Four of Syria’s Biggest Businessmen Hit with EU Sanctions for Supporting the Regime.
Shock waves rippled through the Syrian Business Community this morning as people awoke to the news that four of the country’s most prominent capitalists have been added to the EU sanction list. Their homes, investments, and bank accounts are now being frozen in Europe. The US can not be far behind. Emad Ghraiwati, for example, a much respected Damascus tycoon who seemingly owns a bit of everything in Syria, is an American citizen and owns property in the US. All will be hurt by the European sanctions.
For months the opposition and Western diplomats have been talking about the need to split the Sunni merchant class from the regime. These measures are designed to do just that. Three are Sunnis and one is Christian. This will be an experiment in religious and social engineering in Syria. Can sanctions been used to pry the Sunni and Christian business elite away from their Alawi partners in the security state?
According to the Syrian businessmen I have spoken to, the first reactions among the community were shock and anger. Many smaller businessmen, some of whom have been liquidating their assets in Syria as best they can in order to squirrel them away in Europe in the hope of riding out the revolutionary storm are panicking. Where can they put their money to guarantee its safety?
All four are shareholders in Cham Holding, of which Rami Makhlouf, the President’s Cousin is the largest shareholder. The official charge for three of them was “providing economic support for the Syrian regime”. The charge for one (Mr. Anbouba who is a Christian) was that he was “supporting the Syrian regime economically”.
Two of the four were the Presidents of Chambers of Commerce in Aleppo and Damascus.
Mr. Fares Chehabi (Shihabi): Sunni. The youngest ever head of any chamber of commerce in Syria. Based in Aleppo. He owns Alpha pharmaceutical, is a shareholder in Cham Holding, Fransbank and alsharq bank. Other interests include olive oil filling and packaging.
Emad Ghraiwati: Sunni, President of the Damascus chamber of commerce. Owns the Ghraiwati Group with three other brothers (second generation). Exclusive dealers for LG electronics, Land Rover, Jaguar, Ford, Kia, Mercury and Lincoln cars. The group also owns SMC Cable Company. Shareholder in Cham holding and banque al Sharq as well as Al dunia satellite station.
Tarif Akhras: Sunni based in Homs. Related to the first lady. Prime investor in Al Hasya manufacturing zone. Owns a sugar refinery. Also owns a substantial business in olive and edible oil filling and distribution. Other interests include building materials, flour and grains. He is considered to be the second largest exporter in the country.
Issam Anbouba: Christian, Originally from Lattakia. Based in Homs. Owns arguably the largest edible oil factory in the Middle East. Started his career working for Halliburton. Shareholder in Cham holding. He is the head of the Syrian-UAE Chamber of commerce. Key shareholder in Byblos and Syria Islamic bank. He also owns shares in an insurance company and is one of the founders of Roatana-Homs. Has a close relationship with Alfutaim Group of the UAE which landed him the Carrefour business in Syria. Has recently moved into real estate development and tourism.
The immediate effect of these sanctions is not obvous. Clearly it will inspire fear and an greater sense of impending doom in the minds of Syria’s business community. Will more members begin to donate money to the opposition in order to hedge their bets? Probably so. In the 1950s, when Syria’s political instabiility was dramatic, ambitious families groomed children to join various dominatnt political parties to ensure the success of the family no mater which party took power. Today, more business dynasties in Syria will begin investing in the opposition to buy themselves protection with the next regime as they have done with this one. How successful they can be is anyone’s guess.
The Baath Party nationalized most large land holdings and successful businesses in the 1960s in an effort to punish the Sunni elites, who they believed were “feudalistic” and “parasitical” if not outright criminal. It was also a well calculated effort by the Baath to destroy the “reactionary” forces they could conspire in the future to undermine the “gains” of the revolution and the power of the Baath. The revolutionary forces active today may want to take revenge against the business elite that has prospered over the last 40 years. As activists help European statesmen target Syrian businessmen, their goals are not entirely clear. Is the strategy to peel the Sunni elite away from the Assad family and their Alawi supporters? Is it revenge? Is it to sew the seeds of fear and chaos into the regime? Probably it is a bit of all the above. Many of the activists will not be sorry to see Syria’s “big names” cut down to size before the need to rebuild the economy after the revolution requires the new regime to “feed” the capitalists and get Syria working again. In the mean time, the anger that has run through Syria’s business elite, will eventually fade and force them to recalculate.
I thank Ehsani for providing me with the background information on these four businessmen.