Stealth wealth from the Middle East

How Assad's family and others have filled their European coffers

Dubbed the "Butcher of Hama", Syria's Rifaat al-Assad is accused of embezzling millions in European real estate. Like him, many regional rulers have preferred to keep their European properties quiet. Tom Allinson reports

The uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is said to boast a European fortune that includes two Paris townhouses – one of them 3,000 square metres – a stud farm, a chateau and more than 500 properties in Spain. A former Syrian vice president and military leader, Rifaat al-Assad is also known as the "Butcher of Hama" for allegedly commanding troops to brutally crush a 1982 uprising in central Syria.

The decision scheduled by a Parisian court for 30 April on whether he diverted over €90 million ($98 million) of Syrian state funds to buy some of that real estate was postponed. In November, Spanish prosecutors accused him of stealing €600 million from Syrian coffers. He has denied both charges.

The maternal side of Bashar's family are also under suspicion. Several members of the Makhloufs, Bashar's close cousins and advisers, have sunk $40 million into the glittering glass and steel of Moscow's "City of Capitals" twin skyscrapers in recent years, according to the UK corruption-focussed NGO Global Witness.

The infamously wealthy family is reported to have been key in maintaining Bashar's violent grip on power and their Russian investment may be a way for them to channel regime funds past EU sanctions, the NGO says.

But Assad's family haven't been alone among wealthy Middle East and North African rulers and their entourages. Although their investments haven't necessarily been illegal, some of them continue to set up in Europe, living lives in stark contrast to the citizens in their home countries who endure conflict and corruption.

Gaddafi and Mubarak

When Egypt's Hosni Mubarak regime fell in 2011, his family wealth was estimated to be between $5 billion and $70 billion at the time, including luxury properties across London, Paris and Spain. Some of those were held by his sons through shell companies, according to the Panama Papers investigation.

When Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in the same year, Libyan officials estimated he had $200 billion in accounts, investments and real estate under his personal control around the world. A £10 million (€11.5 million, $12.5 million) London mansion belonging to his son Saadi Gaddafi, was handed back to Libyan authorities in 2012.

The assets of both of their immediate families and some of their entourages remain frozen under EU sanctions.

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