Despised Syrian tycoon takes the road to charity

Despised Syrian tycoon takes the road to charity

Syrian billionaire Rami Makhluf, a hated member of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle, has pledged to turn over part of his fortune to charity.

By (AFP)

Published: Fri 17 Jun 2011, 6:43 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:21 AM

The tycoon, Assad’s cousin and on a list of 13 Syrians slapped with US and EU sanctions, is widely despised for allegedly exploiting his relationship with the president to build his empire, including the state’s largest mobile phone firm.

“I will not engage in any new projects that can generate personal gain and I will devote myself to charity and humanitarian work,” Makhluf said on Thursday in a bid to defuse anti-government anger ahead of another expected day of protest.

“Profits from the shares I own in Syriatel will be allocated to charity, humanitarian work and development projects” across Syria, Makhluf said in a statement obtained by AFP.

The statement said Makhluf owns 40 percent of Syriatel.

Makhluf, 41, said he took this decision because he no longer wants “to be a burden on Syria, its people and its president from now on.”

Since March 15, Assad’s regime has been the target of an unprecedented country-wide protest movement in which the authorities have ruthlessly used deadly force to suppress dissent, blaming the violence on “armed gangs.”

Makhluf’s volte-face contrasts dramatically with his stated position of just over a month ago.

On May 10, in an interview with the New York Times, he said the Baath party which has been in power in Syria since 1963 would fight to the end.

“...nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime,” the paper quoted him as saying.

Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidential mantle in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who himself came to power in 1970. Makhluf is his cousin on his mother’s side.

Rami Makhluf and his brother Ihab are estimated to have personal wealth of more than three billion dollars, and to control — directly or indirectly — up to 60 percent of the Syrian economy.

In addition to telecommunications, their portfolio includes public buildings and works, property, banking and distribution.

Another Makhluf brother, Hafez, is a senior official in the security services.

Syriatel branches have often been targeted by protesters who see Rami Makhluf as a symbol of regime corruption and the inequalities entrenched in the privatisation of entire sectors of the economy.

The United States and the European Union have placed Makhluf on the list of Syrian figures targeted by sanctions, Washington since 2008 and the EU since May this year.

Asked by the New York Times last month why sanctions had been imposed on him, Makhluf replied: “Because the president is my cousin, or I’m the cousin of the president. Full stop.”

The US Treasury outlined its reasons for the sanctions move in February, 2008.

“Rami Makhluf has used intimidation and his close ties to the Assad regime to obtain improper business advantages at the expense of ordinary Syrians,” said Stuart Levey, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.

“The Assad regime’s cronyism and corruption has a corrosive effect, disadvantaging innocent Syrian businessmen and entrenching a regime that pursues oppressive and destabilising policies, including beyond Syria’s borders, in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.”

Makhluf’s road to Damascus-type conversion into a humanitarian figure has yet to be illustrated in practice.

As an indication of scepticism about his pronouncement, an Arabic-language Facebook page entitled “Mother Rami-Teresa” has been set up, in a reference to the late Nobel peace laureate Mother Teresa known for her charitable deeds.

Makhluf’s move comes at a time when the regime has chosen the path of bloody repression against an ever-rising swell of grass roots protest.

According to the United Nations and human rights groups, the violence in Syria has already caused the deaths of almost 1,300 people and resulted in the arrest of 10,000 more.

Another 10,000 Syrians have fled from the regime’s military crackdown in Idlib province across the northern border to Turkey.

More news from WORLD