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The Saudi Arabian issue

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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The 32-year old Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who  is the heir to Saudi Arabia’s throne, wants at first “to eradicate the roots of Islamic extremism” as soon as possible. This means that from now on the confrontation between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia will be downplayed from infra-Islamic clash of civilization to a normal and natural standard of regional warfare.

 The openings made by Muhammad bin Salman – designated as Crown Prince by his father after many years – such as allowing women to drive are very clear signs that the al-Saud Kingdom does no longer want to be a fundamentalist island in the Middle East nor a silent partner of the United States or of other countries.

 This implies the end of Sunni-Shiite clash of civilizations and the fact that Saudi Arabia agrees to set aside its traditional role as leader of an all-out struggle with the “Ali Sect” led by Iran.

 Let us not be misled by the first reactions to the Saudi official statements.

 The war against Qatar is primarily a fight against the “Muslim Brotherhoods” and the clash with a natural gas power, namely Qatar, against a necessarily oil power, namely Saudi Arabia.

 Other economic cycles, other buyers, other geostrategic and military development lines between Al Thani’s Qatari Emirate and the al-Saud Kingdom.

  Hence, from now on, Saudi Arabia wants to avoid a radical and global war throughout the Middle East to destabilize it and thus conquer the old and modern hegemony of Islam within the Greater Middle East.

 No longer pan-Islamic dreams of glory, but the protection of the Saudi Kingdom’s national interest.

 Hence there are two winners in the current fight: the first is Israel and hence the countries, excluding the United States, which want to reformulate their friendly presence throughout the old Fertile Crescent.

 It is also worth noting that Prince al-Walid, arrested by Muhammad bin Salman, was a fierce enemy of the current US President.

 It should be recalled that the United States led by President Donald  J. Trump yielded to the “Sunni NATO” project, namely the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, led by the Pakistani General Raheel Sharif.

 The “Sunni NATO”  headquarters are located in Riyadh, which still implies a hard line obviously against Iran and  India, as well as support to the fight against the Afghan Taliban.

 And if the “Sunni NATO” were the project of a strategic and economic internationalization of petromonarchies, thus isolating Iran in a future ever less profitable oil market?

 After the six Saudi Kings, from 1932 onward, Muhammad Bin Salman has inherited de facto power in the Kingdom by his father, Prince Nayef, thus replacing his half-brother who, however, is still a member of the clan holding true power in the Saudi family, the “Sudairy Seven”.

 The current strong man of the Saudi regime, namely the Crown Prince, was raised to the rank of second in the line of succession, in the first half of 2015. In fact, he has become an important personality on the world scene when ten years ago he destabilized – probably permanently – the al-Qaeda network in the Saudi Kingdom and last year decided  – together with his 55-year old cousin, Mohammed Bin Nayef – to exert the utmost pressure on the Houthi rebels in Yemen, a network of Shiites linked to Iran.

 For the al-Saud Kingdom, closing the doors to Iran in its area of ​​influence means to ensure a peaceful internationalization outside the regional Islamic universe, as well as to ensure the Kingdom’s permanent social and religious stability.

 Hence the war between the Shi’a Iranian Republic and the Wahhabi and Sunni Kingdom is bound to keep the Greater Middle East a hot spot and try to control the routes in the Persian Gulf, while the perimeters of the new Middle East global security are redefined outside Syria and the Lebanon.

 A system that the emerging power, namely the Russian Federation, will keep out of the US control lines, while Russia will further expand to Libya, the Lebanon and obviously to the rest of the Maghreb region, not to mention the Horn of Africa and Egypt.

 This is a new redesign of the Western balance of powers towards the Russian and Chinese ones – a new system emerging in the new external, but now essential peripheral areas of the Greater Middle East.

 Nevertheless there is an essential symbolic and political factor which should not be forgotten in the Shakespearean Royal Palace of Riyadh.

In fact, it is today that, after many years, Prince Muhammad bin Salman directly inherits the throne from his Father –  also thanks to a legal-political institution established by King Salman in 2017, namely the “Allegiance Council”, designed to make the process of succession in the Saudi Kingdom smoother and more orderly.

