Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s richest man and first cousin of President Bashar al-Assad, has fallen out with the regime.
“They are asking me to distance myself from my companies and do exactly as they order me to do, while I’m blindfolded and not able to respond,” said Makhlouf. “The pressures have started with the senior figures in these companies being arrested already. The pressure began in unacceptable ways and the security forces, in an inhumane way, are arresting our employees.” Addressing the Syrian leader, he added: “President (Assad), the security forces have started attacking people’s freedoms. These are your loyal supporters. The situation is dangerous and by God, if we continue, the situation of the country will be very difficult.”
Makhlouf claimed he had been asked to pay up to £180bn in taxes, which he said he was willing to do over time. He said Assad had accused him of minimising profits in Syriatel in order to avoid taxes. Syria's nine-year war, which has placed unprecedented pressure on the ruling clans and their networks, who have run the economy like a personal fiefdom.
Through a conglomerate empire that has controlled up to 60% of the Syrian economy, Makhlouf had amassed a fortune thought to be as high as £8bn ($10bn.) Makhlouf had controlled nearly every pillar of the economy, including construction, car imports, retail, tourism and telecommunications, where the mobile network Syriatel has been its main cash cow. Makhlouf built his fortune largely from commissions paid to him by large networks of businesspeople.One Syrian businessman described Makhlouf’s fortune as “staggering”. “Syria’s GDP was $60bn in 2010,” he said. “He controls easily half of that. Multiply that by 20 years and add in the family silver from [the former Syrian president] Hafez al-Assad’s days and you have tremendous wealth, much of it that would not pass any audit.”