Competing with the Syrian government itself and wining hands down

By Ehsani

Imagine boarding a domestic flight from the city that you happen to live in, walking into the airport’s duty free store and walking out of the airport at your destination without any questions asked.

Now imagine visiting a local liquor store to buy a bottle of your favorite scotch and hearing the store owner ask if you prefer your scotch from the official government distribution agency…. or from the airport!

The decision is made easier of course when you find out that the airport scotch is priced some $7 below that of the government’s.

Welcome to Syria’s duty free shops – RAMAK


The website may not strike you as fancy. I can assure you that this is not the case when you visit the company’s stores. Those branches are strategically located near the Jordanian (massive building), Lebanese and Turkish borders. This is in addition to those at both Aleppo and Damascus airports. I have particular advice for those who intend to travel to Syria and who would like to find out what can be imported into the country: Ignore the following advisory and forget brining anything with you.

Cigarettes, perfumes, spirits, lotion, watches and the latest cordless phones are readily available for Syrians and none-Syrians alike.

Local restaurants themselves stock their supplies of spirits directly from their local friendly duty free store.

How do they do that? They all magically know someone who knows someone that works at the duty free.

How does that someone actually manage to routinely take a case of scotch out of the airport's duty free and directly deliver it to the city’s restaurants? This writer cannot answer this question.

Back in 2006, the company’s Managing Director sounded very optimistic about his company’s future. 

The growth potential of Syria and the international buyers passing through Syria were thought to bring the company many buyers. The above article quotes Mr. Mualla as saying that “we can specify our own nationals, Syrians, as great buyers in all categories, especially perfumes and cosmetics”.

Syrians did indeed prove to be great buyers. One would have thought that Mr. Mualla was referring to “travelling Syrians”. Some three years after this interview, Ramak’s business is indeed thriving. Syrians do not need to travel to buy the company’s products. A pack of cigarettes from the Airport is priced just under $1.00.  

The poor loser in this enterprise is inevitably the Syrian government’s coffers. The official government agency (GOTA) is priced out of this game. As a result, the government ends up forgoing all the tax revenues that usually come from tobacco and spirits sales.

Ramak is effectively competing with the Syrian government itself and wining hands down.  

Comments (137)

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101. idaf said:


If it was up to me, I’ll also collect 1 dollar tax for each “argeeleh” served in restaurants and cafes. Probably, that will generate even more income than tax on cigarette packs!

Few interesting news items..

Damascus to collect $550m from phone companies in 2008
Published: 27 February 2008 17

The Syrian government expects to collect about $550m in royalties from the country’s two mobile phone operators, MTN and Syriatel, in 2008.

Syria stands at economic crossroads
The world’s oldest inhabited city is changing.

Traditional industries that have given Damascus its distinctive character are now competing with Western imports.

In a historic market in the city centre, Kenan Tafesh is weaving a seven-colour silk brocade using a traditional loom and techniques used for generations.

It is the kind of industry Syria has relied on for centuries.

“This is a very important industry. It is the symbol of Damascus. You cannot mention Damascus without thinking of the brocade,” he says.

But ancient Damascus is getting a 21st-Century facelift.

Pavements are being dug up and jasmine trees planted as part of a huge beautification project.

Syria- Ties That Bind

Oxford Business Group

(MENAFN – Oxford Business Group) In the midst of a whirlwind diplomatic campaign aimed at improving ties with the West, Russia and the Middle East, Syria has also taken time to bolster relations with Libya in hopes of attracting foreign investment and boosting trade.

The two countries have much in common. Briefly united in the 1970s as part of the short-lived Federation of Arab Republics, which also included Egypt, both continue to be supporters of greater pan-Arab unity. Both are also implementing reforms aimed at opening up their economies and reducing the role of the state.

Most significantly, both are in the process of returning to the international fold, after being ostracised for alleged involvement in sponsoring terrorism. Syria’s efforts to end its international isolation are still a work in progress. Damascus has received wide praise for its support of reconciliation in Lebanon, which has since seen that country elect a president and form a national unity government. The international community has also warmly welcomed negotiations between Syria and Israel, with President Bashar Al Assad being feted at the Euro-Med Summit in Paris in July.

Relations between Damascus and Tripoli have at times been strained, especially following the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Libyan leader Muammar Al Qadhafi criticised Syria for supporting the US coalition against Iraq.

That hostility appears to have been overcome, with Syria reengaging with Libya, most recently during a visit by Finance Minister Mohammed Al Hussein to Tripoli in late July.

