Syria ‘seized business elite’s assets’ in Sheraton hotel shakedown
The Syrian government gathered members of the country’s business elite to the Damascus Sheraton hotel and threatened to arrest them if they failed to pay into state coffers, in a move similar to the Saudi purge at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, the Financial Times reported on . Sunday.
The crackdown began in September 2019, when dozens of Syrian businessmen were said to have been brought to the Sheraton.
They were then told to deposit US dollars in the central bank to help stabilize the Syrian lira, or they would not be released.
The method reflects a similar move by the government of Saudi Arabia, which in November 2017 targeted 300 princes, public figures and businessmen by keeping them incommunicado at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh for weeks. Several detainees were tortured at the luxury hotel, and Saudi authorities later said around $100bn had been handed over.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman justified his purge as an “anti-corruption” move to rid the kingdom of endemic graft.
According to the FT, the Sheraton incident was just one example of the Syrian authorities pressuring wealthy businessmen to give them cash.
A prominent businessman told a British newspaper that he was stopped by Syrian security forces on the streets of Damascus last year, before being placed in solitary confinement. He was then told to pay a large sum of money based on his estimated wealth, or remain in prison indefinitely.
The report cites many businessmen and analysts, who said the “mafia-like” seizures often involved legal pretexts, with government-backed accountants being sent to businesses to find violations and impose fines. These included currency violations on imports or new tax rules applied retroactively.
Many of the businessmen under seizure were supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, and supported the government through the ongoing civil war.
The details reported in the FT were part of a story about the growing influence of Asma al-Assad, the president’s wife.
He said Asma, a former JP Morgan banker, heads the presidential palace’s secret economic council, which is believed to be behind the government’s asset seizure scheme.
According to the report, the Presidential Palace has promoted close allies of Bashar and Asma al-Assad who profited from the decade-long civil war, but are not part of the traditional elite loyal to Bashar’s father and the former President Hafez al-Assad. .
This new cohort helped the state create illicit revenue streams, which the FT said are largely controlled by President Maher al-Assad’s younger brother, including oil smuggling, arms deals, and sales the illegal amphetamine Captagon.
The Syrian economy is teetering on the brink of collapse. According to the UN, 90 percent of the country lives in poverty. Power outages for up to 20 hours a day are common in the capital, and Syria’s currency has been decimated by hyperinflation.
The UN estimates that 15.3 million Syrians will need humanitarian assistance in 2023.