Syrian Businessman Becomes Magnet for Anger and Dissent
By ANTHONY SHADID Published: April 30, 2011
BEIRUT, Lebanon — When protests erupted in March in the forlorn Syrian border town of Dara’a, demonstrators burned the president’s portraits, then set ablaze an unlikely target: the local office of the country’s largest mobile phone company, Syriatel, whose owner sits at the nexus of anger and power in a restive country.
Syriatel is owned by Rami Makhlouf, first cousin and childhood friend of President Bashar al-Assad and the country’s most powerful businessman. In the past decade, he has emerged as a strength and a liability of a government that finds its bastions of support shrinking and a figure to watch as Mr. Assad’s inner circle tries to deal with protests shaking his family’s four decades of rule.
Leery of the limelight, he is alternatively described as the Assad family’s banker or Mr. Five Percent (or 10, or whatever share gets the deal done). His supporters praise him for his investment in Syria, but they are far outnumbered by detractors, who have derided him in protests as a thief or worse. Sometimes more than Mr. Assad himself, he has become the lightning rod of dissent.
“We’ll say it clearly,” went a chant in Dara’a. “Rami Makhlouf is robbing us.”
Egypt had Ahmed Ezz, the steel magnate who favored tight Italian suits (and now faces trial in white prison garb). In Tunisia, it was Leila Traboulsi, the hairdresser who became the president’s wife, then a symbol of the extravagance of the ruling family. Mr. Makhlouf, 41, is Syria’s version, a man at the intersection of family privilege, clan loyalty, growing avarice and, perhaps most dangerously, the yawning disconnect between ruler and ruled that already reshaped authoritarian Syria even before the protests.
Like Mr. Ezz in Egypt, he has become a symbol of how economic reforms turned crony socialism into crony capitalism, making the poor poorer and the connected rich fantastically wealthier.
“A huge liability,” was how a Syrian analyst described him.
“On the economic side, he really symbolizes what the people hate about the regime,” said the analyst, who asked not to be named. “They hate the security services and they hate Rami Makhlouf. On the economic side, Rami symbolizes the very worst about the way the country is run.”
An e-mail sent to Mr. Makhlouf’s company on Saturday, asking for comment, went unanswered. Calls to the headquarters seeking comment were not answered Saturday.
The origins of Mr. Makhlouf’s wealth mirror the consolidation of the Assad family’s rule over Syria. Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, a former air force commander who took power in 1970 and soon forged an alliance between officers like him from the Alawite minority and Sunni Muslim businessmen in Damascus, the capital, offered privileges to his wife’s family, the Makhloufs. Mr. Makhlouf inherited the mantle, while his brother, Hafez, went into the other family business — state security — taking over as intelligence chief in Damascus.
“Together they make quite a duo,” an Obama administration official said.
Though prominent even before Mr. Assad’s ascent in 2000, Mr. Makhlouf grew even wealthier as he and Egyptian partners won one of two mobile phone contracts. (The partners were eventually forced to sell.) Syriatel has about 55 percent of the market, Syrian economists say. As the reforms moved…