Home The Washington Diplomat August 2007


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Syrian-American Executives Leave Their Mark The United States is home to an array of Syrian-born entrepreneurs who have left an indelible impression on the global business community ranging from telecommunications to hospitality. Here is a sampling of their success stories:

The United States is home to an array of Syrian-born entrepreneurs who have left an indelible impression on the global business community ranging from telecommunications to hospitality. Here is a sampling of their success stories:

Nicola M. Antakli Syrian-American Auto Executive Says Sanctions Help Nobody

It’s ironic that Nicola M. Antakli—a successful Arab-American businessman who owns the world’s largest exporters of automotive and architectural glass companies—can freely export to almost every country in the Middle East except his native Syria.

That’s because of U.S. sanctions imposed three years ago. Originally from the city of Homs, Antakli came to the United States 50 years ago as a student. He earned his undergraduate degree from Michigan’s Lawrence Technological University and his master’s of business administration degree from the University of Detroit.

For eight years, Antakli worked for Federal-Mogul, a leading automotive firm, establishing its overseas operations in the Middle East and Africa. Then in 1971, he founded Intraco Corp. in Beirut. Very soon after, Antakli moved the company to Troy, Mich., and gradually turned it into what it is today: a leading independent exporter of building materials and automotive components from the United States to about 70 countries around the world.

This year, he said, annual sales will surpass 0 million. Intraco has around 350 employees, including 85 in Syria. In addition to a facilities in Syria, Intraco also has two subsidiaries in Lebanon—one in Beirut, the other in Jbeil—as well as a distribution center in Jebel Ali Free Zone in the United Arab Emirates.

In 1991, Antakli was named “World Trader of the Year” by the World Trade Club. Five years later, he became the first Syrian-American to win the Ellis Island Medal of Honor “for his vision, perseverance, faith and contribution to the United States and the world.”

“It hurts me as an American because I feel we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” Antakli said. “I say to my many friends in the Republican Party that I’m a free trader and a student of international trade and that I believe sanctions don’t work.”

As a result of the sanctions, virtually all U.S. exports to the Arab nation of 21 million dried up. Antakli said he hopes the Bush administration will lift sanctions against Damascus so that businessmen like himself will again be able to export directly to Syrians.

“This year, we will sell 3,000 cars to Syria—all Chevrolets,” he said. “Due to the sanctions, all of those vehicles are made in Korea, Brazil or Sweden, not the United States. It is unfortunate that today American manufacturers are being penalized by this policy. It is not in the interest of the United States.”

Ghassan Aidi Washington Resident Runs Successful Syrian Hotel Chain

Longtime Washington resident Ghassan Aidi runs one of the most successful private companies in Syria: the Cham Palace hotel chain.

Aidi, a gregarious businessman with a shock of grey hair, splits his time between a home in McLean, Va., and Damascus, where he is president of a company that has hotels throughout Syria and also in France, Jordan, Lebanon and Abu Dhabi.

“We are the only hotel company in the world that has zero debt,” Aidi said proudly. Cham Palace is owned by 25,000 shareholders, with its shares traded privately and holders receiving an unusually high 25 percent dividend every year.

Aidi used to be in the restaurant business—he ran Washington, D.C., French staple Le Vendome for many years—but he says the hotel and travel industry is a better fit for him.

He also ran a Washington-based travel agency that was bringing up to 35,000 U.S. tourists to Syria every year until Sept. 11, 2001. The visitors were mostly archaeology enthusiasts and church members, and Aidi hopes that Americans will one day resume visiting his native country.

Go visit Aidi in Damascus and he’ll probably insist that you see his latest creation: Syria’s only golf course. The 18-hole course was constructed next to a Cham Palace hotel in the desert outside Damascus. Eighty water wells nourish more than 4,000 palm trees and water hazards that dot lolling green hills. “You won’t believe your eyes when you see it,” Aidi said with a smile.

About the Author

Imad Moustapha, Ambassador of Syria to the United States

Last Edited on November 29, 1999