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Naguib Sawiris: A Man of Business and Ethics

Consistently ranked among the ten richest men in Africa, Naguib Sawiris requires no introduction.
Naguib Sawiris | 11.10.2011
Consistently ranked among the ten richest men in Africa, Naguib Sawiris requires no introduction. His name alone conjures up images of wealth, business, and new technology around the world. Success aside, you can now know the more personal side of Naguib.

A lover of sushi, art, and night life, if he could have another career, he would have chosen to be a musician; he has also bought the highest priced painting in Egypt (a piece by El-Gazzar, at 1 million EGP). Read on to learn more about this local celebrity who graciously allowed Cairo West Magazine to interview him.

You joined Orascom when you were in your mid-twenties. Was there pressure from your father to do so, or was this your dream all along?

Actually, I had my own business for two years. When I joined the company, I had already made a quarter of a million without my father. My decision when I joined Orascom was to start something entirely new under the Orascom company name.

You’ve said before that you always strive to be number one. Is there anything in your life in which you realized you couldn’t be number one at?

I know now that I won’t be number one in the field of telecom, but I am not depressed by this. The field has matured. Even if I am able to triple my value, it’s like a race – we are only 50 meters to the end, and other companies had a head-start. But I am still doing the maximum, more than other men I know. I must shoot for the sky, because even if I land lower, I am still high.

When people hear or read your name, it is often followed by a phrase like: “one of the richest people in the world,” “worth billions,” “Orascom“ etc. How does this make you feel?

Despite this reputation. I am still so near to all the young people; they are all my buddies. I feel like I am their hero. From older wealthy ladies at the gym to poor people on the street, I am popular. It is difficult in Egypt to be liked by everyone. I think part of the reason for this is because I love everybody. I will always have a positive reaction to everyone I see, even a poor guy on the street. And, I am genuine.

What keeps you going, even when business times are difficult?

People would never understand the pain and suffering I have undergone in the last three years. There are two reasons I am still happy: I will never give satisfaction to my aggressor, and I boost myself anewevery morning. My employees also give me motivation. Once when we were in a difficult time, some of my employees were expressing their fears for the future of the company. And I overheard one of them say, ‘don’t worry, in the end Aboutrika will come and he will score.’ He meant me! It is important that people here are not worried, that they have faith in me and my ability to pull through for them.

How do you manage your work and personal life?

I have the same schedule every day. Even if I party until 4:00, I still wake-up at 6:30am to see my kids before school. Here’s how my day goes: 6:30am: See my kids and have tea while I watch CNN and Bloomberg. 8:00am: Go to the office (sometimes even earlier), and have an hour and a half at the office alone before the staff arrive; so I can prepare all the important things for the day. 9:30am: The office staff come and I distribute the work to them. 3:00pm: Have lunch with my dad, about three or four times a week and sometimes all of us brothers have lunch together. 5:00pm: Take a nap for an hour and fifteen minutes. This is my secret. There is no way I could party through the night if I didn’t have this nap. 6:15- 7:15pm: This is a sacred hour, I am with my kids during this time until they go to bed. I never go out during this time. 7:30pm: Either go back to work for a couple of hours and work without the interruption of others in the office, or I go for physiotherapy, because I have problems with my back. 10:00pm: Go back home and shower and then go out on the town. We are outgoing for a couple for having been married for 20 years. I go out at least three or four times a week.

What do you think your parents did to raise three successful sons?

My dad let go and never interfered or blocked us from doing what we wanted to do. He gave us love and trust. When I was 19 years old I remember him taking me to his main bank and signing a Power of Attorney over to me for all his money. He trusted me, and of course I never touched it. My mother spent so much time with us; she gave us a lot of love and devotion. and, she instilled in us the fear and love of God. That is probably her biggest contribution to my life. Regardless of what you know about us brothers, all of us fear and love God. Fear causes us to do all the right things and love makes us charitable and helpful.

You are known for stating that your source of strength is God and that God is on your side. How does this impact how you live?

My inner power and my outer power is my relationship with God. I did not gain my faith in God through the church, but rather through my life. And because of my strong faith, strange things have happened to me that cannot be explained logically. Because I know he is on my side, I have been able to take on some evil people, and they have been surprised by my courage. Luck and faith correlate. If you are doubtful in God, he may not help you. Faith also means that we may not understand why God is doing certain things. I believe that every time something happens, it is for a reason. Even when you get sick, perhaps the purpose was to know God more closely. We can never fully understand what is he is doing upstairs.

If you hadn’t been a business man, what other passion would you have followed?

