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How Assad's family and others filled their European coffers

Tom Allinson
April 29, 2020

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

Rifaat Assad, the Uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP Photo/M. Euler

The uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad is reported to have a European fortune that includes two Paris townhouses — one of them 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet) — a stud farm, a chateau and more than 500 properties in Spain.

A former Syrian vice president and military leader, Rifaat Assad is also known as the "Butcher of Hama" for allegedly commanding troops to brutally crush a 1982 uprising in central Syria.

On Thursday, a French court will decide whether he diverted at least €90 million ($98 million) of Syrian state funds to buy some of that real estate. In November, Spanish prosecutors accused him of stealing €600 million from Syrian coffers. He has denied both charges.

The Makhlouf millions

Skyscrapers in Moscow
The purchase of offices in Moscow's "City of Capitals" may be a way for the Makhloufs to avoid EU sanctionsImage: picture-alliance/robertharding/M. Ertman

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-focused 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.

The Gadhafi and Mubarak legacies

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.

Read more'Panama Papers' reveal how the rich hide money offshore

When Moammar Gadhafi 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 Gadhafi, 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.

But Gadhafi's close associate Ali Dabaiba, who was part of an elite circle known as "companions of the leader," reportedly squirreled away $7 billion while on a salary of only £12,000 and a 2018 investigation alleged he invested some of it in prestigious property across the UK. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project said that included Scotland's most significant stately home still in private hands, Taymouth Castle.

Taymouth Castle in Kenmore, Scotland
The neo-Gothic Taymouth Castle features renaissance woodwork; its grounds boast a golf course and salmon fishing on the River TayImage: picture-alliance/robertharding/N. Servian

Saudi prince plays away

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hasn't been as secretive about his wealth but kept his 2015 purchase of the $300 million Chateau Louis XIV in France quiet, not long before he cracked down on corruption in the kingdom.

The 17th century replica, featuring a gold leaf fountain and hedged labyrinth amid expansive gardens, was revealed to be owned by the crown prince by the New York Times in 2017.

With his alleged complicity in the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi still fresh, recent reports of his involvement in takeover negotiations for the British football club Newcastle United have outraged many fans.

Read moreJamal Khashoggi's murder unresolved, one year on

A Gulf apart

Other Gulf states have also shown a keen interest in European football clubs. Qatar's Al Thani royal family bought Paris Saint-Germain football club in 2012, after already plowing many billions of state funds into property across Europe. That included a 95% stake in London's The Shard, Europe's tallest building at the time.

In 2018 former Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani bought what was thought to be London's most expensive home — a 20-plus-bedroom home near Buckingham Palace for $465 million, after renovations.

That same year, Amnesty International reported that foreign laborers in Qatar, who make up the overwhelming majority of the workforce, worked in abusive conditions on the country's FIFA World Cup 2022 sites for a minimum wage of $200 a month. 

Portraits of UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on an office building
The rulers of UAE and Dubai have invested heavily in European propertyImage: picture-alliance/Design Pics/I. Cumming

The Panama Papers revealed that United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan personally owned $1.2 billion in London property, while deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan owns British football club Manchester City. Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's European portfolio includes a £75 million Surrey Estate and £45 million thoroughbred stud farm.

Said to be a close friend of Queen Elizabeth II, Maktoum has faced a storm of controversy in his home-away-from-home. Last month a British court ruled that he had abducted two of his adult daughters and waged a campaign of "fear and intimidation" against his youngest wife, Princess Haya.

Panama Papers: A scandal of global proportions

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