 Born on August 31, 1985, the heir to the throne Prince Mohammed is now 37 and has already been the youngest Defence Minister in the world.

 Even today, however – considering the strong autonomy of Mohammed Bin Salman –  the dynastic institution founded in 2007 seems to be not yet fully operational.

 Mohammed Bin Salman replaced his cousin in June 2017, as part of a major transformation of the political and strategic system inside the Saudi Royal Family.

 The whole network of high-profile “corrupt people” or “traitors” arrested in an anti-corruption sweep by the future Saudi King, is made up of 49 senior officers, Princes and Ministers – a police operation devastating the entire old system of political, financial and strategic equilibria that characterized the old pact of “petrodollar laundering”, which marked the union between the United States and Saudi Arabia when Henry Kissinger negotiated the whole operation, in perfect secrecy, at the end of the “Yom Kippur War” .

  The choice of Muhammad as heir to the throne, upon King Salman’s proposal, was accepted by 31 out of the 34 members of the Allegiance Council.

 Hence the policy line is now clear: the Kingdom wants to govern two parallel evolutionary lines: the exit from the oil-dependent economy, which Prince Muhammad Bin Salman has envisaged in his Vision 2030 program, and the creation of regional hegemony outside oil dependence from the United States, which is now autonomous from the Middle East oil thanks to its shale oil.

 In its already known project, the basis for Saudi Arabia’s  future hegemony regards the acceptance of two new factors: the US future energy autonomy with its “oil and shale gas” and hence Saudi Arabia’s exit from a guaranteed military and economic balance with the United States, as well as the historic collapse of oil barrel prices – oil which, according to the Saudi leaders, must be entirely left to  Shiite poverty and hence to Iran.

 Hence the “Vision 2030” program wants to reduce the Saudi dependence on oil and obviously the dependence of the national economy on the public sector.

 Moreover, the issue lies in making the Royal Family preserve its ability to distribute selective, but important resources to the most politically important walks of Saudi population – on a case-by case basis – to support the regime.

There is no more money for luxuries. The Saudi government’s money must be spent to preserve people’s support that is currently no longer guaranteed.

 In fact, without panem et circenses, it is hard to imagine – in the future – a reasonable stability of the Saudi Royal Family. And panem et circenses will be ever less a burden on US accounts.

  The future dollar equilibria and the end of the Euro as a global currency, as well as the end of the use of  petrodollars by Russia and China, make us think that the new ruling class in Saudi Arabia will be ever less pro-USA and ever more multilateral.

 And it is the Royal Family as such – not in the variety of its many groups – who shall bear responsibility for funds to  masses and for public charity that shall increasingly bear the costs of “liberalization”, of low wages and of the deprivation of union, political and clan protections.

 In fact, if Saudi Arabia does not plan its future “public charity” it will end up like the largely liberalized Lebanon or like the States that, after the crisis in the grain and food commodity market of 2008-2010, had to face the riots that –  manipulated by others – later turned into the “Arab Springs”.

 In this case the probable solution of the future King Mohammed will be greater democratization of choices to replace a reduction in income.

 A “European” solution.

 The Saudi “Vision 2030” project also implies liberalization specifically aimed at creating jobs and opportunities for companies in the service sector and in the tourist and entertainment business, in particular.

 But who are the “purged” of the new Saudi regime?

  They are 49 people, eleven Princes, four Ministers of the new regime that Muhammad Bin Salman – the first heir designated by his father, King Salman, to rule Saudi Arabia –  has agreed to put aside forever.

 There are clear signs of what will happen shortly.

 In this context, it is worth recalling the very important role played by the marginalization of Al Waleed bin Talal in the new Saudi financial and political context.

 Forbes reported he has a personal fortune of over 17 billion US dollars.

The investment of Prince Al Walid, the elder son of King Abdullah Abdulaziz and of Riad El Sohl, the Lebanese Prime Minister in the 1950s, are spread in the main Western areas: Twitter, Lyft, Eurodisney, Twentieth Century Fox, a tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which is the highest in the world and was supposed to open in 2019.

