Ghassan Aboud is in full stride. The 52-year-old Syrian billionaire is climbing the steps of his latest glitzy new five-star resort on the Cairns Esplanade in far north Queensland.
He’s stockily built, moves like a whirlwind, his piercing eyes picking up every detail, as a handful of staff follows behind with clipboards.
It’s his first visit to Australia in months, the first time he’s seen “spirited wild child” hotel Flynn.
We walk out to the pool deck and then ride the lift to his plush private suite.
“Wow,” the Dubai-based businessman says.
He rolls his arms and smiles wide as he stands on the balcony overlooking the waterfront. “I love Cairns. It’s so beautiful.”
It’s a long way from the bombed-out rubble of his beloved Syria.
Aboud’s rags-to-riches life story is the stuff of a political spy thriller blockbuster.
He’s a self-made billionaire, with a personal fortune estimated by Forbes magazine to be $2.5 billion, built up over 25 years. He’s also a force of nature, automotive tycoon, philanthropist, media baron, tourism mogul and father-of-five.
Terror attacks, bribery, corruption, and dead bodies line the long path of life from a war-torn nation to this stunning view.
That’s what makes this moment all so sweet.
“This, my friend,” he says, with all the affability of the car salesman. “This is paradise. My heart led me here.”
Aboud breezes through the site inspection, he gestures at a luxury day spa, staff dining room and kitchen, and a spectacular Hanging Gardens of Babylon-like feature in a spiral staircase in the hotel foyer. “My money. There. There. There,” he says, of the $500 million he’s plunged into the Cairns region alone in just three years.
“My money is everywhere.”
Most civic and business leaders shudder to think what shape the far north’s tourist-dependent economy would be in without Aboud’s open wallet.
Few have as much skin in the local tourism game as Aboud, ranked by Forbes Middle East in the top 20 richest Arab billionaires in the world.
In 2012, Aboud started looking to expand his global interests to the Australian hospitality industry.
In March 2016, he flew out to inspect hotels in Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast and Cairns. He found nothing that inspired him until he arrived at the Esplanade in Cairns, and said at the time “this is it”.
Within days of that first visit, he bought the former Rydges Tradewinds Hotel for $34 million, and in a $136 million redevelopment turned it into the 311-room Riley hotel, which opened in November 2018.
“It is value for money and less expensive to invest than in places like Hawaii or the Gold Coast, and in the last 20 years there have been no new hotel developments,” Aboud said in 2017 when announcing his hotel acquisitions.
“It is a magic place, it is ripe for some new innovation.”
On the same first visit, he bought the Bellview Motel and Virginia House for $12 million, which were knocked down to build the new Flynn resort (which will open next month), and a vacant lot where he has built the luxury 255-room Bailey hotel which opened in November last year.
They were the first new luxury hotels built in the tourist city in 20 years. He also purchased the $30 million, 35-room Little Albion in Sydney in October 2018, and the $41 million, 92-suite Byron on Byron resort on the NSW north coast late last year.
He owns Crystalbrook Lodge, a 33,000ha cattle station at Chillagoe, about 200km west of Cairns, a 28m super yacht MV Bahama, which he hires out to guests for $50,000 a week, and the Port Douglas marina where he has shelved plans for a $200m development until he can stack up the business model for his three new hotels.
His total investment in his Australian hotels – the luxury Crystalbrook Collection brand – is $700 million.
Port Douglas tourism identity John Morris sold the luxury lodge, cattle station and superyacht to Aboud.
Morris also sold him on the tropical north.
“He’d just purchased his first site (Riley) in town, and we thought it’d be good for Ghassan to visit the Outback,” says Morris, who along with Christopher Skase transformed Port Douglas in the 1980s from a fishing hamlet into a tourist hotspot. “He flew out by helicopter and fell in love with the place. We then took him out on the Reef for three days.
“At that point he fell in love with the whole region, and saw its possibility as an important destination, and how he could be a major player.”
Crystalbrook Lodge, which has five suites and previously rented for $1800 per room per night, is currently closed and will undergo a complete refurbishment this year.
