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After 'purging rival' Rami Makhlouf, Assad's wife stages 'hostile takeover' of country’s telecoms sector Open in fullscreen

The New Arab

After 'purging rival' Rami Makhlouf, Assad's wife stages 'hostile takeover' of country’s telecoms sector

Bashar al-Assad's wife has tried to market herself as a progressive and cosmopolitan [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 October, 2019

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After decimating Syria's main telecoms company after feuding with 'regime crony' Rami Makhlouf, Assad has cleared the way for his wife to establish a new mobile provider.
Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian dictator Bashar, is reportedly set to establish a third mobile phone operator in Syria, her husband having allegedly cleared a gap in the market by clamping down on Syriatel, the country’s main provider owned by powerful tycoon Rami Makhlouf.

Syria, whose economy is dominated by select businesses belonging to Assad's inner circle, currently only has two mobile network providers, Syriatel and MTN.

The company with either be in the name of Asma al-Assad, or that of "regime crony" Samer Foz, the sources said.

Billionaire Makhlouf, Bashar al-Assad's first cousin and until recently a central figure in Syria's business elite, reportedly fell out with the president in August after refusing to pay Syria's mounting war debts.

Makhlouf was put under house arrest and his assets, including those in Syriatel, seized by the Assad regime, according to Syrian media.

As part of a so-called "anti-corruption campaign", Assad appointed a palace official as Syriatel's director following the feud.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Asma’s new telecoms company, which is set to be named "Ematel", will be announced "very soon".

The Director of Syria's Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, Iba Oweishq, confirmed on Tuesday a new mobile operator was
"coming soon".

Oweishq indicated the new network would be a virtual operator, leasing the infrastructure of existing networks in Syria, with a view to build the network from scratch after three to five years.

Observers have remarked that the Assad's seizing of control over the telecoms sector will spark tension with ally Iran, who had previously been promised opportunities to invest in Syria’s mobile network market.

The downfall of Syriatel

The news comes as Syriatel is reportedly losing scores of employees after enacting cut-backs on staff salaries and benefits due to falling profits.

A report in the Syria Observer claimed 20 percent of Syriatel's 5,000-strong staff had walked out since the beginning of the year.

Before the conflict broke out in Syria, Makhlouf was estimated to control over 60 percent of the country’s economy through his vast web of businesses.

Considered a symbol of the regime corruption by his opponents, the tycoon’s pre-2011 wealth was thought to exceed $5 billion dollars.

Since the clampdown on Makhlouf, Samer Foz has emerged as the most powerful businessman in the regime's inner circle.

Foz's Aman Group has diversified into everything from car assembly to real estate to pharmaceuticals. He bought a 55 percent stake in the Four Seasons Damascus last year from Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, with estimates saying he paid more than $100 million.

In a rare interview, Foz last year told the Wall Street Journal that he was motivated by creating jobs in Syria as the country recovers from war.

"If I don't think about reconstructing my country, who will?" he was quoted as telling the newspaper at a Beirut restaurant.

Asma al-Assad: Woman of the people?

The London-born wife of Syria's murderous dictator is often portrayed as a progressive rights advocate and the modern, cosmopolitan side of the Assad dynasty.

A former investment banker, her extravagant spending habits were revealed through a series of leaked emails that included invoices for designer clothes and furniture worth tens of thousands of euros.

The Syrian regime and all companies associated with it, including the commerce dynasties of Makhlouf and Foz, have been under EU and US sanctions since Assad's brutal crackdown against peaceful anti-government protesters in 2011, which spiralled into the ongoing civil war.

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