 He sold a yacht to Donald Trump, whom he hates, but has still significant investment in Apple, News Corp., as well as the ownership of the Savoy Hotel in London and the MBC satellite TV network. Other purged officials are the Head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, Amr al Dabbagh, as well as Ibrahim Assaf, the former Minister of Finance, and finally Bakr Bin Laden, the Head of the Binladen Group, a well-known real estate and investment group.

 Other purged officials include another former Saudi  Minister of Finance, Adel Fakieh, a reformer from day one, as well as Khaled al Tuwajiri, a manager of the Saudi traditional economic sector.

 They are all accused of having embezzled public funds to transfer them to their private accounts.

 A source of enrichment and “visible consumption” of the al-Saud extended family, as Veblen would have said.

 Now the family is no longer a single one and the Saudi  government will have a less corporatist and, above all, less personalist logic.

This Saudi “cleansing” operation marks the end of the old link between Arab internationalization and Sunni jihadist terrorism. Muhammad bin Salman’s reforms also marks the Saudi Kingdom’s closure to the flows of the market-world, while there is the re-emergence of the clash between Shiites and Sunnis in a new Middle East, where Saudi Arabia has already established a new relationship with Russia and Israel and decided to effectively follow Xi Jinping’s model, which involves a change of the regime through a fight  against “corruption”.

 It was one of the world’s economic leaders, namely al-Walid Bin Talal, to agree to support Gaddafi before his end in 2011, while the shadows were already casting over the Libyan leader.

 In fact, al-Walid ibn Talal attempted to sell one of its A340 Airbus for 120 million US dollars through a Jordanian broker, Daad Sharaf, who was very close to Gaddafi.

 Daad Sharaf also had to receive a 6.5 million Us dollar “brokerage” fee, but Prince Al Waleed sold to others the airplane probably already used to carry the Lockerbie attacker back to Libya.

 A network in which business mixed dangerously with the Saudi geopolitical operations – at a time when, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia supported the vague “fight against terrorism” and, on the other, fomented it.

 There is no need to recall here the long and very significant story of the relationship between the old Chief of the intelligence services, Turki al-Faisal, a very strong representative of the “Sudairy Seven” and of the network that led part of the Saudi establishment to play the crazy, but not senseless card of al-Qaeda.

 Furthermore, for al-Walid there are also charges – already known in the global financial circles – of corruption, bribery, embezzlement and insider trading.

 The strong reaction of the Royal Family currently in power against the part of al-Saud members who participated in the crazy rush of the “high” oil price phase – when everything was possible, both gains and illegality, as well as economic growth and frauds – is a very effective way to win support from the Saudi people, fed up with the idle rentier or “opulent ruling class” attitudes of some members of the Royal Family.

  Probably the end of the cycle between Sunni jihad and growth of the Kingdom will be the point in which the Greater Middle East will be redesigned: a de facto alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, both united by the Shiite danger, between the Golan Heights for Israel and South Yemen for Saudi Arabia; a new alliance between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Russia; China’s entry in the region; the new US positioning and obviously the often ridiculous irrelevance of the European Union.

 The system of the future King Muhammad – after the strange death of Prince Mansur Bin Muqrin in the region of Asir, Saudi Arabia, the husband of a daughter of old King Fahd and later Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, as well as son of Muqrin al-Abdulaziz, who had been Crown Prince from January to April 2015 – will be a political balance in which keeping the country united and preserving the link between the Royal House and the Saudi people will be the beacon of the monarchy.

 No longer a predatory ruling class, also in relation to the West, but an elite who wants the Kingdom’s political expansion, as well as its economic transformation and hence the end of the oil-dependent economy – a regime that wants to play all its strategic cards, well aware that a King (the United States) is leaving and another King (the Russian Federation) is entering the scene in the region.

 And also aware that Israel is now a well-acquired fact in the Middle East.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Middle East

Syrian Coup de Grâce

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The Middle Eastern land has a diverse blend of history with conflicts and developments in knowledge. Where on one hand Baghdad was considered as the realm of knowledge on the other hand Constantinople was a symbol of power and domination. But now it seems that all has been shattered completely with conflicts.

The Middle Eastern landscape is facing its worst time ever: a phase of instability and misery. The oil ridden land is now becoming conflict ridden, from Euphrates to Persian Gulf; every inch seems to be blood stained nowadays.  The region became more like a chess board where kings are not kings but pawns and with each move someone is getting close to checkmate.

