The first retail iPhone 12 in the Middle East may have been bought by a Damascus resident, where the latest Apple product costs about eight years of an average government salary.
Emmatel, a Syrian telecoms company established last year, paraded the pricey phones on October 24 at an event where upmarket Syrian shoppers crowded eagerly in anticipation of getting their hands on the latest technology.
The company seemingly managed to obtain and promote the phones despite being hit with US treasury sanctions – that also name the company's owner – prohibiting all dealings with the firm and the challenge of broader restrictions to international trade with Syria.
"It's crazy, they are selling phones for amounts that would take us years on end to save and even then we may only be able to buy half of an iPhone," Muhamad Al Khatib, a Damascus resident who was present at the event, told The National.
A list of prices seen by The National detailed the eye-watering cost of the iPhone 12 and the 12 Pro in Syria – already Apple's most expensive handsets.
The 64GB iPhone 12 starts at 3,912,500 Syrian pounds ($1,620) while a 256GB iPhone 12 Pro was selling for 5,555,000 Syrian pounds – where government salaries average about 50,000 pounds a month.
The same handsets in the US are $700 and $1,199 respectively.
Emmatel on its Facebook page touted itself as the “first Syrian company to officially provide the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro in the Middle East, and exclusively in Damascus”.
Nine years of war, biting economic sanctions and a faltering economy did not deter crowds queued at the Emmatel store in the upmarket Mazzeh district of the capital, mirroring the more tragic queues for bread, petrol and cooking gas not uncommon in government-held areas of Syria.
The iPhones’s dramatic release in Syria came only 10 days after Apple’s initial announcement and one day after the phone was officially released in the UK, but it remains unclear how the company managed to evade tight sanctions to import the product. Emmatel did not respond to requests for comment and the store confirmed they had the phones on sale but declined to give further details beyond the price.
A number of shops in neighbouring Lebanon, from where items are often smuggled into Syria, said they had not yet taken delivery of any new iPhones and did not have a fixed date.
For a country with a reported 80 per cent poverty rate, the wealth gap between rich and poor has widened over the past few years.
Emmatel provided participants with the chance to win an iPhone through a raffle, Mr Al Khatib said.
“We came to enter the competition but not everyone was buying the phones, only last week I spent hours queuing to find cooking gas nearby, I have other priorities.”
The National could not independently confirm that the handsets were genuine Apple iPhones, although Mr Al Khatib and the shop insisted they were.
Emmatel is owned by Syrian tycoon Tareq “Abu Ali” Kheder who was listed on a US sanctions list barely months ago.
Known as the new guy on Syria’s competitive business elite block, Mr Kheder runs a financial empire with a range of assets including security companies, tourism, media, metals and investments.
That a sanctioned figure was able to procure some of the most in-demand mobile phones in the world, evading all restrictions is a potential source of embarrassment for the US State Department.
The deceptive feat is all the more remarkable given Syria is under one of the heaviest US sanctions regimes in recent times, with the Caesar Protection Act promising a "sustained campaign of economic and political pressure on the Syrian regime".
“There are a lot of war profiteers in Syria who represent the war society – smugglers, officers in charge of the checkpoints, drugs dealers, new business figures who are favoured by the regime after they helped to get essential materials from abroad using mainly Lebanon and Iraq for importing commodities,” said Bassam Barabandi, a member of the Syrian opposition.
“This category of super-elite are a very small percentage, yet they have enough money to purchase expensive products like the new iPhone 12.”
Such a clear flouting of sanctions may raise eyebrows in Washington, which has so far been tight-lipped on the matter, Mr Barabandi said.
The National contacted Apple and the US State Department for comment.