By Lubna Hamdan
Everybody wants a piece of the man who created a global telecoms giant, with a $2.9 billion personal fortune to show for it. But Naguib Sawiris explains why he would rather be home alone watching The Godfather
If you want to make Naguib Sawiris an offer he can’t refuse, just invite him for a viewing of American crime film The Godfather.
“I don’t think there’s anybody else in the world who has watched The Godfather 19 times. I know the script by heart,” he says.
While the 65-year-old Egyptian billionaire may not be the original don of the Sawiris empire – his father Onsi began the Orascom conglomerate in the 1950s before splitting it into three separate companies run by his three sons – he is by far the most fascinating of the brothers, as we quickly discover over the course of our one hour conversation.
“I don’t think there’s anybody else in the world who has watched The Godfather 19 times. I know the script by heart”
Money? “I don’t want to make any more”. Women? “I don’t date anybody who’s not my age divided by two”. Growing old? “I have a t-shirt that says, ‘When will I ever grow up?’ because I don’t grow up’”.
The eldest Sawiris brother is credited with changing the face of telecommunications across the Middle East, growing Orascom Telecoms into the largest cellular operator in the region in terms of subscribers.
In as little as five years, his company catered to a staggering 5 million customers across nine countries, having ventured into conflict zones like Iraq and Pakistan where competitors did not dare to go. Orascom even launched the first 3G mobile operator in North Korea, Koryolink, becoming the sole mobile network operator in the country for nine years. In 2012, Sawiris merged his Cairo-based telco with Amsterdam’s Vimpelcom (now Veon) to create the world’s sixth largest telecommunications provider.
Today, Sawiris sits at the helm of investment conglomerate Orascom Investment Holding (OIH) as its executive chairman and CEO. While he diversified investments away from telecoms – real estate, financial services, logistics, food industries, cultural development – OIH continues to operate networks in North Korea, Lebanon and Pakistan.
But the market is not as lucrative as it used to be and it’s all the telcos’ fault.
“The telecoms industry is suffering from maturity… and we, the telecom operators including ourselves, have made a huge mistake in allowing all solution providers like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter to come through our networks and use us without getting any benefit out of it,” Sawiris says.
“We had to go out and pay for the infrastructure, marketing, sales, we got the subscribers and then they sneak inside our network, provide the service to the consumers and what do we get? Nothing. It’s a big mistake…
“I have a t-shirt that says, ‘When will I ever grow up?’ because I don’t grow up’”
“When I was on the board of the GSM, I had made a proposal that we, all the operators, should prepare a platform and block them so they can only go through the revenue share model. It’s too late now,” he says.
But he’s not too bothered about it. And with a net worth of $2.9bn, why should he be?
“Now I only do stuff that makes me happy. If someone tells me, ‘Okay, we have this deal tonight, if you come you’ll make a million dollars,’ or there’s a nice party [happening], I’ll go to the party. I don’t want to make any more money,” he says.
What would make him really happy – besides watching The Godfather for the 20th time – is a more secular and progressive Egypt, starting from the world of cinema.
We originally meet Sawiris at a seaside café along Egypt’s Red Sea resort town El Gouna, built in the 1990s by middle brother Samih and head of Orascom Development Holding, through which he developed the glamorous annual El Gouna Film Festival in 2017.
The festival has attracted over 200 movies stars and filmmakers including Hollywood stars Sylvester Stallone, Patrick Dempsey and Owen Wilson, and led to a surge in tourism to the resort town, with property prices rising as much as 50 percent according to Sawiris. But it was also met with criticism from hardliners and religious conservatives who deemed it too Western.
“We have problems with [The Censorship Authority],” says Sawiris.
“They delay many movies, we have problems with religion, people are still thinking in a very close-minded [way],” he says.
“Women are beautiful. If God wanted them to be veiled, he would have created them with a veil”
Last year, the Cairo International Film Festival saw Egyptian actress Rania Youssef forced to apologise for a black see-through gown she wore to the red carpet after three lawyers filed a lawsuit against her for “inciting debauchery”.
But Sawiris says actresses gracing the red carpets of El Gouna Film Festival can wear “whatever they like”.
He says: “Unfortunately in Egypt, there is a tendency to look at women and say, ‘They are dressed half-naked’. I am not from that school [of thought]… The Arab world is plagued by these symptoms… When [Arabs] travel abroad and women are going [around] freely, it’s okay, but when it’s in our society, it becomes [unacceptable].
“Women are beautiful. If God didn’t want them to be beautiful, he would not have created them like that. If God would have wanted them to be veiled, he would have created them with a veil. God is beautiful and loves beauty. God knows what he is doing. Who are we to argue?
“I can’t understand the minds of people who reduce everything to a sexual angle, which is sick. This doesn’t exist anywhere in the world except in our society. When I see a woman, I don’t necessarily think of her in that [sexual] way. We are not catering to these kind of people and we really don’t care about [them]… We will continue to do what we do. We will still tell artists to wear what they like… Every year we push the barrier one step further. We’re very difficult to stop - in all modesty,” he says, grinning.
Yet a series of film festivals have been scrapped across the Middle East, with Dubai having “moved on” from the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), according to Dubai Film and TV Commission CEO Jamal Al Sharif, and the postponed Gulf Film Festival having never returned. But Sawiris says the Arab world needs “a liberator” like cinema.
“It’s a shame that [DIFF] was [discontinued] because it was a big success when it started and we really need this in our area because cinema is a liberator. When you go to the cinema and you watch a good movie, after the movie, you go out with a lot of sensation, emotions, thoughts about life…” he says.