Starting from the spring which brought autumn in the Middle Eastern environment, now the curse is on Assyrian land where blood is being spilled, screams have took over the skies. The multi facet conflict has caused more than 400,000 deaths and 5 million seeking refuge abroad whereas 6 million displaced internally.

What began with a mere peaceful civil uprising, has now become a world stage with multiplayers on it. Tehran and Moscow are playing their own mantra by showing romance with Assad while Washington has its own way of gambling with kings in their hand. Involvement of catchy caliphate from 2014 is worsening the complexities of the Syrian saga. The deck is getting hot and becoming more and more mess, chemical strikes, tomahawk show, carpet bombing, stealth jets and many more, Syrian lands is now a market to sell the products exhibiting fine examples of military industrial complex. While to some, Syrian stage seems to be a mere regional proxy war, in reality it seems like a black hole taking whole region into its curse. One by one every inch of the country is turned into altar as the consequence of war. A country is now ripped into different territories with different claimants, but the question still remains as “Syria belongs to whom?”

The saga of Syrian dusk has its long roots in past and with each passing moment it is becoming a spiral of destruction. What is being witnessed in current scenario is just a glimpse of that spiral. It has already winded the region into it and if not resolve properly and maturely it can spread like a contagious disease that can take whole Middle East into its chakra.

With recent development in Iran nuclear deal which left whole world into shock; and house of Sauds forming strong bond with western power brokers and Israel, to counter Tehran (because kings of holy desert have so much engraved hatred towards shiaits, that they prefer to shake hands with Jews and establish an unholy alliance) is making matters worse. This all has the potential to push the region into further more sectarian rifts. With Syrian stage already set. The delicacy of the situation is not secluded from the palette of the world.

Despite the condemnations from across the globe, humanitarian watch remains blind and failed to address the issues in Syria leaving Syrians in long lasting agony and despair The symphony of pain and suffering continues in the Middle Eastern region while world watches like a vicious sadist, the region becomes a playground for major powers as ‘Uncle Sam” has their own interests in engaging, Kremlin have their own concerns same goes for every single actor who is party to the conflict.

The panacea to the Arabian pain is simple “a sincere determined approach” to the disease. Even if every party with draws from the conflict the situation can get worse due to the generated power vacuum and can make Syria a replica of Iraq. The Syrian grieve needs to be addressed through proper management skills, if not the curse is upon whole region.

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The battle for leadership of the Muslim world: Turkey plants its flag in Christchurch

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Turkish vice-president Fuat Oktay and foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu became this weekend the first high-level foreign government delegation to travel  to Christchurch they were doing more than expressing solidarity with New Zealand’s grieving Muslim community.

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu were planting Turkey’s flag far and wide in a global effort to expand beyond the Turkic and former Ottoman world support for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s style of religiously-packaged authoritarian rule, a marriage of Islam and Turkish nationalism.

Showing footage of the rampage in Christchurch at a rally in advance of March 31 local elections, Mr. Erdogan declared that “there is a benefit in watching this on the screen. Remnants of the Crusaders cannot prevent Turkey’s rise.”

Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “we have been here for 1,000 years and God willing we will be until doomsday. You will not be able to make Istanbul Constantinople. Your ancestors came and saw that we were here. Some of them returned on foot and some returned in coffins. If you come with the same intent, we will be waiting for you too.”

Mr. Erdogan was responding to an assertion by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks in which 49 people were killed in two mosques, that Turks were “ethnic soldiers currently occupying Europe.”

Messrs. Oktay and Cavusoglu’s visit, two days after the attacks, is one more facet of a Turkish campaign that employs religious as well as traditional diplomatic tools.

The campaign aims to establish Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world in competition with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser degree Morocco.

As part of the campaign, Turkey has positioned itself as a cheerleader for Muslim causes such as Jerusalem and the Rohingya at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Muslim nations are taking a step back.

Although cautious not to rupture relations with Beijing, Turkey has also breached the wall of silence maintained by the vast majority of Muslim countries by speaking out against China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

Mr. Erdogan’s religious and traditional diplomatic effort has seen Turkey build grand mosques and/or cultural centres across the globe in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia, finance religious education and restore Ottoman heritage sites.