It has a 120ha lake stocked with barramundi where guests can fish, runs about 2500 breeding cattle, and supplies prime beef from paddock-to-plate to his hotel restaurants.
“We needed another iconic figure to convert it all, to put Tropical North Queensland to the top of the wish list for the world’s high-end travellers,” Morris says. “Ghassan had the guts to go and do it.”
“What I promise, I give,” Aboud tells Qweekend. “I promised to change the face of the city. To wake up the city. I think nobody believed me. But in three years we are real and on the ground.”
We are still following Aboud around his new hotel and he stops at a piece of mosaic tiled artwork on the wall above a glass-walled infinity pool in the heart of Flynn.
It is extraordinary, eye-catching. It shows in exquisite detail the ascent of a cloud of butterflies from arid desert to a tropical coast lined by blue jewelled waters.
Piece-by-piece, every stone the size of a thumbnail, it was built by craftsmen and imported from Kafr Nabl in his north Syrian homeland.
It matches another stunning mosaic of a dugong – both weighing tonnes – in the atrium of his nearby Bailey hotel, which opened in a gala celebration with acrobats, belly dancers and ballerinas in November.
“It is beautiful,” Aboud says, tracing his finger over the collage.
Like his business empire – which Aboud says has an annual turnover of $1.5 billion, and has offices in Belgium, Dubai, Jordan, Turkey, China and Australia – it is like a piece of his heart transplanted into his new kingdom in Cairns.
“Despite being an ancient art, mosaic craft in Syria is at the risk of extinction,” he says, wistfully.
“Most mosaic workers have been killed, arrested, or forced out of the country. At the same time, the war has left many civilians with disabilities, severely affecting their livelihoods, incapable of supporting their families.
“We have helped the disabled learn mosaic crafting, helping regain their productivity, and revive this perishing beautiful art.”
It is part of Aboud’s philanthropy, alongside his own private charity Orient for Human Relief, established in 2012 – a humanitarian program he uses to fund new hospitals, schools, food, medicine and aid in the horrors of Syria.
Helpfully, Aboud sends Qweekend a three-part, almost three-hour documentary of his life, which you can also watch on YouTube, and is produced by his own television company.
He largely narrates it himself in Syrian, with subtitles.
It shows footage of family life, in his luxury mansion in Dubai, factories, sky rises, bomb craters. Intensely private about his family life, he refuses to reveal how or where he met his wife Nahed Nabhan, except to say they have five children aged between nine and 18 years.
He his says his early childhood was a happy existence of family life, singing, weddings, olive and fig orchards, helping his shopkeeper father in the alleyways of the ancient city of Idlib.
But by the time he was 12, Aboud says he saw his first dead body in the street during uprisings against the Baathists; a few years later he found one of his high school teachers, blood running from his head, beaten and killed by security forces.
He studied journalism at Damascus University, and tells how he tragically lost his first wife and unborn child to illness in 1992, and left Syria to find work in the United Arab Emirates.
Other footage from the video Aboud sends me shows babies crying in the Syrian streets, bullet holes in shrapnel-strewn buildings, tanks rolling towards civilians.
Since the start of the war in President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, the death toll has been estimated to be as high as 511,000.
That’s as of March 2018, according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group. More than 6.6 million people have been displaced internally and 5.6 million around the world, according to an estimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“Syrian people, we are human, we want freedom, we like to be free,” Aboud tells Qweekend.
“Unfortunately we have this corrupt family, the Assad family, who run everything for last 50 years. They destroy everything, they take the blood of Syrian people, they destroy our image, our culture, everything we built in the last 5000 years. The Assad regime is the root of all evil. Now we fight for revolution.”
Aboud moved to Dubai in 1996, starting his first business with $4000 in savings, and lost the lot. That same year, he started again – dealing in automotive spare parts.
By 1999 he says he made his first million dollars, currency trading on the devalued Japanese yen during the Asian financial crisis.
He diversified, opening a Toyota car and product showroom, riding the boom. He started out re-exporting Toyota vehicles, buying them from Japan and selling them in the Middle East and Africa, and by 2006 his business had expanded to ship vehicles to 107 countries around the world.
