One of the most powerful Syrian oligarchs, Samer Foz amassed a huge fortune during the ongoing civil war.
On June 11, the US imposed sanctions on a prominent Syrian businessman Samer Foz, exactly six months after the European Union took similar measures against the luxury real estate builder.
Foz has been a go-to guy between foreign investors and the Syrian regime led by Bashar al Assad.
Educated at the American University of Paris in France, Foz displayed overweening confidence in his business record, despite allegations of him being one of Assad's sidekicks and a facilitator of the regime's business through shady networks. In a 2018 newspaper interview, he argued he "has properly been spared sanctions" because his investments did not touch the regime's military affairs.
But in 2019, Foz, who became one of the richest men of Syria during the civil war, could not escape Western sanctions despite his best effort to be perceived as a businessman devoted to reconstructing Syria along with Western help.
“Once you have made enough money, you begin to think about what you can do for your country,” said Foz, during a 2018 interview with the Wall Street Journal.
But Foz, the owner of the Aman Holding Group, has reportedly made money utilising Assad's coterie of friends and advisors, who in turn needed an enabler to take up large-scale real estate projects designed to rebuild war-affected Syria.
“Samer Foz, his relatives, and his business empire have leveraged the atrocities of the Syrian conflict into a profit-generating enterprise,” said Sigal Mandelker, US Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, as he announced sanctions against Foz.
Assad's reconstruction plan reportedly excludes neighbourhoods where his rule was strongly challenged during the civil war. Taking advantage of large swathes of abandoned towns and neighbourhoods, the regime forces are now housing the former opposition strongholds with pro-regime militias and families, doling out big-budget construction tenders to a limited group of businessmen, which includes Foz, who function just like the infamous Russian oligarchs do.
“This tactic - taking over property owned by Syrian citizens and handing the land to wealthy regime insiders to develop in exchange for revenue sharing - has emerged as Assad's go-to strategy for high-end reconstruction in war-torn Syria," said the US Treasury Department.
One of Foz's eye-catching projects has been the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. Known as a ‘shark’ by people acquainted with his style of doing business, Foz bought the hotel’s majority stake from a Saudi magnate, Prince al Waleed bin Talal, who was jailed by Riyadh’s young and aggressive Prince Muhammed Bin Salman in November 2017. The five-star hotel is mostly booked by the UN staff and other foreign officials, who seek to bring an end to the war.
According to foreign diplomats, Foz, who belongs to the Sunni sect of Islam, came into public view in 2017, after he struck a deal with the Assad regime, which is dominated by the country's minority sect named the Alawites. The regime authorised him to build three towers and five other buildings on properties that had been forcibly confiscated by the regime from pro-opposition people in the early stages of the Syrian rebellion.
A perfect fit
Most regime insiders and businessmen like Rami Makhlouf, Assad's cousin and a telecommunications giant, were severely damaged by Western sanctions, but Foz managed to steer clear of scrutiny with his low-key tactics and avoided both Washington and Brussels’ wrath.
“The less you appear, the fewer mistakes you make,” Foz once told the Wall Street Journal.
His skills in hiding from sanctions and his ability to find foreign funds for reconstruction have made him earn the favour of the regime, which desperately needs outside sources for big infrastructure projects.
Foz reportedly funds a TV station and a website through a company in London, according to British media outlets. The businessman has also earned citizenship from Saint Kitts and Nevis, a Caribbean island state, which was a former associate state of the UK. The country’s passport, which could be gained with an investment of $150,000, allowing visa-free travel across the EU, has been used by businessmen to facilitate their offshore dealings.
Through the intricate dealings, Foz was able to buy Syria’s sole functioning steel company in a country where more than 500 businessmen were kidnapped for ransom by opposition forces during the civil war. The plant, which is located in Homs, one of the most devastated cities, was particularly needed to produce construction equipment in order to rebuild demolished apartments.
Foz was not only good at dealing with the Assad regime but also with striking business deals with Daesh. Foz reportedly sold wheat to the terror group when it was in its heyday controlling large swaths of Syria between 2014-2016.
Foz also roped in the YPG, selling them wheat and other products. The YPG is the Syrian wing of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and EU.
Foz did not have any serious competitor as his business turf had been deeply affected by the bloody civil war. As the country's suffered the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars during the war, most of Syria's business elite fled Syria.
“I worked for four years with no competition at all,” Foz once said.