A previously-unknown Syrian businessman has amassed a fortune during the war. With warm ties to the regime, Russia, Turkey, and the Gulf, he may have a prominent political future too.
How do you kill a man in Turkey and get out of prison? Do business with both Islamic State jihadists and the Kurds? Assist Iranian projects in the heart of Damascus, and get defended by pro-Saudi media figures? Openly help the Assad regime evade international sanctions, without those sanctions touching you in turn? Be the man of both Iran and Russia, and the face of either Bashar or Maher al-Assad, or both? Replace the sanctioned businessman and regime crony Muhammad Hamsho, take over the assets of fellow oligarchs Imad Ghreiwati and Imad Hamisho, buy out Walid bin Talal’s majority stake in the Damascus Four Seasons hotel, and monopolize industries from sugar to steel to television dramas?
Answer: you have to be Samer Foz, the 45-year-old tycoon from Latakia who has emerged from obscurity during Syria’s war to become one of the country’s richest businessmen.
There may appear to be simple explanations for the very rapid rise of what has been called Foz’s business “empire,” but these often conceal as much as they explain. His public visibility—atypical for a businessman in Syria—and the conspicuous support he enjoys from official regime media, which celebrated (for instance) his major role in the Damascus International Fair held in September: these suggest something beyond commerce.
In recent weeks, the Aman Damascus company, owned by the Aman Holding group headed by Foz, announced the start of its real estate project comprising seven residential towers within a development the regime calls “Marota City.” This project has become known as a starting point for what might be termed the Assad regime’s reconstruction philosophy, involving the takeover of plots of land and their distribution among investors in exchange for a portion of the returns, thus enabling the regime to create construction projects without direct funding. Even though this “philosophy” will not reconstruct anything in reality, other than redrawing the administrative maps of the major cities such as Damascus, it may nonetheless have other objectives in mind.
One cannot look at the widespread support for Samer Foz’s emergence, and his dominance over key economic sectors, merely in terms of sanctions avoidance or an economic façade. The role he’s played so far goes beyond that of the usual front-men for Bashar or his brother Maher, such as Muhammad Hamsho. Similarly, Foz has started overstepping the bounds permitted even the Assads’ most famous business crony, Bashar’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, with television channels and media websites owned by Foz continuously publicizing his meetings and airing marketing announcements for the projects of his Aman Holding company.
Foz owns, for example, the “Lana” (“For Us”) satellite channel, which violates some of the prohibitions imposed on official channels, such as by airing drama shows featuring actors banned from appearing on state channels, and by showing the “al-Arrab” (“The Godfather”) series directed by Hatem Ali. This is not a traditional strategy for the regime, though it may be justified by the need for shows focused on “restoring life” in regime areas, as an attempt to attract an audience wider than the exclusive followers of official channels or the “Sama” (“Sky”) satellite channel.
Foz is not an independent businessman. His case is like that of his friend Laith Hijo, the exclusive director of the production company he owns, and an old friend of Maher al-Assad’s. Foz, like Hijo, tries to give the impression of being his own man, no matter the clear untruth of this. The attempts to put Foz forward as an “independent, successful Sunni” entrepreneur fly in the face of his deep ties to the regime, but suggest there may be plans for him to play an even larger role than he yet has.
The world of economics aside, there’s a place for Foz in the world of politics too, indicated by his closeness to Russia, his warm relations with the United Arab Emirates, and his major investments in Turkey. These may make him a “Sunni” figure acceptable to the Gulf Arab states, who have lately begun tying their position on the Syrian regime solely to the latter’s relationship with Iran and its sectarian project in the region. In such a scenario, it may please the Gulf states to find a person close to them, representing a mid-point with respect to their political positions, which are sectarian in turn. Such a role could also encourage Syrian economic elites to return to play roles they’ve relinquished in recent years, taking advantage of nominal changes, such as—for example—Samer Foz becoming the prime minister of Syria.
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 20 November, 2018]