Mohammad Makhlouf: The Employee Who Became an Emperor When He Became Assad’s Brother-in-law

Ahmad Al-Ahmad
Syrian Journalist

Mohammad Makhlouf has reached a level of influence that no other official had reached in the era of Hafez al-Assad, because he could communicate with Hafez at any time and on any occasion. He also used to bribe state officials with exorbitant gifts.

In the late 1960s, a young Syrian man called Mohammad Makhlouf lived an ordinary life, a simple employee in the Syrian Airlines company. His life was simple, like any other low-income employees in Syria.

However, development was going on in Syria, driving this simple employee to glory, leading him to create an economic state parallel to the Syrian state. His Brother-in-law (his sister’s husband), Hafez al-Assad, the officer in the Syrian Army, had initiated a coup d’état against his fellow officers Nureddin al-Atassi and Salah Jadid, and managed to seize power in Syria, in what was known as “The Glorious Corrective Movement.”

Al-Assad’s rise to power in Syria represented a milestone in the life of Mohammad Makhlouf, who, thanks to his close ties with al-Assad, managed to rise in the hierarchy of Syrian public institutions, and created a massive fortune to start his economic empire, which he later inherited to his son Rami.

Several family members mourned Mohammad Makhlouf on social media without specifying the circumstances of his death. However, sources from Damascus confirmed his death at the Assad University Hospital in Damascus, weighing that the cause of death might have been a coronavirus infection, but this information has not been confirmed.

“With much sadness and agony, I said goodbye to my father. We will not organize a wake, because of the circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic”, wrote Rami Makhlouf, his son, on Facebook.

Back to the life of Mohammad Makhlouf, the man has become one of the wealthiest people in Syria. Upon assuming the duties of his first government position, he started gathering his wealth, after his brother-in-law, Hafez al-Assad, seized power in Syria, as he was the brother of Anissa Makhlouf, the wife of Hafez al-Assad.

Makhlouf Sr. was born in 1932 in the village of Bustan al-Basha in the city of Jableh on the Syrian coast, to a family of modest means. Makhlouf married two women; the first was Ghada Mhanna, mother of the engineer Rami, Brigadier General Hafiz, Colonel Iyad, and Ihab. His second wife, whom he married during his stay in Russia, was Hala Al Maghout, mother of the child named Ahmad.

Starting with 1972, Makhlouf began to climb the ranks. After he quit his job in Syrian Airlines, he suddenly became the Director-General of the state-owned tobacco company, also known as “Regie.” At that time, Makhlouf Sr. used the “Protection of the National Economy” slogan to dominate foreign investments in tobacco, in addition to his monopoly over smuggled tobacco into Syria.

In the Regie Factory, Makhlouf registered all agencies of foreign tobacco companies by his name and not the tobacco establishment, monopolized the purchase of local tobacco production lines, and exported the universally demanded Syrian raw tobacco to foreign companies with prices higher than the actual prices, and at the same time, he forced farmers to sell their products of cultivated tobacco at low prices, to increase his profit.

During that era, Makhlouf imposed a “financial commission” on merchants and exclusive agents of foreign manufactured tobacco, similar to a royalty fee for them to be allowed to operate in the country. When they refused to pay this commission, Makhlouf issued a decision stipulating that the import of foreign-manufactured tobacco shall only be limited to the state-owned tobacco company “Regie” and cannot be imported through merchants and agents. Moreover, Makhlouf had imposed a 10% commission to be paid by foreign companies for every batch of imported tobacco.

Makhlouf has raised an unknown amounts of money over these years.

In 1985, the news of Makhlouf’s corruption in the state-owned tobacco company spread all over Syria. Which prompted Hafez al-Assad at the time to promote him instead of removing him from power. Makhlouf was then appointed as a director of the Real Estate Bank of Syria, REB, where he found a more fertile environment to grow his financial fortune. He started transferring funds to European banks in his name instead of being in the name of the REB, to seize these funds later.

According to “Daraj” sources, Makhlouf, as soon he assumed his duties as a director of the REB, he set a price for the bank loans at a rate of 15%. Based on which he granted loans worth billions of dollars, personally benefiting from this rate. He also set a 10% percentage for late payment or request to extend the loan term.

In the tobacco establishment and then the REB, Makhlouf collected unknown amounts of money throughout all these years.

In 1980, Makhlouf realized the importance of the recently discovered Syrian oil and its big money. So, he moved to this industry, as he became a partner in “Al Furat Petroleum Company,” which explores for oil and invests in its fields. That company’s shares were distributed among the Syrian government (65%) and an alliance of foreign companies (35%) headed by the Dutch Shell company, whose agency in Syria was taken over by Mohammad Makhlouf.

