But doing business in problematic states brings, well, problems. In Syria, where the Aga Khan has signed agreements with the government of President Bashar al-Assad to open hotels in Damascus and Aleppo, Serena is vowing to complete plans made before the brutal crackdown by Assad's regime that began in March 2011. Under the 2008 agreements, the properties will be state-owned but operated by the Aga Khan Development Network. "My interest in working in Syria," the Aga Khan said in Aleppo when the deal was inked, "is to take the various lead countries of the ummah [the global Muslim community] and say, 'Let's start. Let's move together. Let's revive our cultures so that modernity is not only seen in the terminology of the West, but in the intelligent use of our past.'"
Now, with Syria facing international sanctions over Assad's violent suppression of dissent that the United Nations says has already killed more than 6,000 people, hotels are nearly empty, and the decision to continue work with the bloodstained and internationally isolated Assad could hurt the Aga Khan's reputation.
Still, Serena's Syria construction is moving forward. The chain is restoring three landmark houses built in the 18th and 19th centuries in the Old City of Damascus and refurbishing former government offices in Aleppo built during the French colonial period.
It's hard to predict what Syria might look like when the facilities are slated to open in a few years. Even if Assad succeeds in clinging to power, luxury tourists are unlikely to rush to Syria to see the country's famous ruins. But if nothing else, there will at least be a hot shower and a plush bed for the journalists covering the chaos -- and the businessmen seeking to profit from it.