Jan 12 2003

Mohammad Rashid: the Ugly rich man of Palestine

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles

The Korean based Magazine Asia Network has chosen Mohammad Rashid as one of the many businessmen from Asia that have been profiled for its special edition entitled “Ugly Businessmen of Asia”. Daoud Kuttab* was asked to write a profile on Mr. Rashid.

In the aftermath of the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, Palestine witnessed a transition from Israeli occupation to the rule of the Palestinian National Authority.

Even before the Palestinian leadership returned to Palestine, international companies and major contractors made what seemed like a pilgrimage to the Tunis-based offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). These visits were thought to be courtesy calls to the soon to be head of Palestine, Yasser Arafat. In most meetings the businesspersons visiting Arafat would request his blessing to their projects and plans. Invariably the president and his men turned any requests for research to Arafat’s economic advisor Khaled Salam.

It didn’t long before it became clear to investors, contractors and other businessmen that in order to get the coveted blessing of Arafat to their idea, project or product they needed to do more than make a power point presentation. What was necessary it became obvious was to convince Mr. Salam. And to get Mr. Salam on board one needed to simply give him a piece of the action. In some cases this meant a considerable share in the new enterprise, up to a third or even half in some cases, in others a straightforward percentage of the expected profits.

Investors were never sure what this profit-sharing scheme meant. Was it a sort of tax for the new Palestinian authority or was it simply a bribe to Mr. Salam who many started calling as Mr. 10%

In the times of guerrilla struggle, individuals used pseudo names. But when the Palestinian Authority entered Gaza and the West Bank it became known that Mr. Salam’s real name is Muhammad Rashid. Mr. Rashid quickly became the most powerful man in the entourage of the new president of the Palestinian Authority. His signature was needed in order to complete any major business deal, or issue a contract or concession. Various departments in Arafat’s cabinet became aware of this need and a host of problems seem to pop up once it became known that the investor didn’t obtain the coveted signature of Mr. Rashid.

Born to a Kurdish family in the Iraqi Kurdish sector, Mohammad Rashid joined the PLO along with many Arab and Muslim intellectuals who saw in the Palestinian struggle a fight for freedom liberty and an opposition to western imperialisms. He quickly rose to power as Arafat chooses him as his economic advisor and political confidant.

The net result of this was that Mr. Rashid became the owner in part or in full of numerous companies that spanned from advertising, to, gasoline, to communications to cement to electricity. He or people close to him became shareholders in a number of companies that succeeded in getting concessions from the Palestinian Authority.

Of all the enterprises that Rashid helped start, the most prominent was the Jericho casino he helped create. The project an Austrian-Palestinian company named “Oasis” employed Palestinians, but allowed only Israelis to gamble. Israel, under pressure from Jewish groups has not allowed casinos, thus the enterprise was a major attractions for Israelis who had no problem making the 30-minute drive from Jerusalem.

Palestinians, especially Islamic groups objected strenuously to this operation but with security provided from the Palestinian security forces, the casino worked very well until the eruption of the Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000. Despite persistent attempts by Palestinians to figure out who really owned the Palestinian shares of the ‘Oasis” no one was able to come up with a clear answer. Many believe that the profits made by the many companies established by Rashid go to a slush fund of sorts that is controlled by the Palestinian leader, of course.

The escalation of the violence in Palestine and the key role that community activists had in it caused a major set back to war rich individuals like Mr. Rashid. Not only were they affected by the collapse of the Palestinian economy but direct calls against Rashid and others like him became louder and louder at times repeated publicly in official forums like the Palestinian Legislative Council.

But the demise of Rashid ironically didn’t come from his business dealings but from his political activities. Rashid’s many Israeli contacts were used as a back channel to help resolve the crisis surrounding the siege of the Church of Nativity in April 2002. While publicly appointed negotiators were trying to no avail to reach agreement with the Israelis, the efforts of Rashid bore fruit. As a result of the agreement brokered by Rashid 13 Palestinians who were inside the church were forcibly deported to a host of European countries. Another group of Palestinians who were under siege in the church were forcibly deported to the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians felt this was a bad deal, which legitimized deportation, even though international treaties make it a war crime.

Shortly after the news that Rashid was behind the controversial Church of Nativity deal was made known, Rashid’s home was attacked. No one was hurt but the message was clear, Palestinians had seen enough of this ugly businessman. Soon thereafter, reportedly after consultation with President Arafat, Rashid left Palestine for Cairo were he is reported to be carrying out odd jobs for the Palestinian leadership.

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