Up until a couple of weeks ago, Rami Makhlouf was not a well known media personality outside of his country, as Syria’s notable figures are generally involved in politics, military affairs or culture. Makhlouf, a relative of the President and one of the country’s new businessmen, soon became the name on everyone’s lips, whenever people sought to criticize the Assad regime. Recently, he surprised us all when he held a somewhat confused press conference, announcing that he would donate his wealth to charity. However, he failed to declare the exact size of his wealth, nor did he mention the amount he would donate to charity. In fact, he contradicted himself by beginning his speech with the announcement that he was to donate his wealth, before later saying he was willing to make a contribution. The degree of ambiguity in his words increased when he announced that he would only be designating his companies’ annual profits to the poor. Despite such obscurity, it was clear that the besieged Syrian leadership has decided to get rid of Makhlouf, after he became a symbol of corruption. Now what remains to be done is to get rid of the symbol of oppression; Maher al-Assad.
Makhlouf is part of a newly emerging phenomenon; that of the ruling regime itself making an endeavor towards trade, whereas in the past the government used to create alliances with merchants. Although the economy and the military are both pillars which any regime relies upon, neither can solely provide legitimacy to the regime, nor do they guarantee its continuity. The gross mistake committed by modern regimes is that they have misinterpreted the power of finance. The situation has now transformed, from a state of coexistence between the regime and merchants, to a regime tailored for trade. Syria is famous for its trade corporations – a significant element of President Hafez al-Assad’s regime consisted of close alliances he created with the merchants of Damascus. After Hafez passed away and Bashar was installed as a ruler, the regime itself became involved in business, and incorporated businessmen like Rami Makhlouf. This situation is similar to Egypt, following the rise of Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son who mixed finance with politics. The presidential palace and the ruling party were full of businessmen who were involved in politics, as well as statesmen who moonlighted as businessmen. As a result, steel merchant Ahmed Ezz assumed the highest position in the ruling National Democratic Party. Similarly, in Tunisia, the family of President Ben Ali’s wife (al-Trebelsi) accumulated the bulk of the country’s corporations. Likewise in Libya Gaddafi’s sons followed the business line. Hence, in the past, there were rich men who aspired to become rulers, but now there are rulers who aspire to become rich.
There is a widespread joke that if you want to become a billionaire, nowadays you needn’t be as persistent and creative as Bill Gates, who spent all his life exerting himself in the market, but it is suffice to hold power in the Arab world, where you can become rich in an instant. Due to the uprisings and tension in the region, news has circulated about individuals who became wealthy thanks to the power of authority in Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, and so on. Such individuals often relinquished as much as half of their immense fortunes to anyone who could help them launder the money abroad. Yet ironically, had such people invested the money in their own country, they could have prolonged their political power.
Even in Iran, where a fierce struggle is taking place between different elements of the ruling regime, the Revolutionary Guards have marginalized the Bazaar (traditional merchants), and are now in possession of over 30 percent of corporations in the oil, service, agricultural and industrial sectors.
Whenever government mixes with business, authoritarianism reaches its peak, and a clash with the people becomes inevitable. This is one of the reasons behind the campaign currently being launched in Italy against Prime Minister Berlusconi. The difference is that the people in Italy can overthrow their leader if they are unsatisfied, whereas in totalitarian regimes the equation is different; because the one who trades is also the only one carrying weapons.