By 2015, his company Ghassan Aboud Cars was reportedly the world’s largest exporter of new vehicles, exporting 40,000 various new vehicle brands a year, using the global logistics hub of the Jebel Ali Free Zone and Dubai Ports.
“It was the rebirth of Dubai, entirely new infrastructure, and I wanted to be a part of it,” Aboud says.
During this time he was still doing business in Syria but in 2003, he says he was blackmailed and jailed for eight days in his home country because he refused to pay bribes to what he calls “an influential group”.
He had bought farmland, planted 6000 olive trees, and imported a $2 million olive oil factory, but had to close under pressure from corrupt officials, he says.
Undeterred, in 2009, he founded Mashreq TV in Syria, to be a voice for the oppressed, but says he was targeted for hostile takeover by al-Assad just months later, in a move that cost him $18 million.
Aboud says he and his 149 staff, including 60 journalists, received death threats and harassment from Syrian military officers and intelligence agents. “I know for sure that no one played with the house of Assad and benefited from them,” Aboud says. “He wants it for free. He pays nothing.”
Aboud says he was told by a Syrian intelligence official he would be hanged by the neck, thrown off a high building, run over by a car, or killed with poison pills. “I told him go ahead. I will not sign.” But he says the Assad regime seized control of the TV station anyway. He relaunched Mashreq TV as Orient Media, based in the UAE, which his company says is today the most watched TV, radio and online outlet for the Syrian conflict at home and abroad.
“Assad is a criminal and a tyrant,” Aboud, also a Belgian citizen, says.
“Yes, I defend the oppressed. I will keep defending them whoever they are.”
His eponymous conglomerate, the Ghassan Aboud Group, which he started 25 years ago, has 2200 employees in automotive, hospitality, retail, food, media, catering, real estate, logistics and pastoral industries.
In 2018, he did a deal with Hindustan Petroleum to distribute lubricants for the Fortune 500 company, which he says has made him a mint.
His latest venture is to expand his Grandiose supermarket chain, which includes seven outlets in Dubai, in partnership with French retail giant Intermarche.
They plan to target high-end consumers and open 10 more stores this year and 60 stores in the next five years in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and other countries, using fresh meat, seafood, vegetables and produce sourced in Australia.
On this latest trip to Cairns, Melbourne-based halal meat exporter Marwan Dabbagh is with him. “He sends 6500 sheep to Middle East every day,” Aboud says. “He is from a noble family in north Syria, a very important man.”
Dabbagh shrugs his shoulders, and waves away the honorific, but has a keen eye for business, and obvious interest in airfreight direct into the Middle East.
Aboud’s Dubai neighbour Dr Haytham Alhajali, chief executive of Dubai Link Travel and well-connected to Emirates Airlines, is also with him in Cairns. “I love it here. I’m going to bring my family back,” says Alhajali, clearly a key figure in how Aboud can drive higher tourist visitation to the region.
Family friend Fouad Abo and his wife Samia (parents of 60 Minutes reporter Sarah Abo) and their nephew Fadi Abo, all from Melbourne, are also on hand. “Ghassan is a creator,” Samia Abo says. “He’s a good man, with a good heart.”
Aboud’s task is how to lure Emirates to fly direct to Cairns – to open up more markets from Europe and the Middle East – and bring more tourists to fill the almost 1000 new beds in his hotels and reverse a 20 per cent downturn in the ailing local tourism economy.
In short, Emirates need a guarantee of air cargo to fill the big jets to incentivise them to fly the route. So, the bullish Aboud is moving into food export.
“Today I give you a promise. I’m going to big farmers, merchandisers, businessmen, to import food from Cairns and Brisbane to Middle East and I hope soon we will see [this come to] life. This will support the airlines to come because they will carry the cargo to the Middle East. It will add more value for the airlines to come here.”
Emirates operates about 20 weekly flights into Brisbane Airport, and any new route would likely be triangulated between Cairns, Brisbane and Dubai. Cairns Airport estimates a daily international wide-bodied service to Cairns would translate into about a $100 million export business for the region and 667 new jobs.
Easygoing, with a ready laugh, Aboud is serious for a moment: “We have our plan, we have our way, to make it work.”
Piece-by-piece, it’s all part of a big picture.