Khaled Hboubati: Assad’s agent to adjust “aid” and advocate for sanctions lift
Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa
Photos of Khaled Hboubati, head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), have rapidly appeared since the massive earthquake hit southern Turkey and four Syrian governorates on February 6.
But, what is controversial is that the first person in charge of the largest relief organization in Syria did not appear in the affected sites or with the earthquake victims, which indicates the businessman’s background from which he came without any experience in humanitarian work.
On the day after the earthquake occurred, when the shock on the faces of the Syrians was still there, Hboubati began exploiting the humanitarian catastrophe and was among the first to call for the lifting of Western sanctions on Syria under the pretext of facing the repercussions of the earthquake, while relief aid was and is still arriving successively to the areas controlled by the regime.
In the latest agreements to help those affected by the earthquake in Syria, Hboubati signed an agreement with the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) to provide one million euros in emergency aid.
These agreements were not only the result of the regime’s campaign to lift sanctions, bring in aid, and activate European civil protection agreements as the Damascus-born businessman had a role in choosing the Red Crescent as a partner for these countries through his network of relations that he had developed years ago externally with United Nations officials and international humanitarian organizations such as the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC).
On January 28, Hboubati met with Pope Francis in Rome, where he spoke about the humanitarian situation in Syria, promoting “the negative effects of economic sanctions on Syria.”
SARC supervises the reception and distribution of aid to those affected by the earthquake amid the spread of video recordings proving the arrival of aid to the markets and other official complaints about the distribution of aid to those who do not deserve it and leaving the needy without aid.
With the Syrian regime’s long history of stealing aid under its control of the SAARC organization, the US House of Representatives approved a bill on the earthquake related to the establishment of an official mechanism to monitor US aid to Syria.
Close to Assad’s inner circle
The Syrian regime awarded Hboubati a contract to levy fees (tarsim) on the Khirbet Ghazaleh crossing in southern Daraa region in 2017. It was as compensation for his losses since the start of the revolution, as his trade in Qamar al-Din (dried apricot paste) in Eastern Ghouta suburbs stopped, as well as his Damascus Casino project in 2011, according to a study published in early 2020 for the Middle East Directions program, which is supervised by the Robert Schuman Center for Graduate Studies of the European University Institute.
The Fourth Division security office, headed by Maher al-Assad, the powerful brother of Bashar al-Assad, grants contracts to control the crossings (imposing royalties) to mediators close to him who have a history in smuggling operations or are major merchants due to their network of relations and experience in running businesses.
According to a report by the Pro Justice organization issued in 2021, Hboubati also enjoys membership in the Syrian Association for Purebred Arabian Horses, which includes elite businessmen loyal to the regime, such as Hani Makhlouf, Mohammad Hamsho, and Manal Jadaan, Maher al-Assad’s wife.
Syria belonged to the Arabian Horse Organization, which was established in 1989 in Geneva, and defines itself as “a non-profit organization concerned with the breeding of Arabian horses.” However, this membership “facilitated the movement of money to Switzerland and covered part of the money laundering movement by people close to the regime under the economic sanctions imposed since 2011, the report revealed.
Since Hboubati assumed the presidency of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in 2016, SARC has been directly linked to the Syrian regime.
The organization lost any indication of its independence after 2011 when the regime’s government froze the Red Crescent elections indefinitely, got rid of independent management members, and fired qualified staff, according to a report by the American Foreign Affairs magazine published in September 2018.
During Hboubati’s presidency, the organization contributed indirectly to supporting the regime with about $30 billion, of which it paid the salaries of its forces and the requirements of the intelligence services, according to the report.
This was done by harnessing the Red Crescent as an exclusive gateway to obtaining aid funds, as the Syrian Foreign Affairs Ministry stipulated that all aid agencies have to sign an exclusive agreement with SARC as the official government partner.
Intelligence agents, who presented themselves as volunteers, infiltrated Red Crescent ranks, while staff and volunteers who breached the rules of the new policy were imprisoned, tortured, and even killed, according to the report.
These irregularities in the work of the organization prompted the US administration to impose sanctions on Hboubati in July 2021 within the framework of the Caesar Act. At the time, the sanctions package included 32 individuals and entities supporting the Syrian regime.
The regime’s control over SARC and its subjugation to serve its interests led to violating the seven principles proclaimed in Vienna in 1965, which represent the link between the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies on the one hand, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC) and Red Crescent Societies on the other.
All member organizations of the Federation must abide by these principles, namely: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality.
According to a study by the Jusoor Center for Studies in February 2018 on the eligibility of the Red Crescent after 2011, according to these principles, it was found that the organization violated five of them and abided by the principle of volunteer service, as it was not proven that the theft of aid from volunteers took place in an institutional manner, and the principle of universality, which is related to the international movement more than associated with the national societies.
Long history in business
Hboubati’s father, Tawfiq, owned three casinos in Damascus (Bloudan Casino, Airport Hotel Casino, and Orient “Al Sharq” Casino), all of which were closed by the Syrian government in 1977 by a decision of the then Prime Minister Abd al-Rahman Khlifawi.
Hboubati holds a degree in architecture, and he used to own the “Al Sharq” club, which is frequented by elite Syrian businessmen and politicians from inside and outside the country. However, Hboubati sold the club in 2009 to businessman Mowaffaq al-Qaddah, according to a report by the Eqtsad website on November 5, 2018.
A year later, Hboubati opened the Damascus Casino in the Damascus International Airport Hotel and Restaurant, which angered the popular and religious circles at the time, and prompted the Syrian authorities to close it three months after its opening, and Hboubati disappeared from the limelight until his appointment in 2016 by the then Prime Minister Imad Khamis as the head of the Syrian Red Crescent.
Hboubati was appointed to head the organization in place of Abd al-Rahman al-Attar, who spent more than 25 years of his life in the position, after formal orders for him to submit his resignation.
The businessman did not previously enjoy membership in the executive office or the board of directors of the Syrian Red Crescent or even among its cadres, according to the report of the Pro Justice organization.
The “Al-Sharq” club or the Qamar al-Din (apricot fruit leather) factory were not the only ones within Habubati’s trade and business activity. Rather, he had a history in trade, as he was considered a partner and founder of many commercial and investment companies.
Among those companies, according to the Al-Iqtisadi website, is the Al-Rakhaa Trading Company, of which he was a founding partner.
The company specializes in importing, distributing, supplying, and selling cars, their spare parts, car maintenance, and providing after-sales services. It is the agent for Nissan and Lada cars.
Hboubati is also a partner and founder of the Mira Services Company specialized in establishing commercial and service projects, providing external catering services, holding external parties and events, exhibitions, conferences, import and export, and the Mira Tourism Investment Company specialized in establishing, operating and investing tourism and service projects, such as restaurants and hotels, and equipping them.
He also runs the Ocean Club company, and he is a founding partner in it, as is the case in the Lina Investments company.
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