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Protesting the Syrian elite

Stephen Beard May 5, 2011

Protesting the Syrian elite

Stephen Beard May 5, 2011

Tess Vigeland: The Syrian regime has intensified its crackdown on protesters over the past week. Tanks are deployed across the country along with troops. Protests there broke out six weeks ago and are primarily about greater freedom and transparency. But — as with elsewhere in the Arab world — there’s a powerful economic dimension to the unrest. And in Syria, protesters are aiming their anger at one immensely wealthy and well-connected businessman.

Marketplace’s Stephen Beard has that story.

Stephen Beard: Among the slogans chanted by Syrian protesters has been this one: “Makhlouf, you thief!” The target of the protesters’ wrath is a 41-year-old businessman Rami Makhlouf.

George Joffe is an expert on Arab affairs at Cambridge University.

George Joffe: He’s a very big businessman indeed. In fact, he’s said to be the most important businessman in Syria.

Joffe says the protesters are right to feel aggrieved: Makhlouf is not what you’d call a self-made man.

Joffe: He’s the first cousin to the President Bashar al-Assad. And that puts him in an extremely privileged position.

Makhlouf has built up a huge business empire, milking his family connections, to secure government contracts, licenses and land. His interests span telecoms, banking and duty-free shops. He accounts for some 60 percent of the public-sector economy.

Nabila Ramdani writes about the Arab world for The Guardian.

Nabila Ramdani: His fortune is very much based on corruption. There’s no doubt about it. And no foreign company can do business in Syria without Makhlouf’s approval and, indeed, involvement.

And that, says David Butter of the Economist Intelligence Unit, means a slice of the action for Makhlouf.

David Butter: It’s quite difficult to get anything done in the Syrian business scene without Rami Makhlouf perhaps having a cut in your business.

Take the German car company Mercedes. Makhlouf was keen to win the contract to supply Mercedes’ spare parts in Syria. He didn’t leave anything to chance, says George Joffe.

Joffe: He was able to pass a law which made it obligatory for Mercedes to use his outlets rather than anyone else’s.

Makhlouf is so entwined with the Assad regime that it’s widely believed he’s been involved in the crackdown. And that raises a question about the jewel in his corporate crown — his cell-phone company.

Syriatel ad

Syriatel has 55 percent market share. Ironic then that some of the bloodiest and most damning images of the crackdown have been captured and relayed out of the country by cell phone. This use of the cell phone, says Nabila Ramdani, has posed a dilemma for the billionaire.

Ramdani: Makhlouf is first and foremost a businessman, so he does realize that if he bans completely — or if he shuts down completely — the communication lines, then he will lose an awful lot of money.

Before the unrest Makhlouf had been hailed as a symbol of Syria’s economic progress. But, says George Joffe, he’s now become a symbol of something else, which has fueled a lot of the protest in the Arab world.

Joffe: It’s not just a question of political freedoms. It’s that those elites who rule are simply exploiting the commonwealth for their own personal benefits, thereby denying people access to jobs and access to reasonable living standards, too.

Marketplace contacted Rami Makhlouf requesting a comment. The businessman did not respond.

In London, I’m Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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