The destruction of Syria looks as total as in any civil war of the last century: whole towns have been leveled, road and water links severed, schools and hospitals in ruins, millions of people killed or exiled and the $60 billion economy left for dead.
Yet, with the conflict in its sixth year and bombs hitting government-controlled areas that previously were barely touched while airstrikes pound neighborhoods held by rebels, the prospect of rebuilding the country isn’t daunting Syrian real estate investor Waleed Zaabi. If only a peace settlement weren’t so elusive, he said.
"Everything is easy once you have stability," said Zaabi, 51, sipping Arabic coffee at the hotel he owns in Dubai. He described the negotiations taking place in Geneva, in which he’s been involved, as just “a movie.” "Once you start having growth and people start to work, you’re on the right track."
Only the most optimistic diplomats see an imminent end to the war in Syria. But when it happens, the country will need wealthy Syrian emigres to bolster the reconstruction effort and jump-start the economy before foreign businesses consider any investment. With close to $200 billion estimated to restore the economy to its prewar size, the rewards could be huge, though so could the potential losses.
Several names come up as possibly playing a role in shaping the country, financially and even politically. Zaabi, a member of the High Negotiations Committee meeting with the United Nations and opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, is among them.
There’s also Ayman Asfari, 57, the chief executive officer of London-based oil services group Petrofac Ltd., and Vienna-based paper-manufacturing magnate Nabil Kuzbari, 79. Asfari has been an outspoken critic of Assad while Kuzbari once had business ties to the ruling family. Asfari declined requests for an interview, while Kuzbari said he stands ready to invest in the “humanitarian aspect” of rebuilding Syria.
"Those investors would lend a tremendous amount of legitimacy to the reconstruction process," said Samer Abboud, associate professor of history and political studies at Arcadia University near Philadelphia. "There are lots of opportunities. Certainly there’s money to be made."
Their wealth and potential influence draw comparisons to the late billionaire prime minister of Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri, who drove the rebuilding of Beirut and the rest of the country after the 15-year civil war ended in 1990. While Syria is complicated by the interests of Iran and Russia on Assad’s side and the Saudis and U.S. on the other, there are similarities at least with the task ahead.
Death and Destruction