It has pressured governments in Africa and Asia to hand over schools operated by the Hizmet movement led by exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan holds Mr. Gulen responsible for the failed military coup in Turkey in 2016.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey has in recent years opened at least 26 embassies in Africa, expanded the Turkish Airlines network to 55 destinations in Africa, established military bases in Somalia and Qatar, and negotiated a long-term lease for Sudan’s Suakin Island in the Red Sea.

The Turkish religious campaign takes a leaf out of Saudi Arabia’s four decade long, USD 100 billion effort to globally propagate ultra-conservative Sunni Islam

Like the Saudis, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) provides services to Muslim communities, organizes pilgrimages to Mecca, trains religious personnel, publishes religious literature, translates the Qur’an into local languages and funds students from across the world to study Islam at Turkish institutions.

Turkish Muslim NGOs provide humanitarian assistance in former parts of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East and Africa much like the Saudi-led World Muslim League and other Saudi governmental -non-governmental organizations, many of which have been shut down since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Saudi Arabia, since the rise of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2015, has significantly reduced global funding for ultra-conservatism.

Nonetheless, Turkey is at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia as well as the UAE over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; Turkish support for Qatar in its dispute with the Saudis and Emiratis; differences over Libya, Syria and the Kurds; and Ankara’s activist foreign policy. Turkey is seeking to position itself as an Islamic alternative.

Decades of Saudi funding has left the kingdom’s imprint on the global Muslim community. Yet, Turkey’s current struggles with Saudi Arabia are more geopolitical than ideological.

While Turkey competes geopolitically with the UAE in the Horn of Africa, Libya and Syria, ideologically the two countries’ rivalry is between the UAE’s effort to establish itself as a centre of a quietist, apolitical Islam as opposed to Turkey’s activist approach and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

In contrast to Saudi Arabia that adheres to Wahhabism, an austere ultra-conservative interpretation of the faith, the UAE projects itself and its religiosity as far more modern, tolerant and forward looking.

The UAE’s projection goes beyond Prince Mohammed’s attempt to shave off the raw edges of Wahhabism in an attempt to present himself as a proponent of what he has termed moderate Islam.

The UAE scored a significant success with the first ever papal visit in February by Pope Francis I during which he signed a Document on Human Fraternity with Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the grand imam of Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the revered 1,000-year-old seat of Sunni Muslim learning.

The signing was the result of UAE-funded efforts of Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to depoliticize Islam and gain control of Al Azhar that Sheikh Al-Tayeb resisted despite supporting Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup.

To enhance its influence within Al Azhar and counter that of Saudi Araba, the UAE has funded  Egyptian universities and hospitals and has encouraged Al Azhar to open a branch in the UAE.

The UAE effort paid off when the pope, in a public address, thanked Egyptian judge Mohamed Abdel Salam, an advisor to Sheikh Al-Tayeb who is believed to be close to both the Emiratis and Mr. Al-Sisi, for drafting the declaration.

“Abdel Salam enabled Al-Sisi to outmanoeuvre Al Azhar in the struggle for reform,” said an influential activist.

The Turkey-UAE rivalry has spilt from the geopolitical and ideological into competing versions of Islamic history.

Turkey last year renamed the street on which the UAE embassy in Ankara is located after an Ottoman general that was at the centre of a Twitter spat between Mr. Erdogan and UAE foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan..

Mr. Erdogan responded angrily to the tweet that accused Fahreddin Pasha, who defended the holy city of Medina against the British in the early 20th century, of abusing the local Arab population and stealing their property as well as sacred relics from the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb,. The tweet described the general as one of Mr. Erdogan’s ancestors.

“When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours? Some impertinent man sinks low and goes as far as accusing our ancestors of thievery. What spoiled this man? He was spoiled by oil, by the money he has,” Mr. Erdogan retorted, referring to Mr. Al-Nahyan.

