Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ghassan Aboud, a Businessman for Syrian Democracy

Profile of Ghassan Aboud, first destined to be a journalist before moving to the United Arab Emirates in 1992 to work in public relations.

Born in 1967 in Idlib, a city now under siege  in Syria, Ghassan Aboud leads several missions with the same energy: business, journalism, philanthropy and democracy. He is now in exile between Dubai and Belgium for his efforts towards bringing change in Syria.

Ghassan Aboud was first destined to be a journalist and studied journalism at Damascus university before moving to the United Arab Emirates in 1992, to work in public relations. His sensitivity towards business led him to launch the Ghassan Aboud Group, a holdings company that currently oversees Ghassan Aboud Cars, a company founded in 1994 in Sharjah, and Orient media. He is married to Nahed Nebhan and has five children: Jude, Alma, Taima, Mustafa and Ali.

Ghassan Aboud Cars specialize in the re-export of cars, spare parts, and car accessories. It grew fast and quickly became one of the leading regional car and accessory re-export business throughout the region. From a small, family-owned business, Ghassan Aboud Cars grew to re-export cars, spare parts and accessories in nearly 100 countries.

Orient media was established in 2008 as a satellite channel associated to a TV production company, LivePoint. It was based in Dubai and Syria and that then opened in the US, Belgium, Jordan and Turkey. At the same time was launched Orient Radio, a Syrian radio-station broadcasting varied content and aiming to reflect what it considers as Syrian collective values, culture and daily life.

Syria- Ghassan Aboud
Photo AFP

For the online platform Mideastwire blog, Aboud described his vision for his media. “We worked on a series of shows depicting the different Syrian groups, with all their sects, ethnicities, belongings and even occupations,” he wrote. “We revealed the other, because if you do not know what is in your neighbor’s house, you will always fear him. We opened the people’s houses to each other, and allowed all the sects to see what the others were doing. This is why they loved this channel, because Syria under the rule of the Ba’th party annulled the privacy of human groups and tried to make them similar…”

Those media are the reflection of Aboud’s convictions. As the 2011 Syrian uprising developed, the channel was quickly dedicated to follow the revolutionary events through the social, political and military dynamics of the conflict, with correspondents everywhere through the war, even on front lines. The channel also displayed children’s programs to educate displaced children, and took a strong stance against the Islamic State’s presence in Syria. This stance led the channel and its employees to be often targeted by the group and Aboud to be threatened of death. Journalists were kidnapped and injured, and at least one was killed. Despite the situation and the risks, Aboud declared in 2013 that: “These reprehensible actions will not stop the group from performing its duty to the Syrian people”.

Ghassan Aboud didn’t have only IS to fear, but also the Syrian government. Although he doesn’t belong to any political party or opposition coalitions, Aboud  organized the first conference of Syrian intellectuals, dissidents, and activists after the Syrian demonstations in Turkey, in May 2011. The same year, he also launched a civil society initiative to create a bloc of Syrian technocrats and businessmen to help lead the transitional phase in a post-Assad Syria and has participated since then to international seminars on Syria all over the world.

Positioning himself like a backer of democratic change more than an opposition figure, Aboud was nevertheless targeted as a threat by the Assad regime. For example, his media have been put under pressure by people close to the President. For Mideastwire blog, he described what happened already in 2009: “Mr. Rami Makhlouf [a Syrian businessman and the cousin of President Bashar al-Assad] asked me to meet him in Damascus. […] I was in a state of panic because I knew how this man operated. I went to Syria and met him in his office for about two and a half hours. […] Throughout the session, I listened to him talking, as though he was saying: “I am your supreme god and if you want to live, you will live with me, and if not, you know the consequences.” He even used the expression: “I am sad because Orient will die, since you are clearly stubborn.” […] He wanted to be a partner with the most shares in order to control the channel. […] When I rejected his offer, many websites started insulting me by saying I had come to blackmail the Syrian government and that I had specific goals…”

In 2010, internal security forces raided their offices. Aboud recalls the event in his Mideastwire blog “the employees were told that they were prohibited from working with Orient Channel, unless they present an official request to the Information Ministry which we all know has no role whatsoever. […] The media officials thus contacted all the advertising companies to ask them not to advertise with us… Many companies ignored these instructions, until former Prime Minister Naji al-Otari issued an order to prevent any dealings with Orient Channel because it had committed legal violations whose nature has not been revealed until this day.”

When Aboud refused to hand over parts to Makhlouf, the Damascus office was shut down. Orient’s 165 employees in Syria were asked to sign commitment letters saying they would never work for the company again, under threat of harm to themselves and their families. Aboud’s stand for democratic change also has consequences for his business. In 2013, he told IBT: “Security forces burned my house, my land and my family’s houses,” he said. “And they turned my olive oil factory into a regime military base.”

But he didn’t despair and helped establish employment programs in small businesses and tailoring workshops for female refugees who have been displaced from their homes in northern Syria. He also founded the organization  Orient for Human Relief in 2012 to provide medical, educational, and social services to the millions of Syrians who have been displaced or injured in the conflict. On a more intellectual note, he also launched the Orient Vision Center for studies, specializing on identity in countries where different communities and ethnic groups have coexisted for so long. Ghassan Aboud is an Honored businessman and awarded philanthropist.

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