The Washington Diplomat / October 2005
By Larry Luxner
It's ironic that Nicola M. Antakli — a successful Arab-American businessman who owns one of the nation's largest automotive glass companies — can freely export to almost every country in the Middle East except his native Syria.
That's because of U.S. sanctions imposed three years ago by the State Department, which considers Syria to be a "state sponsor" of terrorism.
Originally from the city of Homs, Antakli came to the United States 50 years ago as a student. He earned his undergraduate degree from Michigan's Lawrence Technological University, and his MBA from the University of Detroit.
For eight years, Antakli worked for Federal Mogul, a leading automotive firm, establishing its overseas operations in the Middle East and Africa.
Then in 1971, he founded Intraco Corp. in Beirut. Very soon after, Antakli moved the company to Troy, Michigan, and gradually turned it into what it is today: a leading independent exporter of automotive replacement and architectural glass from the United States to about 70 countries around the world.
The company manages international development for such companies as General Motors, Ford, Visteon, Hastings, AE Clevite and others.
"I go to the Middle East four or five times a year," he said. "We have some major projects, mostly in Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait."
This year, said Antakli, annual sales will come to $35 million in the U.S. alone. Intraco has around 200 employees, including 50 in Syria. Besides a facility in Homs, Intraco also has two subsidiaries in Lebanon — one in Beirut, the other in Jbeil — as well as a factory at the sprawling Jebel Ali Free Zone in the United Arab Emirates.
In 1991, Antakli was named "World Trader of the Year" by the World Trade Club. Five years later, he became the first Syrian-American to win the Ellis Island Medal of Honor "for his vision, perseverance, faith and contribution to the United States and the world."
Yet because of U.S. sanctions, Antakli isn't free to export cars or parts to his homeland.
"It hurts me as an American, because I feel we're shooting ourselves in the foot," he told the Diplomat. "I say to my many friends in the Republican Party that I'm a free trader and a student of international trade, and that I believe sanctions don't work."
For many years, Syria was famous for having the oldest cars in the Middle East. Vintage Fords, Chevys and Plymouths from the 1950s dominated Damascus traffic. That began changing in 1991, when Syria allowed the importation of automobiles for the first time in many years.
In that year alone, Intraco exported 800 American-made trucks to Syria. Sales were humming along just fine until three years ago, when the State Department slapped sanctions against the Syrian government, accusing it of being a "state sponsor" of terrorism.
As a result, virtually all U.S exports to the Arab nation of 18 million dried up.
"This year, we will sell 1,500 cars to Syria — all Chevrolets," said Antakli. "Unfortunately, they are all made in Korea, Brazil or Australia, not the United States. It's the same with computers. There are IBM computers all over Syria, but from third countries. We are not very smart businesspeople. It doesn't make any sense."
Antakli said he hopes the Bush administration will lift sanctions against Damascus so that businessmen like himself will once again be able to export directly to the Syrians.
In addition to auto glass, Intraco also supplies aftermarket auto parts suc as engine bearings, timing belts, gaskets, piston rings, valves, oil pumps, camshafts, electrical switches, speedometers, tachometers and other instruments.
Intraco also offers a complete line of automotive chemcials such as engine octane booster, fuel-injector cleaner, diesel fuel treatment and steering fluid.