Should Maher Al-Imam Have Been Delisted from EU Sanctions?

Should Maher Al-Imam Have Been Delisted
from EU Sanctions?

By Karam Shaar1


  • In 2020, the EU sanctioned Maher (Mahir) Burhan Eddine al-Imam for benefiting from and financing the Syrian regime. The Court of Justice of the European Union (CURIA) dismissed his appeal on 22 September 2021 and ordered him to pay the court cost. However, the EU decided to delist him last month without public justification.
  • Although Maher has toned down his public support for the regime and pulled out of some formal business dealings, he continues to control key companies with links to the regime through his business affiliate and friend, Muhammad Ammar Dalloul. On 20 April 2022, Maher transferred his shares from Waves Internet Service in what appeared on paper to be the severing of his last connection to the regime-backed Telsa Group. However, he merely transferred the shares to Dalloul, with whom he remains in close contact. Maher’s public engagements continue to suggest that he is in charge of Waves Internet.
  • The EU should not have delisted Maher al-Imam. Instead, Muhammad Dalloul should have been sanctioned due to ample evidence of his business connections to both Maher and Maher’s wife, Khadija Bekdash, and of his support to and benefit from the Assad regime. The delisting of Maher al-Imam is another failure of Western governments to adequately understand the intricate web of business-regime networks in Syria.
  • Western governments, and the EU, should overhaul the way they arrive at their listing and delisting decisions to improve the efficacy of their unilateral sanctions, especially in light of their negative unintended impacts on innocent civilians.2

Who is Maher al-Imam?

Maher Burhan Eddine al-Imam is a leading businessman with interests in Syria’s tourism, telecommunications, and real estate sectors. The EU sanctioned Maher on 17 February 2020 because “As General Manager of the regime‐backed Telsa Communication Group as well as of Castro LLC, and through his other business interests, Maher Burhan Eddin al‐Imam benefits from the Syrian regime and supports its financing and lobbying policy as well as its construction policy.”

Telsa Group is a conglomerate of businesses working in Syria’s telecommunications and reconstruction sectors. Four major companies form Telsa Group, and Maher had partial ownership in all four.3 However, on Maher’s Facebook profile, a chart of entities comprising Telsa Group includes more companies—such as Telsa Telecom and Telsa Rebuild—which are not found in the Syrian Gazette, suggesting they are direct subsidiaries of Telsa Group.

The EU’s official sanctions website listed Maher as a Syrian national born on 22 August 1978, without stating his place of birth. However, while he is a Syrian national, he was born in Kuwait on 05 October 1976, according to the publicly available Syrian Gazette, when he registered one of his companies (Concurrence for Pledges and Contractors LLC) and his Facebook profile. This further highlights the EU’s inability to acquire accurately even the basic information about sanctions targets, such as the date and place of birth. 

Maher’s family is originally from Damascus. They still have a residence there, although they have long been expatriates in Kuwait, according to sources interviewed for this report. 

Our research in local and global business registers shows that between 2012 and April 20244 Maher was a partial or full owner of fourteen companies in Syria.5 He also co-established two companies in Lebanon.6 

Why was he sanctioned?

Before sanctions, Maher was openly loyal to the Assad regime. He used his Facebook page and television interviews to express his staunch loyalty

In addition to interviews on Syrian TV, there were photos of Maher with sanctioned Syrian state figures like Presidential Advisor Buthaina Shaaban, the Minister of Communications, the Minister of the Interior, and the Minister of Information

In his statements, Maher quoted President Bashar al-Assad and offered him blessings and greetings on multiple occasions

Maher’s Telsa Group worked closely with government institutions and exhibited sanctionable behaviors: 

  • Telsa Rebuild implemented 7 several projects and studies related to Marota City. Marota, a high-end real estate project in Damascus associated with the Syrian regime, and accused of forced displacement and property confiscation. The EU has sanctioned multiple institutions and individuals for their connections to the Marota City project.8
  • Telsa Group worked on improving satellite, wired, and wireless communication services for areas “regained by the Syrian Army.” It also provided network coverage to the areas and communication services for Syrian army personnel. 
  • Telsa Group also provided studies for the e-government project in coordination with Syria’s Ministry of Communications. Four Telsa Group entities participated in the Syrian Exhibition for Information Technology (SyriaTech 2016) in Damascus, which was held under the patronage of the Minister of Communications and Technology.9 

Has Maher al-Imam changed his behavior?

After 2017, in what seemed like an attempt to avoid being sanctioned, Maher did not personally participate in television interviews or show public support for the regime on his social media. This behavior continued after his sanctioning in 2020, which probably helped him make a case for being delisted. In fact, after exactly two months of being sanctioned, Maher appealed to The Court of Justice of the European Union (CURIA) on 18 April 2020, seeking an annulment of the decision. Along with his request for priority treatment and for his identification details to be anonymized, Maher demanded compensation from the Council of the European Union in three parts:

  1. EUR 10,000 for the material loss suffered.
  2. EUR 15,000 per week from 18 February 2020 (the date sanctions went into effect) for the non-material loss suffered due to the restrictive measures.
  3. An order for CURIA to compensate him for any future loss that he suffers as a result of the adoption of the restrictive measures taken against him.

On 22 September 2021, the case was dismissed, and Maher was ordered to pay the court cost.

Unfortunately, the public case report published by the court states that “only the paragraphs of the present judgment which the Court considers it appropriate to publish are reproduced here.” The report lacks any argument or discussion related to the role Maher plays in the political economy of Syria. The published arguments covered only Maher’s appeal that “the time limit for the submission of an application for review and for observations was too short, and thus did not allow him to be heard in a meaningful and effective way.” Even if he submitted evidence exonerating him, CURIA’s reviews are conducted annually “rather than being analysed immediately.”

His Facebook posts since then focus on social events like birthday parties and weddings, as well as important moments in his life like traveling for Umrah, undergoing surgery, and his father’s death

However, his companies have continued to promote the regime, even as recently as 2021.