Real Housewives of the Arab Spring: Dictators' Big-Spending Spouses Draw Citizens' Ire

Asma's jewels, Safia's stash, Leila's family fortune.

They're the Baronesses of Bling, the Empresses of Excess.

Asma's jewels, Safia's stash, Leila's family fortune.

They're the Baronesses of Bling, the Empresses of Excess.

Since the Arab Spring started a revolution that shook old regimes to their roots, the spotlight has fallen on the wives of deposed and despised Arab dictators, whose romps through fields of ill-gotten gold make Marie Antoinette's cake walk seem tame.

Take Asma Assad, wife of Syrian leader Bashar: a much-admired British-born beauty whose shopaholic tastes haven't diminished a jot since her husband turned the country into a blood-soaked killing field, according to leaked emails received -- and cross-checked for authentication -- by the Guardian.

As attacks on her family's homeland left scores dead, maimed and homeless, the emails seem to show that Asma has not spent her time struggling to pry open her husband's iron fist, but shopping for pricey art, jewellery and furnishings -- and admiring $6,000 crystal-splashed designer shoes which, a friend noted, "are not going 2 b useful anytime soon."

"This really contradicts the stories that she was trapped, like a beautiful Sunni princess, a hostage who would be killed or forced to leave her children behind," said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at University of Oklahoma.

A Sunni Muslim, Asma married into Syria's ruling minority clan who belong to the Alawite sect, and has stood by her man as most of the world lined up against him.

But in fact, none of the uber-ladies of the Arab world appear to be pathetic prisoners -- and are more often accused as partners in crime.

The most resented, Tunisia's Leila Trabelsi, was sentenced in absentia to 35 years for theft and unlawful possession of state loot, along with her husband, ousted president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

Suzanne Mubarak, wife of former Egyptian president Hosni, is under a European Union arrest warrant on money laundering charges. And Safia Farkash, second wife of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, was put on a sanctions blacklist by the U.S. Treasury Department, along with other survivors of his regime.

So far, none of that applies to Asma Assad, who just about a year ago -- as the protests began -- was called a "rose in the desert" in a Vogue article that lavished praise on her efforts to teach young Syrians about democracy.

That's not so far off the mark, says Landis. In the beginning, the former investment banker "was the best thing that happened to Syria."

But as the regime's assaults on protesters worsened, the leaked emails say she took her husband's side.

"What we discovered is that they love each other," Landis said. "She probably believes the same as her husband, that the opposition are Islamic fundamentalists who are going to destroy the harmony of a secular country where all the sects can get along."

Autocrats' wives also have good reason to hang on to husbands who are generous -- to a fault.

Suzanne Mubarak: The humanitarian face of power in Egypt, she was "allegedly in charge of almost all the non-profit organizations (in Egypt) and personally took great sums of money, which ended up in her bank account," says Aladdin Elaasar of University of Illinois, author of The Last Pharaoh, on modern Egypt and the Mubarak regime.

During the couple's 30-year reign, Elaasar says, Mubarak "retreated" while his wife aggressively advanced to power, controlling cabinet appointments and ensuring the ministers' loyalty. She also hired expensive PR firms to "polish" her image abroad. "It was too much for Egyptians when she planned to pass on the presidency to their son, Gamal." Hence the Tahrir Square revolution.

Leila Trabelsi: With more attitude than Madonna, Trabelsi and her ever-richer clan is also credited with touching off the Arab Spring. Now exiled in Saudi Arabia, the woman who liked to be called "Madame la Presidente" was once thought to control, with her husband, more than one-third of the Tunisian economy. When the couple fled their furious citizens, they left behind close to $30 million in booty -- including drugs and weapons. But much more is still unaccounted for, including large property holdings, companies and bank accounts.

Safia Farkash: Less flashy than Gadhafi's female bodyguards or Ukrainian nurse, Farkash took a public back seat to eldest daughter Aisha. However, Farkash is said to control a multibillion-dollar fortune, including 20 tonnes of gold reserves. But Robert Palmer of London-based advocacy group Global Witness points out: "You hear stories of gold in shipping containers stashed in the desert, but hidden money is rarely in someone's own name. There's a whole network of lawyers and accountants to set up shell companies with assets that she might draw on." Libya just recovered a $15.5 million London mansion belonging to Gadhafi's third son, Saadi.

Memo to Asma Assad: forget those spike-heeled Christian Louboutins. Order a pair of runners.

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