Syrian tycoon says front companies used to dodge sanctions as rift with Assad widens

Rami Maklouf. (Twitter)
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Updated 27 July 2020

Syrian tycoon says front companies used to dodge sanctions as rift with Assad widens

  • Makhlouf has helped bankroll Syria's ruling family and its supporters
  • He brought in 70 investors nearly 15 years ago to set up Cham Holding

AMMAN: Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf revealed on Sunday he had set up a web of offshore front companies to help President Bashar al Assad evade Western sanctions, in a social media post blasting the government for investigating his business empire.
One of Syria’s richest and most powerful businessmen, Makhlouf said security forces were now targeting Cham Holding, the centerpiece of a vast business portfolio much of which has been seized by the cash-strapped government.
The former Assad loyalist who is also a cousin of the president said security forces were pursuing contracts signed by Cham Holding on suspicion he had embezzled funds abroad.
“They fabricated our embezzlement of funds and transferring it to our accounts abroad ... Stop these unjust claims and read well the contracts,” Makhlouf said in a Facebook post.
“These companies’ role and aim is to circumvent (Western) sanctions on Cham Holding.”
Makhlouf, who has helped bankroll the ruling family and its supporters, brought in 70 investors nearly 15 years ago to set up Cham Holding. It is the largest Syrian company by capital and has a monopoly on key property developments.
Washington enacted sweeping sanctions on Syria last month known as the Caesar Act targeting new lists of individuals and companies who support Assad’s government, among them entities owned by Makhlouf.
Makhlouf’s estrangement with Assad first came to the open on April 30 when he denounced taxes imposed on Syriatel, the country’s main mobile company which the Makhlouf family controls.
He later blasted the “inhumane” arrests of his aides in an unprecedented attack on the government from within Assad’s inner circle, exposing a deep rift within the ruling elite. He added that he would not surrender his wealth under intimidation.
Businessmen and insiders familiar with the struggle say Assad is targeting Makhlouf’s wealth abroad as Syria’s economy collapses after a decade of war. Most of his onshore assets have been seized while his contracts to manage and operate duty free markets were abrogated.
The billionaire and others close to him are under US sanctions for what Washington calls public corruption.
The European Union has also slapped sanctions on Makhlouf since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, accusing him of bankrolling Assad.


‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

Updated 07 August 2020

‘No way we can rebuild’: Lebanese count huge losses after Beirut blast

  • The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion
  • The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest

BEIRUT: Beirut residents began trying to rebuild their shattered lives on Friday after the biggest blast in the Lebanese capital’s history tore into the city, killing at least 154 and leaving the heavily indebted nation with another huge reconstruction bill.
The search for those missing since Tuesday’s blast intensified overnight, as rescuers sifted rubble in a frantic race to find anyone still alive after the explosion smashed a swathe of the city and sent shockwaves around the region.
Security forces fired teargas at a furious crowd late on Thursday, as anger boiled over at the government and a political elite, who have presided over a nation that was facing economic collapse even before the deadly port blast injured 5,000 people.
The small crowd, some hurling stones, marked a return to the kind of protests that had become a feature of life in Beirut, as Lebanese watched their savings evaporate and currency disintegrate, while government decision-making floundered.
“There is no way we can rebuild this house. Where is the state?” Tony Abdou, an unemployed 60-year-old, sitting in the family home in Gemmayze, a district that lies a few hundred meters from the port warehouses where highly explosive material was stored for years, a ticking time bomb next to a densely populated area.
As Abdou spoke, a domestic water boiler fell through the ceiling of his cracked home, while volunteers from the neighborhood turned out on the street to sweep up debris.
“Do we actually have a government here?” said taxi driver Nassim Abiaad, 66, whose cab was crushed by falling building wreckage just as he was about to get into the vehicle.
“There is no way to make money anymore,” he said.
The government has promised a full investigation and put several port employees under house arrest. State news agency NNA said 16 people were taken into custody. But for many Lebanese, the explosion was symptomatic of the years of neglect by the authorities while state corruption thrived.
Shockwaves
Officials have said the blast, whose seismic impact was recorded hundreds of miles (kilometers) away, might have caused losses amounting to $15 billion — a bill the country cannot pay when it has already defaulted on its mountain of national debt, exceeding 150% of economic output, and talks about a lifeline from the International Monetary Fund have stalled.
Hospitals, many heavily damaged as shockwaves ripped out windows and pulled down ceilings, have been overwhelmed by the number of casualties. Many were struggling to find enough foreign exchange to buy supplies before the explosion.
In the port area, rescue teams set up arc lights to work through the night in a dash to find those still missing, as families waited tensely, slowly losing hope of ever seeing loved ones again. Some victims were hurled into the sea because of the explosive force.
The weeping mother of one of the missing called a prime time TV program on Thursday night to plead with the authorities to find her son, Joe. He was found — dead — hours later.
Lebanese Red Cross Secretary General George Kettaneh told local radio VDL that three more bodies had been found in the search, while the health minister said on Friday the death toll had climbed to 154. Dozens are still unaccounted for.
Charbel Abreeni, who trained port employees, showed Reuters pictures on his phone of killed colleagues. He was sitting in a church where the head from the statue of the Virgin Mary had been blown off.
“I know 30 port employees who died, two of them are my close friends and a third is missing,” said the 62-year-old, whose home was wrecked in the blast. His shin was bandaged.
“I have nowhere to go except my wife’s family,” he said. “How can you survive here, the economy is zero?“
Offers of immediate medical and food aid have poured in from Arab states, Western nations and beyond. But none, so far, address the bigger challenges facing a bankrupt nation.
French President Emmanuel Macron came to the city on Thursday with a cargo from France. He promised to explain some “home truths” to the government, telling them they needed to root out corruption and deliver economic reforms.
He was greeted on the street by many Lebanese who asked for help in ensuring “regime” change, so a new set of politicians could rebuild Beirut and set the nation on a new course.
Beirut still bore scars from heavy shelling in the 1975-1990 civil war before the blast. After the explosion, chunks of the city once again look like a war zone.