Of most immediate benefit to Syria was an agreement to write off $350m of accumulated interest on a $200m loan made to the Syrian government. Under the new agreement the original funds, which had been deposited with the Central Bank of Syria in 1982, are to be invested in a cement factory for a limited period of time. The loan is to be repaid to Libya after the completion of the plant and its transfer to the Syrian government.

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September 3rd, 2008, 2:16 pm


102. Alex said:


Taxing argeeleh is a brilliant idea!!!!

Ehsani … IDAF wins this round.

If you want to know how close Syria and Libya are getting, I’ll tell you a story 😉

After attending the Arab summit in Damascus this year, Colonel Qaddafi spent a day touring Damascus with President Assad. At the end of the day they walked downtown, bought deserts from a street vendor, had fun talking to Syrian people, and then Mr. Qaddafi asked if he can meet famous Syrian comedian Doreid Lahham! (Ghawwar Tosheh)

Doraid was informed at 8pm that he will have the VIP visitor at home … Qaddafi arrived at midnight. Doreid invited many Syrian artists (Actors and actresses) to meet the Libyan leader.

Qaddafi had a great time in Damascus.

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September 3rd, 2008, 3:27 pm


103. ehsani2 said:

As I recall, idaf wins every round. This time is no different

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September 3rd, 2008, 3:32 pm


104. Alex said:


I was joking ya zalameh! … the two of you together always win.

Imagine if they tax BOTH argeeleh and cigaretts! .. 5 billions per year of taxes for the state! .. and perhaps 25% reduction in smoking rate.

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September 3rd, 2008, 3:36 pm


105. norman said:


If you are going to have 25% reduction then the tax will be 3.75 Bil only.

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September 3rd, 2008, 3:39 pm


106. norman said:


I think , I got it , It is the Syrian way to stimulate the economy , eliminate taxes on some people and allow business activity , Legal and illegal,

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September 3rd, 2008, 4:25 pm


107. Alex said:


I’m the Engineer here damn it! … you are only a doctor.

Mazboot : )

Although Argeeleh smoking, after the 25% reduction, might still generate the 5 billions … Syrians are crazy argeeleh smokers.

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September 3rd, 2008, 4:26 pm


108. norman said:

So Alex,

Do you think that the Syrians will figure out that the government is trying to make them smoke less by increasing the taxes so they increase their smoking to annoy the government as a symbol of defiant , They might do that , you know.

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September 3rd, 2008, 4:50 pm


109. Alex said:

Let’s get that Tax setup first, then we’ll spend some of the money on elaborate anti-smoking campaigns.

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September 3rd, 2008, 5:09 pm


110. jad said:

Norman and IDAF
I’m confused, should I be optimistic and believe BBC, MEED, and Oxford Business Group and other regime’s lover media that there is hope and small steps work in changing our country toward a better future. Or should I have a dream and attend a peaceful uprising to prove them wrong and get the free of speech and democracy first, which one is more important for NOW?
Please advice.

I have a suggestion, how about everybody on this site pro and anti Syrian authority, write couple lines of what they really want to see in the country they want and what is the best way they think will get us there, everybody in his own speciality.
Clear ideas that could help us all and for once get a clear vision of the picture we draw about Syria we want and the way to get there.
It might end up as a good start for getting together and do something instead of arguing without any results.

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September 3rd, 2008, 5:43 pm


111. Alex said:


They love to write comments on their own, but when you ASK them to write something specific, most are unable to do so.

But I did manage once to get enough of them to do what you are suggesting.

here is it.

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September 3rd, 2008, 6:07 pm


112. Shai said:


Shortly after I joined SC, and after realizing just how amazing this place is, I suggested a get-together of everyone. It was to be either an SC-Conference (3-4 days, professional speakers, forums, discussion groups, etc.), or something else. I got at least 10 people that agreed to come, and I bet at least another 10-15 would have also. It wasn’t supposed to be focused on Syria-Israel, but rather on Syria, but to also have a section on Syrian-Israeli relations. I don’t recall anymore why the idea “died”, but I still think it’s a great opportunity for all of us to meet one another, to have a more meaningful (and enjoyable) time of discussion, and perhaps to serve an example for what a bunch of motivated, internet savvy bloggers can do. What do you think of such an idea? It can be held in Cyprus, or Turkey, to enable people from this region easy access (difficulties getting visas, etc.)

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September 3rd, 2008, 6:10 pm


113. Shai said:


I don’t want to get into a discussion with you right now (please let’s take a break from those for a while – the last one truly exhausted me, and probably everyone else). I’ll be polite enough just to answer you, but let’s stop at that.

