (IS). It later purchased the crop from farmers through its merchants after concluding an agreement with IS that included the transfer of oil to regime-controlled areas and the supply of some goods and food to IS-held areas via the Qaterji Transport company, according to a Reuters report in 2017.
The Wall Street Journal’s revelation in February 2019 about the SDF’s supply of oil to the Syrian regime raised questions about Washington’s seriousness in exerting economic pressure on Damascus, where the newspaper quoted intelligence confirming that the oil was delivered to Qaterji Group subsidiary companies owned by businessman Mohammad Qaterji, who in turn hands it over to the regime.
From supplying oil to selling its derivatives
The rise of the Qaterji family began after HESCO’s owner, George Haswani, withdrew following European sanctions imposed on him. He silently stepped back, allowing Hussam Qaterji and his brothers to seize the oil transport sector in former IS-held areas, currently SDF-controlled areas, according to the study published by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies.
The family’s influence in the sector has evolved through its formation of a militia that has contributed to fighting with the regime’s forces, but with a main objective of protecting its commercial convoys. In 2018, the Qaterji brothers (Hussam, Mohammad Baraa, Ahmed Bashir) founded the Arfada Petroleum Company, which acquired 80% of two oil refining companies established in 2020.
Recently, BS Company for Oil Services, based in Lebanon, was announced as a subsidiary of the Qaterji International Group. The company’s fuel stations were allowed to import and refine crude oil at Baniyas and Homs refineries for financial fees paid to the government. In return, it was granted the right to sell petroleum refining derivatives on the domestic market or export them.
Political economist Ayman al-Dusouki said that Qaterji’s various investments include construction, tourism, industry, and extractive industries. The recent fuel crisis, whether “contrived or genuine,” appears to have served as a “lever” for the family’s extended influence in the fuel supply sector and the gradual reinforcement of its presence at the expense of the public sector.
As for the future of the family’s relationship with the regime, al-Dusouki noted that this expansion could create negative “interaction possibilities” and competition between Qaterji and other businessmen. But as long as the family is steadfast in its loyalty to the regime, functioning as scheduled by the Presidential Palace, and able to play its specific roles, its competitors will be unable to threaten its status, thus forever remaining regime-approved.
The Qaterji family’s political role emerged early, with Hussam Qaterji becoming a member of the People’s Assembly of Syria, representing the workers and peasants sector in 2016, and being reelected for the 2020 term. On the other hand, his brother Baraa was one of the regime’s representatives within the Constitutional Committee.
Such as the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, the Aleppo Chamber of Commerce witnessed a “significant change” in the 2014 and 2020 elections, as the chamber’s new board of directors no longer included any of the previous board members. Fadel Qaterji, Hussam and Baraa Qaterji’s younger brother, was one of the new members.
Political positions are important to the family, giving them the opportunity to “showcase their strength and influence locally and nationally.” The family can “defend its interests and obtain economic privileges,” as well as employ these positions to build a “network of patronage” to support the family’s business, said the researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Ayman al-Dusouki.
Who manages the family business?
Hussam Ahmed Rushdi Qaterji, born in Raqqa in 1982 to a family with origins in Aleppo’s city of al-Bab, is currently the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Qaterji International Group, with several subsidiary companies specializing in various fields, according to a report issued by Pro Justice organization in 2020.
Hussam resides in Damascus and is considered one of the most pro-regime businessmen. He uses his relatives as business fronts to work within his subsidiary companies owned by him and his brothers, Mohammad Baraa and Mohammad Agha Qaterji.
Hussam Qaterji is in charge of media appearances and managing the Qaterji International Group in the open, while Mohammad Baraa Qaterji is running matters “in the background” for the benefit of the Syrian regime, according to the report.
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