DUBAI: While differences remain intractable at home in Syria, an open-door policy in Dubai has seen competitors and even adversaries operate side by side, even spurring growth and helping to reverse the tide of the emirate’s economic downturn.
Dubai has cemented itself as the leading destination for wealthy Syrians from different political persuasions who wish to relocate their families and assets to a more hospitable environment.
Businessmen who sided with the opposition and found themselves frozen out by the Assad regime, families of those under international sanctions, defectors, politicians, diplomats, or just middle class fence-sitters – siding with neither the regime nor the opposition in their country’s civil war – have found safe haven in a place where money talks, even when its beneficiaries don’t.
They find themselves rubbing shoulders in the upmarket Marina Mall, visiting the same restaurants or sharing office spaces. Their children attend the same international schools.
“You are always hearing someone say they spotted so-and-so here, or so-and-so there,” says one Dubai resident, who previously worked in Syria.
While the UAE has taken a forthright foreign policy position on other Arab Spring countries – particularly Egypt, where they opposed the Muslim Brotherhood leadership of Mohammad Morsi – on Syria the policy remains muted.
A favorable and discreet business environment has seen a steady movement of capital into the emirate from Arab Spring countries wracked by violence and instability.
“Dubai is an attractive prospect as it essentially has an open door policy, as long as your agenda is not adverse to local interests,” said Nicholas Bortman, Dubai-based head of London corporate investigation firm GPW’s Middle East practice.
“The banking system is stable, there are commercial opportunities that are not available elsewhere in the region, there is rule of law and a framework to conduct business, and there is access to global markets both in terms of financial systems and infrastructure,” Bortman said.
“People can also operate discreetly in this part of the world.”
The opportunity to stash money in offshore companies or in many of Dubai’s free zones may appeal to those who have something to hide. In real estate offices in central Dubai, brochures advertise offshore company startups “to keep your wealth confidential.”
Fleeing punitive international sanctions for helping fund the war, investigators believe some of Bashar Assad’s family and associates may be redirecting money to offshore companies or through relatives.
Assad’s mother, Anisa, is living in Dubai, as are his sister and the wife of assassinated deputy defense chief Assef Shawkat, Bushra Assad, and her two children. Earlier this month, a European court upheld EU sanctions against Bushra, including the freezing of assets and a ban on all travel, finding that her strong family ties justified the decision.
Other high-ranking regime officials also confirmed to be operating from Dubai include Suleiman Maarouf, the head of pro-regime media Addounia TV and personal friend of Assad, and Iyad Ghazal, the former Homs governor who was ranked 14 out of the 100 richest Arab businessmen by Arabian Business in 2010.
The UAE central bank has asked financial institutions to investigate funds or investments by top Syrian officials, in line with EU and Arab League sanctions, but business intelligence sources told The Daily Star that banking secrecy laws and laundering of funds through family members and affiliates made fund tracing and recovery difficult.
On the other hand, some Syrian businessmen relocated after finding themselves targeted by the regime, having their assets frozen at home and being charged under terrorism laws for funding the opposition.
Firas Tlas, a wealthy businessman and son of the former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, now operates a consultancy firm out of Dubai after he was sentenced to death in absentia on terrorism charges and had his assets seized in Syria as a result of his early siding with the opposition.
Another opposition figure, based in Dubai since 2011, is Ghassan Abboud, an automobile dealer and the head of Orient TV.
But for those who can afford it, Dubai simply offers a secure environment, away from politics and the spotlight.
Among the more high profile figures to make a quiet move to Dubai was former Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi, who left Syria in 2013. Abdul-Salam Haykal, a technology entrepreneur who heads Haykal Media, moved some of his business to Dubai in 2013, joining the ranks of dozens of businesspeople.
“They are all here. No one is hiding,” said one businessman who said he identified with neither side of the conflict as he moved new furniture into his recently rented office space. He declined to be named, however, citing security reasons.
Economists say the influx of Syrian capital into Dubai has contributed in part to a resurrection of the emirate’s economy after the disastrous crash of 2008-09.
Real estate markets have bounced back, with average residential sales prices up by 60 percent year-on-year for the last quarter of 2013, according to the latest report from Asteco, the Middle East’s biggest real estate services company. The residential leasing market also witnessed significant growth, with average prices up by 22 percent for apartments and 6 percent for villas in 2013, according to the same report. Asteco’s July report found Gulf investors from outside the GCC and crisis-hit countries were leading a surge in real estate investment.
“Over the course of the Arab Spring, it is widely considered that Dubai prospered because of its stable status in the region,” GPW’s Bortman said. “The Dubai real estate market is coming back, and in terms of investor confidence, things have completely turned around.”