I believe Assad cannot risk being overthrown. He cannot grant freedom of speech like you and I are used to. He can’t take a chance that opposition groups will raise difficult topics on the streets, or in the media, which will embarrass the regime, and may rally the people against it. He indeed can, and should, free certain opposition figures like Kilo. But unless Kilo (or others) can begin to speak again, I don’t see how much doing so will benefit freedom in Syria (though I’m still for it of course).

As a final note, I’ll say that you seem to have adopted a certain belief, that unless people are actively fighting something, they obviously support it. I think that’s overly presumptuous of you and, in most cases, wrong. No one here “supports” the regime, no one here likes to see Kilo in jail, no one here wants democracy and freedom to be withheld from Syrians. Because people disagree with your time schedule, with your plan, with your ideas, does not mean they are not interested in the same goals. Because I say I can’t see an easy solution (or any) right now to corruption in Syria, doesn’t mean I’m for it.

Zehu, enough said.

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September 3rd, 2008, 6:30 pm


114. jad said:

Dear Alex
That is a great link, yet going through some of them it’s still the same way everybody writes on here,
What I was thinking in is more technical stuff, lets say
Planning, Economy, Education, Civil Society, Agricultural, Industry, Commercial….etc.
Something more structural and goal oriented than writing an essay, how about having a blank interactive base sheet on Creative Syrian site with blank different sectors, that everybody interested can write down in the field he can attribute to with realistic numbers and scientific proof as well as some example he/she can link it to any important piece that support his suggestions.

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September 3rd, 2008, 6:31 pm


115. SimoHurtta said:

AnotherIsraeliGuy said:

The Syrian regime is a kleptocracy

AIG what is a country where the president gets fired for raping women, the PM is forced to retire for corruption claims and where tens of members of the Parliament are claimed to be corrupt. One could say that in Israel people with very low moral seem to seek to political posts. To Israel’s credit can be said that you have a functioning police. Though the same police seem to be rather lazy when the crimes are committed against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

AIG can I call Israel a kleptotheocracy?



Could you have a bottle of scotch delivered from Helsinki airport’s duty free shop to your home address without you having to leave the country?

No I can’t. Sad but true. 🙂

Eshani2 are you seriously claiming that any Syrian can order alcohol and tobacco from tax free shops and get them delivered home. I doubt that and I believe the problem is relative marginal. Surely a “well connected” Finn can in Finland buy smuggled alcohol and tobacco. And in case he knows a person working in tax free shop even might manage “to bypass” the system.

Even in Finland have been cases when restaurant owners have tried to increase their profit margin buy selling smuggled alcohol with normal prices. Some of the richest families in Finland made their fortunes during the Prohibition Act in the in the 20’s and 30’s by “supporting free trade and individual rights” with speed boats full of Estonian spirit. The richest Finns family made their fortune with “weapon technology transfers” to Israel and with owning gambling businesses in USA.

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September 3rd, 2008, 6:37 pm


116. Alex said:


Good idea. I will hopefully try to do something along those lines one day sometime later this year.

Problem is … you have no idea how lazy people are … most will not bother interacting with a non-conventional web page where they need to spend 5 minutes to understand how it works.

I tried twice (different projects) but bloggers are so spoiled, they refuse to do things that are not totally self-inspired.

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September 3rd, 2008, 6:45 pm


117. jad said:

I came up with a quick example of what I was thinking about, it’s a draft; please don’t comment on it…

Civil society: concentrates on improving lives of all Syrian in urban and rural areas, encourages a deep understanding of the secular system not based on religions or believes.
Education on two levels,
School level, involve student in different sports and cultural programs with local and international schools and encourage them of attending friendly competitions to develop their skills (we can help link some school we have in Syria with ones we have in the area we live in at the moment)
University level, open new independent research centres connected with an international network that will eventually be the core and engine of our university studies, research and curriculum.
Regional Planning, every municipality will have its own planning guideline written and discussed by specialized consultants and have people from the community to prove it. You will need help from the government on these issues regarding bylaw and enforcing the rules.
Development area, concentration of improving the north east part of Syria and recognise it as an economical base for many reasons

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September 3rd, 2008, 6:45 pm


118. EHSANI2 said:


I sat down with a person who owns a chain of restaurants. He assured me that he buys his supply of alcohol from the local airport’s Duty Free Shop. My own father buys his “black label” scotch from a person who gets it straight from the friendly duty free at the airport. None of the above actors have to ever leave Syria. I am very glad that you believe that the problem is “marginal”.

