By Lubna Hamdan
Oil, real estate, health, education. You name it, Qais Al Khonji has a hand in it. But the Omani businessman has more on his mind than making money. He plans on taking Oman's economy to the next level
Qais Al Khonji is a workaholic. Judging by his bloodshot eyes, a jetlagged one too. As we meet the Omani businessman in the lobby of The Fairmont Palm Hotel in Dubai, he reveals he landed a mere two hours ahead of our encounter. But today is no exception for the 39-year-old go-getter.
When he is not in Dubai attending events, he is in Bahrain meeting consultants. On the weekends, you will find him in Mumbai buying equipment, or Tehran doing business.
So what does Al Khonji do? A handful of things to say the least. He is the founder of Genesis Projects and Investments, one of just two firms in Oman that specialises in petrochemicals core and lubricant analysis.
“But I have the advantage of being a local company, so I get that credit,” he says, laughing. His multi-million dollar company works alongside some of the Sultanate’s biggest oil exploration and production firms, including Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), Occidental Petroleum and Daleel Petroleum. He calls it his “real” success, having gone through at least a couple of failed ventures before hitting the nail on the head with Genesis.
“We started it from scratch and today we have contracts with [large] oil companies. It’s the most profitable [out of all of my businesses]. We started in 2014 when oil prices were down, but it was a good time for us because everyone wanted to increase their oil production. That’s where we come in. The purpose of the analysis is to enhance production. It took us a year and a half to break even,” he says.
Oman’s small-scale oil market eliminated tough competition that larger markets tend to face, but it posed challenges for the founder’s bigger firm, Genesis International. Focussing on education, health, solar power and smart city concepts, the company encountered issues with government approvals when it came to new concepts and technologies.
“The problem with the solar and smart city concept is that you need decisions from higher authorities,” he says of the challenge. “In Oman, they don’t accept something new unless they try it for a couple of years. Its business market is very small and slow. Our population is just a little over four million. And we Omanis are conservative. When you are conservative, everything becomes slow by default. People have that fear of trying new things,” he says.
But one way to speed up the evolution of Oman’s national economy is to develop its foreign investment system by using neighbouring business hub Dubai as a model and adopting similar aspects, according to Al Khonji.
The Special Economic Zone in Duqm (SEZAD), established under royal decree in 2011, is helping to make that happen. The $5.4bn (AED20bn) project is expected to be completed by 2020 and is part of the government’s plan to diversify income away from oil. It will include a port, an airport with a capacity of 500,000 passengers per year, an oil refinery with a capacity of 230,000 barrels per day, as well as other facilities. And while the free zone is encouraging, more should be done to attract investors, Al Khonji says, including reworking the business laws.
“I don’t believe that a foreign investor needs to have a local partner in order to come to Oman. We should open up. If we want to have the mindset of business people, we need to open up. But they’re still conservative. That’s why it’s slow. It’s also a small market. Any new business that comes up becomes a [trend]. Everyone wants to try it out. If a new burger place pops up, you’ll find ten new burger places come up in the same neighbourhood.”
Al Khonji thinks the way to encourage a more entrepreneurial mindset is for it to be taught in schools. “It would open up the minds of students rather than have them think about government or private jobs only. It would give them a third option.”
And that’s exactly what Al Khonji is doing. Through the educational arm of his firm, he runs an agency that works with universities in Australia, Canada and Malaysia to send Omani students overseas to gain an education he claims they could not otherwise have attained in Oman's universities. Al Khonji does the same for hospital patients in Oman, sending them to hospitals in India and Thailand.
He reveals he is also in the initial stages of launching those hospitals in Oman. “Without education and a proper health system, you cannot build a healthy society,” he reasons.
It is safe to say, then, that Al Khonji’s plans go beyond making money. The serial businessman is keen to improve Oman’s economic and social conditions. Another way he is seeking to do this is through the youth fund, Sharakah, where he is a board member. Established in the 1990s by royal decree, the fund supports local youth projects that cost up to $650,000. Its purpose is to support small to medium enterprises. “One way to look at it, at least from my perspective, is to create jobs through SMEs. More successful projects means more jobs,” he says.
But Al Khonji was not always this motivated. Ten years ago, he was satisfied with sitting on the board of his family business Al Khonji Group, considered one of Oman’s leading conglomerates offering services from engineering to automotive, building and construction in Oman, the UAE and the UK.
“I didn’t have a day job. So I started my own business,” he says.
While he remains on the board of the group, Al Khonji has gone above and beyond to build a name for himself outside the relative security of the family empire, despite an early stint in trading that led him to close his first venture, Qais United Enterprise Trading. “It was simply importing goods from the Far East. I saw potential and wanted to try it in the local market, but if your product is not a known brand, it will never make it in Oman. That’s one of the lessons I learned. If it is a brand, the name will sell itself. But it was a lesson.”
Another lesson from that time was that the service sector was a better market for him to be involved with in Oman. “It’s there where you can prove the quality of what you are offering. So eventually, I got into it,” he says of the move which led to his subsequent success.
This is not to say that Al Khonji’s role in the family business did not assist in his own ventures, however. “Whatever I learn there, I try to adopt for myself, because it’s gone through a lot. I’m the fourth generation; it started in the 1920s, so it’s nice to learn how my great grandfathers went through all the ups and downs until they built it into a group of businesses. That inspires me to do the same,” he says.
Al Khonji admits the family business is not immune to challenges, revealing that passing the business from one generation to the other is a test in itself. “It’s quite a sensitive subject but the challenge is to keep it running for as many generations as possible. The eldest family business [in Oman] is six generations and it’s a role model for all family businesses,” he says.
If you think you have heard all that Al Khonji is involved in, think again. In addition to his role in the family business as well as his own companies, he sits on the board of the Oman National Engineering and Investment Company (ONIC), a utilities company that produces the billing systems of the water, electricity and telecoms provision for 50 percent of Oman. Just like the oil industry, it has just one other competitor, which holds the other 50 percent market share. Al Khonji is also a board member of insurance firm the Muscat National Holding Company.
And he is not stopping there.
“I have future plans. I believe in investing in operational businesses. I would rather invest five percent in a factory in ‘x’ country than invest ‘x’ amount in portfolio management. I love to see things running in front of my eyes rather than investing and just having a piece of paper in front of me. I’m a hands-on leader,” he says.
Judging by his portfolio, there is no denying that statement.