Saudi Arabia might see the formation of its own film festival following the lifting of the cinema ban in the kingdom, as Sawiris says the industry will thrive under the reforms of ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
“The fact that the Crown Prince has broken the ice and has opened up the country like that will have a lot of positive consequences so the movie industry will strive in Saudi Arabia, tourism will strive for sure,” he says.
While investors will be more inclined to go to Saudi Arabia, Sawiris says, he himself is not ready to invest in the kingdom just yet.
“Saudi Arabia is issuing tourist visas and they’ve allowed European women who come not to be forced to wear a burqa, which is a magnificent step because it breaks down this taboo. [But if] you expect me to come and be forced to change my style if I want to see your country then I don’t want to see it…”
The Egyptian Christian even recalls getting “beaten up with a stick” by a man in the kingdom for not attending Muslim prayers.
He says: “It happened to me when I was in Jeddah. By the time I explained to the guy that I am Christian, he couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘You’re Egyptian?’ I said, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘How come you’re Christian?’ I said, ‘We have 20 million Christians [in Egypt] and I don’t go to church. You want to also hit me because I don’t go to church?’”
Besides fears of being beaten up with a stick, Sawiris is concerned with unclear investment laws in the kingdom and its lack of commercial courts.
“There needs to be a clear investment law; all the incentives you’re going to give to investors, and we need to have commercial courts in case there is a dispute. There’s still this big fear in the minds of investors where in the past, if you had a problem with your Saudi partner, if he was a Prince or related [to the royal family], he would just take the money and kick you out.
“This has changed and people trust the Crown Prince but they need to see everything they see in every single other investment jurisdiction… It’s moving fast but I haven’t seen the details. The devil is in the details,” he says.
Sawiris, who is also the chairman of private natural resource investment company La Mancha Holding which boasts equity investments in Evolution Mining, Endeavour Mining and Golden Star Resources, says Egypt is guilty of vague laws too, citing the country’s new mining regulations aimed at attracting foreign investors.
“In Egypt, they’re [introducing] the new mining law… [But if] you start to look for the most important things: how much is the royalty fee, how much are the customs and how much are the taxes – they’re not there,” he says, laughing.
“I ask, ‘Mr Minister, what shall I do with this?’ He says, ‘Oh, we’re writing this now’. So when you issued the law, why didn’t you write the executive paper with it? Before you go and slam people with something, give them the details. They want to work.
“I mean the private sector is always faster than government. They are ready to move. When they smell money, they are ready to work. But it’s the other side that’s always late. And then they blame me when I invest outside. ‘Oh why are you investing outside your country?’ I tried to invest in my country,” he says.
While inadequate laws will put him off investing in countries like Saudi Arabia, Sawiris says political tensions in the Middle East have not stopped him from pumping money into projects across the troubled region.
“[Political tensions] don’t put me off investing because as long as we don’t have any democratic stable rule of law in our area, it will always remain an area like that and if you are from the area, you are used to working under these conditions…”
Sawiris is also used to politics, and is no stranger to Egypt’s political affairs. In the wake of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, he co-founded the Free Egyptians Party in hopes of advocating a secular and free-market opposed to Islamist parties, but famously received death threats following the election of former President Mohamed Morsi and was forced to leave the country until 2013.
While he’s taken a back seat to the political party he co-founded – ever the outspoken persona – he doesn’t hesitate when asked to share his thoughts on Cairo’s anti-government riots which took place in September amid economic reforms and austerity measures affecting the country’s lower and middle classes.
“It’s unacceptable that such a rich country like Egypt which has all the resources… we are able to sustain everybody, so we should have a big aggressive program to eradicate poverty. This should be our first priority; poverty, education and healthcare. It’s not been taken seriously enough,” he says.
It’s not all doom and gloom in the massive African country however, with sectors such as tourism experiencing new heights through record hotel bookings this year compared to 2018. The country’s real estate industry is also thriving. Buyers of units in Sawiris’ own projects through his luxury developer Ora have already made 25 percent profit on their total unit price.
Sawiris says Dubai can learn a thing or two from the Egyptian real estate sector.
“They need to take a breath…” he says.
“You need to create an element of scarcity in real estate. It’s very simple. When you keep on constructing then you’re pushing the market beyond its limits. So people who are buying real estate, they want to see appreciation. How can they see appreciation when you’re pouring more units into the market and there’s a limit to your infrastructure?”
Sawiris says a 2-year moratorium on construction and licenses in Dubai’s real estate market will lead to market recovery in 2-3 years as the oversupply balances out.
The billionaire may want to pause his own career to watch movies or even go out on a few dates. If you happen to grab his attention, just don’t mention his age.
“For the first time in 30 years, one girl recently told me, ‘You’re too old for me’. And I was shocked. I’m really too old for her, but I told her, ‘You’re the first one who ever tells me that, I’m never going to speak to you again’.”
We burst out laughing, but Sawiris keeps a straight face: “I’m serious. I really don’t speak to her anymore”.
And what’s one less person in Sawiris’ life if he can’t get a moment to himself? Over the course of our conversation, he is interrupted by admirers and friends at least three times. And if there’s anything he hates more than being reminded of his age, it’s being interrupted.
“I’m having a conversation!” he yells. “They’re irritating me. I can’t sit anywhere without someone approaching me”.
Perhaps that is why the billionaire is “addicted to cinema”.
He says: “When I go to a party and it’s boring, I sneak out, I go home, and I put on a movie.”
Forget The Godfather, we reckon there’s enough in this interview alone to make a movie about Naguib Sawiris.For all the latest Banking & Finance news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.