VENTURES AFRICA – In the early 60s, Onsi Sawiris set up Orascom Onsi Sawiris & Co, a small construction-contracting firm with operations in Upper Egypt. His firm enjoyed patronage from the Egyptian government and soon became one of the largest construction firms in the country.
Onsi, the patriarch of the Sawiris family, was in his mid 20s at the time, and was savouring his success. But it was short-lived. When Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s socialist leader, took the helm of power, he nationalised all the country’s successful private enterprises. Onsi’s construction firm was affected.
Disenchanted, he left Egypt in 1966 and relocated to Libya where he attempted to rebuild his business. He returned to his native land in 1977 under the more business-friendly regime of Anwar Sadat and rebuilt Orascom from scratch. However, Sawiris looked beyond construction, diversifying into sectors such as Hotel development, technology services, media and telecommunications.
Today, Orascom is the largest employer of labour in Egypt. In 1997, buoyed by the immense success of all the ventures within the Orascom Group, Onsi made a decision to split Orascom into separate operating companies: Orascom Telecom Holding (OTH), Orascom Construction Industries (OCI), and Orascom Developments and Hotels (ODH).
Now retired, Onsi Sawaris’ three sons, Nassef, Samih and Naguib, all educated in the US, Germany and Switzerland respectively, run separate parts of the family empire. “I can barely give them advice,” Onsi once said. “The new generation has its own methods and ideas and I have to practice consummate diplomacy when I want to make them see it my way. That is not to say that I am never overruled.”
Naguib Sawiris, the eldest son, heads Orascom’s Telecommunications interests. He transformed Orascom Telecoms into becoming one of the largest mobile phone operators in North Africa, before selling off in April to Russian telecom giant, Vimpelcom, for $6.5 billion.
Onsi’s youngest son, Nassef Sawiris runs Orascom Construction Industries (OCI), Egypt’s largest and most valuable publicly-traded company. OCI’s shares have risen sharply in recent months, fuelled by demand from Middle Eastern states for construction and cement, along with a joint venture investment with Morgan Stanley to invest in infrastructure projects in the region.
Samih oversees Orascom Development Holding, the conglomerate’s real estate and tourism subsidiary that own luxurious five-star hotels like Marriot and Sheraton in Egypt.
Estimates vary, but Onsi Sawiris and his three sons are monumentally wealthy by any standard. Among the four of them, the Sawiris are worth over $18 billion, and rank as the wealthiest family in North Africa.
To each his own
In recent years, some of the headline construction projects undertaken by Orascom Construction Industries have included the $1.8 billion fertiliser plant in Algeria, a $110 million solar plant in Egypt and as part of the consortium building the new Cairo metro system. Nassef Sawiris has won a reputation as a forward-thinking, Western-style business leader, and has forged formidable partnerships with firms like the Swiss cement firm Holcim and the Belgian construction firm Besix in undertaking several large-scale projects in the Middle East.
Working in the politically volatile Middle East of course has its own difficulties. The company has been forced to withdraw its businesses in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kurdistan. Nassef has overseen the construction operations of the family empire since 1990, and is a large shareholder in French construction group, Lafarge SA, besides being a director of the Dubai International Financial Exchange and privately-owned investment group, NNS Holdings.
Samih Sawiris was educated at the Technical University of Berlin, and has actively run the family’s real estate and hotel interests for several years. He chairs Orascom Development Holding (ODH), which is now active in Egypt, Jordan, Oman, EUA, Switzerland, Mauritius and Morocco. The company has developed a chain of chateaux in Switzerland in partnership with Russian property billionaire, Alexander Lebedev and is embarking on a low-cost housing project in Russia.
ODH’s extensive investments include resorts at Taba Heights in Sinai, the new city of El Gouna, close to Hurghada on the Red Sea and Tala Bay Aqaba Resort in Jordan. Recently, Samih won the rights to develop an Alpine village in Switzerland at Andermatt where his firm is investing more than $1 billion, hoping to replicate the success of El Gouna, in the Alps.
The Sawiris brothers possess an excellent grasp of international relations and have significant interests in the media. Samih has been discovered to own a substantial stake in a UK’s Independent Newspaper while Naguib has invested in the Egyptian newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm, which has earned a strong reputation for pioneering an independent editorial agenda in Egypt, a country where press freedom has routinely been compromised. Naguib also launched a satellite TV network called OTV, which targets a youthful audience. “We want to report on the good and bad qualities of Egyptian society, but without being vulgar or superficial,” says Naguib.
Naguib, who is the eldest of the Sawiris children, is also said to be the most intellectual of the family. He maintains strong connections to Cairo’s political elite. He studied economics at Chicago University and went on to head Orascom Telecom Holding (OTH), the telecommunications subsidiary of the group. OTH began its operations in Egypt in 1998 by launching the country’s first mobile operator, Mobinil.
Naguib is widely credited with taking OTH from 200,000 subscribers in 1998 to over 100 million by 2011. Within 13 years, Naguib gobbled up GSM licenses in 11 emerging markets, including Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and (controversially) North Korea.
However, in April 2011, Naguib merged his Orascom Telecom Holdings with Russian mobile phone services operator, Vimpelcom, in a widely publicized $6.5 billion deal that gives the Egyptian tycoon a 30.6% stake in the Russian firm, and effectively makes him the company’s largest individual shareholder. He was also appointed executive chairman of the company.
A few weeks after the merger, Naguib stunned the local and international press when he announced that he was giving up his role as chairman of the company in order to pursue his political ambition.
In recent times, Naguib has become one of Egypt’s most vocal advocates for democracy, and is increasingly involved in his country’s politics, particularly since the uprising that led to the ousting of former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. Naguib acted as a mediator between the government and the opposition in implementing political reforms after Mubarak stepped down and subsequently founded Al Masryeen Al Ahrar (the Free Egyptians Party), a liberal political party. Despite founding the party, Naguib has not yet publicly signified his interest in running for political office.
For a good cause
In 2001, Onsi Sawiris founded the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development with an initial endowment of several million dollars. The foundation provides microcredit facilities to young Egyptian entrepreneurs and awards bursaries and scholarships to deserving students in tertiary institutions. In addition, the foundation funds an annual prize for the best of Egyptian literature. Naguib, Samih and Nassef all sit on the board of the foundation.