The long and winding road

Over the past 40 years, Munib Masri has played an integral role in the Palestinian peace process, with Yasser Arafat offering him the Palestinian premiership several times. Along the way, he has also created one of the country’s most successful companies, PADICO. In a rare interview, he lifts the lid on an incredible journey through politics, profits and philanthropy
The long and winding road
Masri amassed his wealth from projects in the oil and gas business across the Middle East.
By Massoud A. Derhally
Sun 01 Jul 2012 08:22 AM

It is 8pm on Monday 11 June, and over 200 of the world’s most powerful Arabs are jostling for a position at a special event to unveil the 2012 Arabian Business Power List. Doctors, scientists, philanthropists, actors, singers, sports stars and business leaders are all subtly eyeing out each other, wondering about their respective rankings on this year’s list.

Until a 77-year-old Palestinian man walks into the room at the Pavilion, in Downtown Dubai. “It’s him... it’s him. I can’t believe I’m in the same room as him,” says one of the region’s most successful businessmen.

No matter how impressive the crowd, Munib Masri has made a career out of standing out for the past 40 years. A close confidant of former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, and a native of Nablus, Masri has dedicated a good chunk of his life to the Palestinian cause. From being a mediator in the 1970s between Arafat and the late King Hussein of Jordan, to running a multi-billion dollar business empire and dedicating huge chunks of his time and wealth to philanthropy, there’s very little that Masri hasn’t seen, done or is still doing.

And he knows exactly how to work an audience. “I hope some day we will unveil the Arabian Business Power List not here in Dubai, but in Palestine,” says Masri to huge cheers, as he takes to the stage.

A former geologist and graduate of the University of Texas in Austin, Masri amassed his wealth from projects in the oil and gas business across the Middle East. After getting his initial work experience, he went on to establish and lead the massive EDGO Group, which has business segments in contracting, industrial development, trading, distribution, project development, operation and maintenance, project finance and representation.

Masri then helped create the Palestine Development and Investment Company (PADICO), after the Oslo agreement in 1993. It was created in preparation for an independent Palestine that has yet to evolve.  Since then, PADICO has invested over $500m in the Palestinian territories and created thousands of jobs. PADICO has investments or fully owns entities in tourism, real estate, industry, the stock exchange, telecommunications and electricity.

Within five years of being formed, Masri’s company had just 710 shareholders. By 2011, that had jumped to 10,500. And they have a lot to be cheerful about, with Masri expecting 2011 profits to top the $38.8m recorded a year earlier. Just as the global recession set in during 2009, Masri bucked the trend by delivering an $18.3m jump in revenues to $102.2m over the next twelve months.

PADICO was behind the first ever bonds issues in Palestine (for $70m) — which will help finance mega projects including a power generation project in the north at a cost of $300m and a mixed-used huge real estate development project in Jericho.

The Arab Spring may have led to some companies putting the brakes on new investments, but Masri sees it as an opportunity, telling the Reuters Middle East Investment Summit last year: “What does the investor want? He wants ethics in business, stability and democracy and that is what they are calling for. There will be better laws, less corruption.”

The Munib Masri Foundation is active in Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan and provides financial support to individuals and institutions. Among its initiatives are two new construction projects in Nablus — the Munib R. Masri School of Engineering and Geology at An Najah National University and the Zahia Masri paediatric ward at Al Ittihad Hospital. The foundation has also endowed in perpetuity two full scholarships at Birzeit University, donated a library to a school in Gaza, funded a concert programme in Nablus and supported a cultural centre in Ramallah.

But while Masri’s place in the business history books is already secure, it is his role over many decades in the Palestinian peace process that has cemented his global stature.

Years before the peace process and the Oslo Declaration of Principles was signed on the White House lawn, Masri was a mediator between Arafat and former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. When we meet later in The Armani Hotel, Masri wastes no time getting into his stride.

“In the 1980s, Rita Hauser, [a prominent American Jewish lawyer] told me I would like for you to have a conversation with Yitzhak Rabin who was defence minister at the time and visiting New York,” Masri recalls. “Sure enough Rabin called one afternoon. He said: 'We want people like you, Mr Masri, to be president, not Arafat. Arafat’s hands are bloody, we can’t work with him, we can’t talk to him'. I said I could arrange a meeting. He said no, he would never do it.”

“I said to him: 'Just for the record, if you bring Abraham, Moses, Jesus and our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), to make peace with Israel now, no one can do that except Arafat and he’s willing to',” Masri says.

Rabin didn’t agree at the time.