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September 3rd, 2008, 6:46 pm


119. jad said:

Alex, check this out
I know how difficult to do that webpage but I think people like something similar, it will be a game-like for them yet they learn something..

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September 3rd, 2008, 6:50 pm


120. Alex said:

I will Shai:

You all lazy!

: )


Very good.

I promise to discuss it with my ex-supervisor. We both still work on and publish user interface research. Might find something we can publish out of such a mini-project.

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September 3rd, 2008, 7:00 pm


121. Shai said:

Hold on a sec… let me get a pizza and a beer… 😉

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September 3rd, 2008, 7:02 pm


122. jad said:

I like your idea and it sounds more productive than mine, and if it happens that will be defiantly a huge news, we will be on the BBC, however, as a Syrian, I’m afraid that I can’t meet you in any ‘official’ atmosphere while our countries didn’t sign a peace agreement.
Therefore and till peace comes, the internet will be a better place for such discussion.
Can you imagine AIG being there?…OMG….lol

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September 3rd, 2008, 7:02 pm


123. trustquest said:

There are a lot of resources on the internet regarding structural goals and specifics for Syria, but unfortunately it has put on hold by the regime. The same Issue, freedom of “Talking” is essentials to hear from reputable and specialists which Syria have a lot of them, inside and outside the country. The Syrian Economic Society is one of them, used to be a wealthy resource for wonderful Syrian Academics who posted lot of studies regarding the Syrian economy.

Here is the link:
Also, Mr. Sukkar has his own studies you can access through this link.

JAD, BTW, your suggestions great ones, but you need to put on the top some source of income to the state to fund your suggestion, and I would say that Ehsani post is doing just that.

I’m not an economist and I wish Alex would invite academics from Syria, on bother sides of the issues to hear their views when SC touche on an economic issue like the current Ehsani’s post.

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September 3rd, 2008, 7:07 pm


124. idaf said:


Nice try, but you won’t easily manage to create a rift between me and Ehsani 😉

Seriously, if/when VAT is to be introduced in Syria, argileh should be the first thing to be included IMHO.

Dr. Norman said:
“Do you think that the Syrians will figure out that the government is trying to make them smoke less by increasing the taxes so they increase their smoking to annoy the government as a symbol of defiant , They might do that , you know.”

Yeah, wishful thinking Dr. Norman. Don’t worry, doctors will not run out of business, even if Syrians stopped smoking completely.. there will always be pollution and reckless driving 🙂

JAD said:
“I’m confused, should I be optimistic and believe BBC, MEED, and Oxford Business Group and other regime’s lover media”.

No you shouldn’t. Stick with neutral media such as Assiasah, Future TV and Al-Arabiya and ignore those biased BBC and Oxford Business Group 🙂

That was a good idea. I’m all for the SC conference in Turkey. Interested Syrians can get the Turkish visa in 1 hour in Damascus or Aleppo which would make things easier. More importantly, I still have a valid Turkish visa from earlier this summer, which should save me 20$ in visa fees on my next visit. However, I think we missed the opportunity of the summer time when many SC commons would’ve been in the region.

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September 3rd, 2008, 7:08 pm


125. Shai said:


You’re right, there are “mutual problems”. But this would not be an official get-together. Heck, it would be even less official than the Olympics. And here too, if you like, you wouldn’t have to jump into the water, in a 50-meter race with me… (I was once a lifeguard). But seriously, if it was an SC meeting, with about 25-30 regulars, from the entire region, and 2-3 Israelis, you think that would be a problem? We would be representing no one but ourselves (Ok, so AIG would be wearing the AIPAC uniform, fine… no, I’m kidding…) I think if the conference was about Syria, not Israel, then maybe it could work. I don’t know…


There’s always next summer… 🙂

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September 3rd, 2008, 7:09 pm


126. jad said:

I don’t believe that everything should be funded by the government, there are a lot of rich Syrians would chip in when you approach them with many ideas that will support the society and improve people’s life, beside, the world is full of organizations that are looking for project to fund, why can’t we use this approach instead of waiting for the government to do so (it wont)
If will wait the government, nothing will move as quick and as good as we all want. We all have the same goal, what we need is the will and to keep trying.

Thank you IDAF for the advice, I’m going to watch them immediately…:)

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September 3rd, 2008, 7:19 pm


127. EHSANI2 said:


Any “potential” rift between me and IDAF is very easy to solve:

I will concede to the smarter, calmer and less dramatic between the two of us.

