Mazen Al-Kahhal

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Syrian Histories,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: Turkey
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Trade, industry and investment in governmental projects.

Mazen al-Kahhal grew up in a Damascene family of pharmacists. His grandfather, who had studied pharmacology in Turkey and founded the Pharmacists' Syndicate in Damascus, passed on his profession to his four children, who later studied and mastered it.

Mazen’s elementary and preparatory education was in a French missionary school. He completed his secondary education in a private school. He says: "Most of the students in the school were Christians. Muslim students were not allowed to register themselves unless they were recommended. The school accepted any Christian students and helped them even if poor. The annual fees were very high compared to average salaries in that period."

Mazen's father owned three drug factories and wanted his son to work with him so that later he could pass them on to him. This is why Mazen did not complete his studies and started working with his father. Things went well until the Ministry of Health issued new decisions stating that work in factories would be illegal unless they contained modern manufacturing machines.

Mazen and his father tried to get the required modern machines but were surprised by a decision of another ministry to ban imports. They were puzzled as to the contradiction between laws and the lack of coordination happening between ministries. In the meantime, a free zone was set up near Damascus International Airport in 1977. Businesspeople were encouraged to invest in it with promises to facilitate their work, allow imports, and create a bank dedicated to remittances.

Mazen took a piece of land in the free zone and established a pharmaceutical factory after importing all the necessary equipment. He was surprised a few months later by new decisions that hindered his work once again, something that caused great losses.

"One of these decisions was that the rent per square meter of land had to be paid in US dollars at a price that was higher than the real market value, which was calculated in Syrian pounds. In addition, they would not give us a certificate of origin for the medicines produced. This greatly hampered exports abroad because importers usually required such a certificate. Drugs, therefore, expired in warehouses, and our plant rent costs accumulated. Production stopped and the state took away its equipment and transferred it to the Tamiko plant. All this strangely coincided with a big fire that hit our second plant in Damascus.”

Mazen bought a large piece of land in the Harasta area of Damascus, where he planned to relocate the factory but also faced the complexities of commercial laws. The factory was considered new and its establishment was subject to the new laws.

In 1983, Mazen traveled to America, despite his father's strong opposition. He managed to make his way there and work in large New York companies after overcoming many difficulties. After years abroad, Mazen returned to Syria in 1998 after his father convinced him to. He adds, "I noticed after my return that many Damascus residents had moved to the countryside, while residents of rural origin now lived in Damascus. The city features changed and became more congested and dirty. The main reason for this was the neglect of the countryside and of agricultural sector by successive governments."

After his return to car trading, Mazen made substantial profits until a decision was taken to ban car sales, and to allow such sales only between family members. "If you wanted to sell your car to an unrelated customer, you would marry his wife, on paper only, in order to register the car in his name. We would use this method to sell expensive cars only, while cheap cars were sold through a driving agency without a waiver of ownership, which would expose the parties later to many problems and legal proceedings.”

In the late 1990s, Mazen worked on the establishment and distribution of prefabricated toilets in Damascus with the help of his close associate in the Damascus governorate, who facilitated the necessary transactions and approvals.

He adds: "We prepared prefabricated toilets and located them in crowded locations in the city. This project cost me a lot of money to get approval for their location in important and crowded places. This was done by paying bribes to some of the most influential people in the country".

Mazen's relationship with the governorate evolved and he worked in areas related to the health sector, parking lots and others until 2010. He says, "My work grew and I needed additional support from big figures in the country. Indeed, I had worked with many of them but they had benefited from me financially more than I had from them. Eventually, I felt I was working for them, not for my own benefit. I traveled to Egypt and from there to Turkey where I founded a real estate company."