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Who Will Rebuild Syria: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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After raging for eight years, the violent phase of the Syrian civil war seems to be reaching its final stages, with Idlib as the last holdout. Recently, leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey held talks in Sochi to discuss securing peace in Syria and preventing a large-scale military assault on Idlib, Syria’s last rebel enclave. World leaders have also discussed the the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged European Union countries to help rebuild Syria, arguing that it would lead to a faster return of refugees from Europe to their country. His efforts have so far been unsuccessful as EU countries refuse to participate in a rebuilding process that involves Bashar Al-Assad. Arab states are considering readmitting Syria into the Arab League and have shown interest in investing in the country’s reconstruction. However, the United States is pressuring the Gulf states to hold back on restoring relations with Syria and investing in its reconstruction. As such, it seems that in addition to Russia, China, Iran, and India are best poised to invest in and benefit from the country’s rebuilding. Former United Nations Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura estimates the cost of Syria’s reconstruction to be 250 billion USD, while the Syrian government estimates the number to be 400 billion USD. Either way, the cost is too high for the Syrian government to finance on its own without the help of its leading businessmen and international partners and allies.

How the Civil War Changed Syria’s Economic Environment

However, during the eight years of ongoing civil war, some prominent faces in Syria’s economic arena have disappeared, giving way to new actors who have positioned themselves and their businesses to benefit from the vacuum created by the civil war and, therefore, became highly influential, obtaining access to Al-Assad’s ‘inner circle’. Some of Bashar Al-Assad’s inner circle members were forced to flee the country, defect to the opposition, or remain neutral—thus losing their favourable position in this inner circle. This applies not only to the decision-making process, but also to the country’s internal economic process. The International Crisis Group’s Peter Harling argues that the war “forced large families to exile or to shut their businesses down and allowed a new generation of wheeler-dealers to emerge.” However, most of these actors and their assets have been sanctioned by the West due to their relationship with, and involvement in projects linked to the Syrian government. This creates a hurdle on the way to Syria’s reconstruction as many businessmen find their own funds—as well as international funds, companies and suppliers—inaccessible.

Economic Sanctions as an Obstacle

Economic sanctions have been successful in limiting the activity of Syria’s economic actors. It didn’t put them out of business as they have developed methods to bypass sanctions. Among those is establishing a close relationship with the Syrian government based on a system of ‘favors’, in which businessmen provide the government with some financial services in return for access to lucrative projects across the country. This poses several obstacles in the face of the country’s reconstruction. How independent are these businessmen from the government as economic actors best poised in terms of access and financial resources to rebuild the country? Given their proximate relationship to the Assad government, it is unlikely that they will gain access to foreign funds needed for the country’s rebuilding. Moreover, do their interests lay in rebuilding infrastructure and improving citizens’ living standards? Or will they rather pursue lucrative projects that are not entirely related to infrastructure, and therefore, will not bring significant benefit to the majority of the population? Furthermore, given the nature of the political and economic process in Syria, foreign companies will need to partner with local Syrian actors who have close ties to the government to be able to effectively invest and participate in the rebuilding process. However, these partnerships are restricted due to economic sanctions. As such, it is important to identify these local actors, their relation to the Syrian government and what initiatives towards rebuilding the country they have taken thus far. The most prominent and currently active businessmen in Syria can be divided into two groups: the ‘old guard’ who have been able to withstand local and external pressures and remain operable, and the ‘new guard’, who saw in the civil war the opportunities to gain access to financially beneficial economic sectors and projects.

Syria’s Most Prominent ‘Old Guards’

Rami Makhlouf is at the top of the ‘old guard’ list. Even under Western sanctions, he is still successfully operating in the country. This is in great part due to his relation to Al-Assad: he is a cousin from mother’s side. Following the outbreak of the war, Makhlouf stated that he would turn to charity and no longer pursue projects that can generate personal gain. However, Makhlouf still has close ties with leading businessmen in the country and is active in several economic sectors, including telecommunications (he owns mobile network company Syriatel), import/export, natural resources, and finance. Moreover, the Makhlouf empire has branches in some European countries, and a team of lawyers creating shell companies and bank accounts to bypass economic sanctions. Therefore, even if at times he is not the face of projects, it is highly likely that Makhlouf is somehow still benefiting from his relations with other businessmen and his numerous shell companies.