In other words, it will never go anywhere near turning into a rift.

Those were the good old days on SC 🙂

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September 3rd, 2008, 7:29 pm


128. Majhool said:

I find the exchange about VAT rather strange. did SC turn into a consulting firm to the Syrian Gov? I think all of this is a distraction and actually dilute the issue at hand. There are many Syrians capable of coming with ideas well suited to the miserable conditions of the economy. The problem lies in the systems that does not allow for it and instead propels corruption and impedes progress.

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September 3rd, 2008, 8:14 pm


129. Alex said:

Ehsani, Idaf, JAD, Norman and Shai.

Please stop distracting us from the issue at hand!

If you want to write anything, make sure it is limited to one of the classic protest statements condemning the regime and blaming it for 100% of all of Syria’s problems.

If you don’t feel creative enough today, you can borrow some ideas from here:

Thank you for respecting the saintly, productive and courageous efforts of the persevering regime fighters based in the United States.

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September 3rd, 2008, 9:39 pm


130. Majhool said:

Instead of sarcasm, do you really think that proposing this and that will change anything? I don’t know about you, but it’s clear to me that the goal of everything they do is to stay in power. Exposing the regime and calling its practices as they really are is not standard classic protest practice at least not in SC. I don’t find calling an all-out corruption and abuse of power as “lost competition”. if anything is distracts the reader especially if they are not familiar with the issues.

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September 3rd, 2008, 10:51 pm


131. Alex said:


They don’t spend billions buying weapons for the Syrian army?! … those anti aircraft missiles and those long range missiles are meant to protect the regime against he Muslim brotherhood?

They take the whole thing and deposit it in their Swiss accounts?

Please allow other commentators here to “distract” the readers from the “everything” mentality that you want to stick to.

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September 3rd, 2008, 10:58 pm


132. Majhool said:

So you are saying that a guy stealing billions of dollars (in reference to Ehasni’s post) from a poorly financed government and eventually the poor people of Syria are capable of actually caring about the people’s wellbeing? And buying anti crafts missiles is also for the people?

When did you leave Syria?

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September 3rd, 2008, 11:40 pm


133. Alex said:


I know what I am saying, and others here know what they are saying. No need to go back to your typical distortions.

How would you like it is I distorted your comments this way:

“Majhool, so you are saying that the regime is responsible for WWII! .. this is bizarre .. did you study history?”

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September 3rd, 2008, 11:54 pm


134. Majhool said:

Alex, you are the one who turn to sarcasm.

Let’s move on. We don’t want to dilute the issue yet another time.

Now it’s time for my soccer game. Later

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September 4th, 2008, 12:09 am


135. norman said:


Your idea of conference died because our wives did not agree though us on a location.

Jad ,

Syria is moving in the right direction , it could move faster ,

Syria should have what we have in the US , I do not know where you live , In the US decentralization is very important , I live in a town with about 5000 people , we have elementary school middle school from 5 to 8 grades and we have a high school with children from two other small cities or towns with similar amount of people , we have an elected city council and a Mayer , they are responsible for the police , fire department and city services , we all know who they are and will boot them out if they do not provide the services that we think we are entitled to because of the taxes we are paying on our properties ,
Syria can do the same thing , In Homs for instant they can start a trial of dividing the city into towns , Like Hamedia, Mahatta, Bab Alsibai, Bab Al derabe , Inshaat and so on and have every town elect it’s city council and make them responsible to provide services , will see how function and see if they are able to take care of the people they are supposed to serve ,taxes on the property should be enough to provide these services .
Property taxes are easy to collect as the house or the properties do not move and can not be hidden.

I think Syria can do very well if starts to see the laws which are working in the US where i do not know of any Syria who is not successful under these laws and paying taxes ,
I wish that Syria stops trying to reinvent the wheel and try to use laws that are tested in the US.

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September 4th, 2008, 1:51 am


136. Syria Comment » Archives » Ehsani on Syria Comment over the Years said:

[…] The issue of corruption was raised by focusing on the duty free business in September 2008. “Imagine boarding a domestic flight from the city that you happen to live in, walking into the airport’s duty free store and walking out of the airport at your destination without any questions asked. Ramak is effectively competing with the Syrian government itself and wining hands down.” […]

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September 4th, 2011, 4:04 pm


137. Elektrische Zahnbuerste said:

… [Trackback]…

[…] Read More: […]…

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November 21st, 2011, 4:00 pm


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