Syrian tycoon’s fall from grace may herald new pledges of reform

June 18, 2011

By Tim Lister, CNN

(CNN) — Syria’s richest man has rarely sounded contrite. But Rami Makhlouf — a confidant and cousin of President Bashar al-Assad — looked distinctly subdued when announcing that he was selling his holding in Syria’s mobile phone network, Syriatel, to help Syria’s poorest.

He tried to make it sound like a Gatesian gesture, saying he wanted to sell the shares, some 40% of the company, to benefit tens of thousands of Syrians. Why now? “Because we are so keen on preserving the nation, its land, its people and its leadership, and so we don’t become a heavy burden to this nation,” he said Thursday.

Syria-watcher Ayham Kamel at the Eurasia Group says the assets will be substantial and that Makhlouf did not give up the crown jewels of his empire willingly.

“Makhlouf became a liability, a symbol of corruption. It was only a matter of time before the president sidelined him,” Kamel says. Since the current unrest began, Makhlouf (like Assad’s brother Maher) has been a target of some protestors. And offices of Syriatel in the southern city of Daraa were attacked.

It would appear to be a rapid fall from grace for a ruthless businessman who was reputed to control some 60% of the Syrian economy, with interests in construction, tourism, minerals and mobile communications. Just last month, the 41-year old magnate was quoted in a New York Times interview that the regime would “fight until the end,” warning: “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

President Assad is said to have been angered by that interview.

But Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says there is little clarity about what Makhlouf is actually surrendering, and he suspects negotiations are continuing with the government.

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