In the same year, Mohammad Makhlouf founded the “Leads” oil company, based in Syria’s capital, Damascus. He owned it equally with his relative Nizar Assaad. Makhlouf registered his share in the name of his brother-in-law, Ghassan Mhanna, who was a former employee in the Syrian Petroleum Company. And that company started investing in the oil industry.

Syrian media close to the regime suggest that after the death of Bashar al-Assad’s mother Anissa Makhlouf in 2016, and the illness that befell her brother Mohammad Makhlouf, Asma Assad began working on transferring the country’s funds from Makhlouf’s family to hers, as an attempt to seize the financial power.

Up to 2000, Mohammad Makhlouf kept expanding his financial empire. During that period, Hafez al-Assad passed away and his son Bashar inherited power. And then Mohammad Makhlouf passed his financial empire down to his son Rami. By doing so, the scenario was played out again, as both the political and economic powers in Syria were transferred from Hafez al-Assad and Mohammad Makhlouf to Bashar al-Assad and Rami Makhlouf.

As soon as Bashar came to power, Rami Makhlouf was one of the first visitors to the Presidential Palace in order to strengthen the relations with the new regime to continue plundering Syrian economy. Rami managed to gain Bashar’s trust and monopolize the establishment of the first cellular operator in Syria, “Syriatel Company.” Moreover, Rami has also taken over more tourism and technology projects and imposed his partnership on foreign companies that wanted to start their business in Syria. Therefore, the family’s fortune has increased and prospered even more during Rami’s time.

Rami was described to be more stringent than his father. He was careful not to show up in the media, in addition to his constant efforts to withdraw the largest amount of funds from Syria.

Both the father and the son shared a similar trait of staying out of the media, as they barely made any media appearances. Likewise, there are not many photos of them or interviews with them in the media or the Internet.

The scarce information on Mohammad Makhlouf, especially his financial empire, was uncovered by documents leaked from the HSBC bank account in Switzerland in 2015. These leaked documents revealed that Mohammad Makhlouf had submitted his bank statements to the bank as an agent of the American tobacco company “Philip Morris” which owns the famous brand of “Marlboro” cigarettes, and the exclusive agent of the Japanese “Mitsubishi Motors” company and the soda company “Coca-Cola.”

As part of the series of sanctions that senior officials of the Syrian regime were subjected to after the outbreak of the revolution, Mohammad Makhlouf and then his son Rami were subjected to European Union sanctions due to their close relationship with the Syrian regime.

Mohammad Makhlouf appealed these sanctions that prohibited him from traveling to Europe and froze all his assets, under the pretext that they “violate his privacy,” and disrupt the standard of living that his family was accustomed to. However, his appeal was rejected by the European General Court. Makhlouf then re-appealed the sanctions in 2015, but with no success in lifting them.

According to the scarce information available in “History of the Alawites in the Levant: From the Dawn of Islam to Our Contemporary History,” Mohammad Makhlouf has reached a level of influence that no other official had in the era of Hafez al-Assad, as he could reach out to Hafez at any time and on any occasion. He also used to bribe state officials with exorbitant gifts.

Firas Tlass, the son of the former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, revealed that Mohammad Makhlouf sought help from experts from Lebanon and Britain to establish his own oil empire, as he was imposing a percentage on any oil deals carried out in Syria, taking advantage of his kinship with the ruling family.

Mohammad Makhlouf took a step back after his son Rami assumed the responsibility of managing the family’s fortune, and throughout Bashar al- Assad’s reign, Rami had absolute powers, so he was able to do whatever he pleased in Syria. But since the spring of 2020, a dispute arose, the first-ever dispute between Rami Makhlouf and the president Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma; as the regime demanded that Makhlouf pays considerable amounts of money as taxes to the “Syrian Telecommunications and Post Regulatory Authority,” driving Makhlouf to show up for the first time on social media and speak up about “being subjected to injustice” due to the imposed taxes and indicate that there were people seeking to dispossess him of “Syriatel.” He also revealed that some of his employees have been arrested to be subjugated.

Syrian media close to the regime suggest that after the death of Bashar al-Assad’s mother Anissa Makhlouf in 2016, and the illness that befell her brother Mohammad Makhlouf, Asma al-Assad began working on transferring the country’s funds from Makhlouf’s family to hers, as an attempt to seize the financial power.

These conflicts are still ongoing…

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