Mohammad Hamsho is another infamous old guard who currently serves as Secretary of the Damascus Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of the Federation of Syrian Chambers of Commerce and member of the People’s Assembly for Damascus. In 2018, Hamsho visited Tehran and met with Secretary General of Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Bahman Eshghi. During the meeting, both sides affirmed their determination to work on improving their economic relation, and signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation between the two countries in various economic, trade, investment and production sectors. However, given that both countries are under sanctions, the magnitude of their economic cooperation is still hard to predict. Hamsho has been subject to US sanctions since 2011, but has been successful in having European sanctions lifted in 2014 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence of his involvement with the regime. Two prominent Syrian businessmen who landed on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned individuals, published on January 21, 2019, are Nader Qalei and Khaled Al-Zubaidi. The two are leading actors operating in Syria with investments in the construction industry. One of their most significant investments is in the construction of Grand Town, a luxury tourist project. The Syrian government has granted Qalei and Al-Zubaidi a 45-year agreement for this project in exchange for approximately 20% return on revenue. According to the Council of the EU, Qalei and Al-Zubaidi benefit from and/or support the regime through their business activities, in particular through their stake in the Grand Town development. One of the most prominent actors in the country’s media sector is Majd Sleiman, otherwise known as the ‘intelligence boy’, son of Hafez Al-Assad’s cousin. Sleiman is currently the chief executive director of Alwaseet Group, one of the largest media groups in the Middle East and North Africa region. At the age of 25, he was already running several businesses and had established regional and international connections in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, Europe and the United States. Even though Sleiman is active in the media and publishing sector, which is considered unprofitable, his companies received significant amounts of money from British accounts. This could be indicative of potential money laundering for the Syrian regime through British banks, via Sleiman.

Syria’s Most Prominent ‘New Guards’

With some families falling out of Al-Assad’s favors, and others exiled or unable to operate due to economic sanctions, a few savvy businessmen found an opportunity to fill the newly created vacuum and establish ties with the Al-Assad government by providing it with much needed services. Most prominent among these ‘new guards’ is Samer Foz, a leading Syrian businessman, known for his ruthlessness in conducting business. In fact, in 2013, Foz served a six month jail sentence for killing a Ukrainian/Egyptian businessman in Istanbul, Turkey. Foz is involved in multiple sectors of Syria’s economy, including brokering grain deals, and a stake in a regime-backed joint venture involved in the development of Marota City—a luxury residential and commercial development project. After several of Al-Assad’s former business allies found themselves unable to continue their business activities, Al-Assad welcomed Foz to his inner circle. Moreover, after being heavily affected by the war, Syria’s agricultural industry suffered, and Foz positioned himself as one of the few businessmen with the ability to broker grain deals. As a result, he received access to commercial opportunities through the wheat trade. Through his investments in the food industry and some reconstruction projects, Foz made his way into the inner circle by providing financial and other support to the regime, including funding the Military Security Shield Forces. Notably, Foz maintains very close ties with Iran, as well as Russia and other Western and Arab countries such as Italy, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Lebanon.

Another relatively new name to the arena of businessmen in Syria is Mazen Al Tarazi. Al Tarazi resides in Kuwait and has launched several campaigns in an attempt to get into Al-Assad’s inner circle. One of his campaigns was named “Returning to Syria” in which he pledged to bear the cost of Syrians wanting to return to their country. Moreover, in 2014, he assigned a plane at his own expense to transfer Syrians from Kuwait to Damascus, and back to Kuwait so they can cast their votes in the Presidential election. In 2017, his attempts proved successful and he was granted an investment license for a private airline in Syria, as well as other projects including a deal with Damascus Cham Holdings for a 320 USD million investment in the construction of Marota City. The Syrian Palestinian businessman benefited from his public support of the Assad government. In fact, according to Syrian media, Al Tarazi’s investment in Marota City is the first investment in Syria in which the investor’s share is greater than that of the public sector (51% of the project was owned by Al Tarazi and 49% by the Damascus Holding Company of the Damascus governorate). This investment, as well as his outspoken support for Al-Assad landed him on the EU’s latest list of sanctioned persons. The final businessman on the ‘new guards’ list is Samir Hassan, owner and agent of several companies in Syria, including Nokia and Nikon. After bad harvests due to war, he invested in imports of food supplies, in particular wheat, rice, sugar, and tea, and developed a close relationship with the Al-Assad family. During the civil war and against the background of improved relations with Russia, Hassan was named the Chairman of the Syrian-Russian Business Council, quite a prestigious position given the special relationship between Russia and Syria. Hassan’s investments in the food industry will also be vital during the reconstruction of Syria where he will be able to provide materials and products needed for reviving the agricultural sector, one of the greatest contributors to Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Trends in investments of Syria’s Businessmen

