BEIRUT: Interventions by Russia and a business turf war with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s wife Asma have left a billionaire tycoon once favored by the regime out in the cold, analysts told Arab News on Monday.
Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of Bashar Assad and part of his inner circle, runs companies from telecoms and real estate to construction and oil trading, and played a major role in financing the regime’s war effort.
Makhlouf is now under pressure to step aside from his business empire and pay up to $300 million in back tax, and many of his company employees have been arrested.
The tycoon, who has close links to Iran, said he would not bow to pressure to hand over his wealth. “This is an attack on private property,” he said. “What I already have is something I cannot give up.”
Makhlouf was a victim of the shrinking business landscape in Syria, said Dr. Muhannad Al-Hajj Ali, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
“Many businessmen loyal to Asma Assad competed with Makhlouf for control of diminishing resources, after the collapse of the Syrian pound, along with sanctions, made the space in which they compete narrow and difficult,” he told Arab News.
Moscow is also thought to be casting acquisitive eyes at Makhlouf’s family interests, especially the lucrative Syriatel mobile network operator, to defray the costs of its military intervention in Syria.
The Kremlin is also unhappy with the tycoon’s funding of militias such as Al-Bustan Charitable Society, the Tiger Forces and the National Shield Brigade.