“Days go and come, years go by and then you had the famous handshake in the Rose Garden,” Masri recalls. “Two weeks later [after the handshake], I saw Mr Rabin in Casablanca with Arafat.  Mr Rabin, he took me aside and said: ‘Please Mr Masri, don’t tell me that I told you so'. We sat down, had a couple of drinks together and he said: ‘You know, Mr Arafat can be a partner."

At a recent dinner with Israeli President Shimon Peres [foreign minister during the Oslo Accords], Masri spoke frankly about his disdain and frustration with Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinians and ongoing construction of illegal settlements.

“We had had some dignified people around the table at his home having dinner,” Masri says. “We were talking about the Arab Spring and Mr. Peres was saying it has no effect on Israel. I told him that the people who became dictators, they said they came to liberate Palestine — and then became friends of the Israeli regime. Some of the demands of the people who overthrew these dictators was to see a liberated Palestine. I told him I would hate to see the hatred to come back to the pre-Oslo situation.”

Masri says he told Peres that the idea of the Arab Spring having no effect on Israel was “nonsense”.

“I asked him : ‘What do you want? You don’t know what you want',” Masri recalls. “'We talk about peace, you talk about negotiations’. He says: ‘Yeah, things have to come by negotiations’. I said: 'Negotiations for what? We’ve been talking since Oslo, eighteen or nineteen years of negotiations. Mr Arafat was an excellent partner for you and Mr Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] is the same. You say you don’t have a partner but you have hell of a good partner'.”

Driving his point home, Masri says he told Peres, “'The problem with you, Mr President, is you don’t know Palestinians. No matter what you think you don’t know them. We want our dignity, and we want to live in peace'.”

The Oslo accords were supposed to lead to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from parts of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and their replacement by a Palestinian National Authority which would rule over the majority of the Palestinian population for a five-year interim period, during which further transfers of land would take place. The phased transition was supposed to lead to a final-status agreement that would then tackle the most difficult issues, including the status of Jerusalem, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes, Israeli settlements, security, water rights and borders.

The coming to power of right-wing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon sparked the second Palestinian uprising (Intifada) in 2000.  Israel launched its so-called military incursions; Arafat was besieged and then died in a hospital in the suburbs of Paris. With that Oslo evaporated.

But Masri’s dream, still, is to see a two-state solution emerge.

“Now 80 percent of my time is Palestine,” he says. “I wake up every day and I say I’m Palestinian, I want independence. We want to live in peace. We are destined to live together.”

The crippling of his grandson is a powerful case in point, Masri says, on why a solution to the conflict has to come about. Masri’s 22-year-old grandson was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier last year and has been paralysed ever since.

“There’s nothing like peace and I feel sorry for the mothers on both sides who are suffering from the catastrophes that come with this conflict. For us personally it was my grandson, and I see how it affects his mother, father and grandmother,” he says, adding: If you have five cases like this in Israel you have 150 in Palestine,” Masri says. “You have to sit down and talk. No matter what, we are destined to live together but let’s not bring catastrophes to mothers.”

Masri, who was offered the premiership by Arafat a number of times, yet declined, has most recently played an important role in reconciling the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah party and Hamas. The two sides reached a unity accord a year ago in Cairo with the help of Masri but the schism between the two remains deep and forming a unity government has remained difficult.

“More needs to be achieved and a good feeling of trust needs to be created. Each one of them is watching the other,” Masri says about Hamas and the PA. “It’s in the interest of the US, the West and Israel to see that the Palestinians have one address and this address can be reasonable and mild if they gained their respect and integrity.”

“Hamas, they deserve respect, because they are organised and proved they could resist occupation,” Masri says.

And what if a two-state solution doesn’t see the light of day?

“I hope I will not live to see this,” Masri says. “For the Palestinians, for the future it might be a better deal to have a one-state solution. Count my words, in 25 years, you will see the Israelis begging for a Palestinian Mandela because you will effectively have apartheid. Palestinians will be 25 million to 27 million and Israelis will be 7 to 12 million. It cannot work.

On US president Barack Obama, Masri says he has mixed feelings.

“I had so much hope for him... he did a great job at the beginning and after his Cairo speech he was slaughtered because the Israelis saw that he was a threat. I still hope that he will be re-elected again and he will not abandon doing what’s just and will stick to his values vis-à-vis the Palestinians.”

Whether Masri’s efforts in the peace process will ultimately be successful, only time will tell. As midnight approaches, Masri prepares to leave, heading for an early morning meeting with the Turkish foreign minister. Before he departs, I ask him what he made of the wave of protests that engulfed the Arab world last year.

“I’m glad that it happened,” he says. “It shows people want democracy, they want integrity. Something will come out, out of this. I hope that we will have a Palestinian Spring. I’ve been working for that for 40 years and I want to see it.”

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