In general, businessmen involved in the Marota City and Grand Town projects have found themselves under Western economic sanctions. Most of Syria’s prominent businessmen have invested in these projects thanks to their connections with the government. In addition to some of the figures mentioned above, Anas Talas, Nazir Ahmad Jamal Eddine, Khaldoun Al-Zoubi, Hayan Mohammad, Nazem Qaddour, Maen Rizk Allah Haykal and Bashar Mohammad Assi have been recently sanctioned primarily due to their participation in the construction of Marota City. The Marota City and Grand Town projects are not essential for the country’s reconstruction, as they represent luxury residential and commercial projects and do not contribute to rebuilding the damaged infrastructure. However, several of the mentioned businessmen have been investing in infrastructure-related industries, such as the metal and steel industry, as well as the electrical and food industries. Recently, Hamsho bought “Al Sewedy Cables” factory, previously owned by Egyptian businessman Ahmad Al Sewedy, which produces electrical cables, towers, columns, transformers and circuit breakers, as well as a foundry (metal melting) factory that produces material for construction. Hamsho was able to acquire Al Sewedy’s company after it defaulted on loans given to it by the Islamic Bank of Syria and was sold in an auction. Foz has also been investing in former businessmen’s assets as he secured the ‘empires’ of two Syrian millionaires previously in Al-Assad’s inner circle. Emad Hamisho, previously known as the “economic shark” of Syria, and his family were sanctioned by the Syrian Ministry of Finance in 2013 after defaulting on a loan of 3.8 million Syrian Pounds he had borrowed from the real estate bank. In 2014, the sanctions were lifted without any clarifications on whether Hamisho had settled his account with the ministry or not. In 2018, the Ministry of Finance issued a new decision to sanction the assets of “Hamisho Minerals.” Foz saw an opportunity in it and swooped in. He entered into a partnership with Hamisho and created a new company where he heads the board of directors. Moreover, after a series of tightening measures initiated against him by the Syrian government in the early phases of the civil war, Imad Ghreiwaty decided to gradually transfer his investments abroad and resign from his position as the head of the Union of Chambers of Industry. His assets included a cables company, “Syria Modern Cables”, which Foz bought in 2017. Notwithstanding the manner of purchase, these initiatives are important for the country’s rebuilding, and are profitable for the investors, as they will provide construction material necessary for the reconstruction phase.

Financing Syria’s reconstruction

It is evident that rebuilding Syria will be largely controlled by Al-Assad’s inner circle of businessmen who have preferential access to investments and are best positioned to receive projects and tenders in the upcoming period. However, a few businessmen will not be able to rebuild the country on their own, and even the country’s most prominent and richest businessmen will find themselves limited in their activities due to imposed economic sanctions. While Syria’s allies are willing to help, and have already begun cultivating and consolidating relationships with local actors to gain access to the Syrian market, they are also facing certain limitations. Iran and Russia are constrained by economic sanctions of their own, whereas India and China are reluctant to invest unless they receive security guarantees to insure and protect their investments in Syria. Therefore, while both local and external actors are willing and seek to invest in the lucrative industry of Syria’s rebuilding, they are faced with many obstacles, including economic sanctions. The irony of the matter is that actors who have access and finances to invest in rebuilding Syria cannot do so since their access depends on their relationship with Al-Assad—a relationship that has provided them with opportunities and finances, and landed them on international economic sanctions lists that now restrict their ability to operate at their full capacity. With the United States and European Union unwilling to foot the bill, it remains to see whether the Gulf States will overcome Western pressures, restore ties with Al-Assad and invest in rebuilding Syria.

First published in our partner RIAC

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