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These super-rich Syrians are waiting to return if war ever ends

Jun 14 2016 07:34
Donna Abu-Nasr and Devon Pendleton

Beirut - The destruction of Syria looks as total as in any civil war of the last century: whole towns have been leveled, road and water links severed, schools and hospitals in ruins, millions of people killed or exiled and the $60bn economy left for dead.

Yet, with the conflict in its sixth year and bombs hitting government-controlled areas that previously were barely touched while airstrikes pound neighbourhoods held by rebels, the prospect of rebuilding the country isn’t daunting Syrian real estate investor Waleed Zaabi. If only a peace settlement weren’t so elusive, he said.

"Everything is easy once you have stability," said Zaabi, 51, sipping Arabic coffee at the hotel he owns in Dubai. He described the negotiations taking place in Geneva, in which he’s been involved, as just “a movie”.

"Once you start having growth and people start to work, you’re on the right track."

Only the most optimistic diplomats see an imminent end to the war in Syria. But when it happens, the country will need wealthy Syrian emigres to bolster the reconstruction effort and jump-start the economy before foreign businesses consider any investment. With close to $200bn estimated to restore the economy to its prewar size, the rewards could be huge, though so could the potential losses.

Three names

Several names come up as possibly playing a role in shaping the country, financially and even politically. Zaabi, a member of the High Negotiations Committee meeting with the United Nations and opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, is among them.

There’s also Ayman Asfari, 57, the chief executive officer of London-based oil services group Petrofac, and Vienna-based paper-manufacturing magnate Nabil Kuzbari, 79. Asfari has been an outspoken critic of Assad while Kuzbari once had business ties to the ruling family. Asfari declined requests for an interview, while Kuzbari said he stands ready to invest in the “humanitarian aspect” of rebuilding Syria.

"Those investors would lend a tremendous amount of legitimacy to the reconstruction process," said Samer Abboud, associate professor of history and political studies at Arcadia University near Philadelphia. "There are lots of opportunities. Certainly there’s money to be made."

Their wealth and potential influence draw comparisons to the late billionaire prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, who drove the rebuilding of Beirut and the rest of the country after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. While Syria is complicated by the interests of Iran and Russia on Assad’s side and the Saudis and US on the other, there are similarities at least with the task ahead.

Death and destruction

Since protests against Assad, 50, descended into war in March 2011, at least 280 000 people have died, half the Syrian population have fled their homes and about $80bn of wealth has been erased, according to a World Bank report in April. Assad said last week that he “will liberate every inch of Syria.”

More deadlines for reaching an initial agreement this summer look less and less likely to be met and Assad is more likely to remain in power in some form. But every time there’s a hint of a possible settlement - most recently the negotiations in Geneva started with a lot of promise and a cease-fire before stalling - talk turns to the massive rebuilding effort that will be needed.

Asfari said the only solution in Syria is a long transitional period, one without Assad in power. In a BBC interview dated December 18, he called his country “a patient today that is bleeding and dying” and unless people see “a credible transition, then things won’t come to an end.”

He hasn’t, however, aligned himself with the fragmented opposition group. He said at a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace conference two months earlier in October that neither the “regime” nor “people in the opposition” have any political legitimacy.

Goodwill store

The son of a diplomat, Asfari was raised mostly outside Syria. Educated in the US, he started working as an engineer for a contractor in Oman after graduating. The next Omani company he worked for partnered with Petrofac in 1986 and Asfari worked his way up, amassing a personal fortune valued at $1 billion in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Petrofac has built gas plants in Syria.

Though he doesn’t expect "paradise" after Assad goes, "there is a tremendous amount of goodwill by the Syrians outside and they would want to go back and invest in their country and I’ll be the first to do that," Asfari said at the Carnegie conference. He said there was a Syrian arrest warrant for him in 2013 over claims he funded Assad’s opponents, for "supporting, you know, so-called terrorists."

Kuzbari, by contrast, has remained more neutral, according to Rashad al-Kattan, a political and security risk analyst and a fellow at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Kuzbari, whose wealth stands at $300m based on the Bloomberg index, lives in Vienna and said he would reinvest in his home country.

“Syria needs trailblazing and fearless entrepreneurs who are willing to take the necessary calculated risks to rebuild the country,” Kuzbari said last week by e-mail in response to questions. Return on investment “will be high, both in terms of finances as well as doing something inherently positive and constructive. I still believe that one can do good, and profit at the same time,” he said.

Assad defect

His reception may depend on who’s in charge.

A Damascus native, he left Syria as a youth to study engineering before returning in the 1960s to take over his family’s second-generation paper business, now called Vimpex. As recently as April 2011, he also served as chairperson of Syria’s Cham Holding, a sprawling conglomerate controlled by Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf. It was for that association Kuzbari found himself slapped with US sanctions on May 18 of that year. He was removed from the list after it was deemed there was no legal merit, his lawyer said.

For the hard-line opposition, "defecting from the regime isn’t good enough, you have to publicly state you’re against them," said al-Kattan at St. Andrews, whose Centre for Syrian Studies is partly funded by Asfari’s foundation. "He hasn’t made any public statement, with or against the regime.”

Zaabi, a civil engineer by training, comes from Daraa, the city where Assad’s quashing of a demonstration triggered the war. He left Syria in 1988 for a job in the United Arab Emirates that included a house, a car and 2 000 dirhams ($540) a month.

Three years later, he started his own business, building small structures with shops on the first floor and housing units on the second before growing into a company that includes real estate, contracting, hospitality, industry and education units. Zaabi’s empire is now valued at more than $750m by the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index, though he said his net worth easily exceeds $1bn.

In an interview at his Samaya Hotel in Dubai on May 11, Zaabi said it won’t be enough just for the war to stop for Syrian magnates to return. There should be a transparent government in place and rule of law to reassure them, he said. Then the priority is education and health care for the millions of children who have gone without proper schooling and tens of thousands have some kind of disability from the war.

"Those who were 10 when the conflict began are now 15 and some of them have seen nothing but murder and blood around them," said Zaabi. "What can we expect from them? How can we deal with them?"

syria  |  middle east


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