I would have liked to be a musician. I don’t play anything, but I claim that my ears are good. I also enjoy art. I sponsored the transportation of Samir Rafi’s work from Paris to the Opera House in Cairo. I selected the pieces I wanted and the next day, the Minister of Culture came and he chose 80% of the same pieces I had chosen. He told me I had a good eye for art.

People can be very judgmental. Do you feel like you have to be careful how you act in public?

I do what I want, and I will to take the consequences of this behavior. And really… I can afford it! I don’t mean to be arrogant, but what can happen to me? I can handle any situation, I see it as an experience. Sometimes people judge me for having a good time at a club. They all look at me with scowls on their faces, but I leave there with a smile on my face. Life is short and you never know when it ends. Why waste a night or two…. or three. Do whatever makes you happy, as long as you don’t insult or hurt anyone.

In the past, you have said and done things that may have cost you in your career, how do you justify this?

Sure, some things have cost me, but I have also gotten away with a lot of things. I try to not do anything that would result in others being hurt. But, when someone is mean, I feel that it is my duty to show him that his evilness needs to be punished, I have always stood up for my aggressors but if someone apologizes I accept the apology. If people feel they can step over you, they will walk over you. I will never allow this to happen to me.

If you could change anything in the constitution, what would it be?

I would eliminate any reference to religion, and cancel the law stating that there needs to be 50% labor, because it is unconstitutional, this does not exist any where in the world. Finally, I would enforce the rule of law and authority more heavily. The constitution should be fairer, not just calling for democracy and freedom, but enforcing it!

Did you vote:

Yes, but I am not going to tell you who I gave my vote to!

You are not just a businessman, you are obviously very political in your strategies. How do you feel your developments in mobile technology can affect things like democracy?

Mobile has given people the freedom of communicating with others. This development has made it difficult for dictatorial regimes. You can’t hide the truth any more in these countries. In Bangladesh, for instance, farmers were being taken advantage of by the buyers. We introduced a service on their mobile phones that tells the farmers the day’s market price for their products. Now the buyers can’t take advantage of the farmer’s ignorance of the market. It’s like a mini a stock exchange for these farmers. It changed thier lives. My company has allowed regular citizens in North Korea to be able to call their friends and family and communicate with each other. When the technology comes to these countries, it spreads democracy and freedom. Even if they nationalize my company, this will not change. If you think I am a national hero in Egypt, go to North Korea; they know my name, they know my face, and they know Orascom.

You have stressed the importance of education, healthcare and democratic change in order to fight extremism. What are you doing in order to improve those areas of society within Egypt?

I don’t think there is another company in Egypt that contributes in the way we do to society. Our foundation, the Sawiris Foundation, stresses job creation. We identified the misalignment between recent graduates and lack of jobs. The foundation is trying to align these things. We send students to international league schools, pay nurses to undergo additional training, and educate local Egyptians in proper etiquette and English so boats in El Gouna can hire Egyptians rather than foreigners.

What do you think about the recent upsurge in women wearing the veil in Egypt?

I am against the veil of the mind, not against the outside veiling itself. I am fine with a woman putting a veil on her head, as long as it has not veiled her mind. What did you have in mind when you built The Nile Towers.

What does this building represent?

This office building is unique, people see it as a landmark, it has the best view of the Nile. This building should stand as a memorial for my family. In general I like to be distinctive. If someone looks very carefully, they will notice I never dress like anyone else. I am very careful about this. Even my suits are unique. I will never wear something that I have seen others wear. The same goes for this building; I wanted it to be different.

What are some of your favorite places?

In Egypt my favorite place to go is El Gouna. But, in the world my favorite cities are Paris, Rome and New York. And of course in general I like America for what it represents. I also like Brazil and Italy because of the nature of the people and their lifestyle.


You have real estate investments in West Cairo, why did you choose this location?

I wanted a house overlooking the pyramids. The project there went really well and I had a good friend who sold me his company. However, I am not investing in real estate because this is my brother’s area of expertise.

What do you want to do in the next ten years?

I feel like I am a different person lately. I have been hit so hard in the last three years. It has changed me; I want to start taking more time to do all the things I have not had time to do, more time with kids and wife, with friends, enjoying the luxuries of life. These activities take away a lot of stress. I would also like to do things that make me happy. For example, there weren’t any nice places to go to so I opened my piano place, “Upstairs;” it was an immense source of joy to see people having fun. We used to spend nights there that are off the record. I’m working now on a small boutique hotel in Zamalek on Montaza St. These business ventures are difficult right now, because they pull me away from my other work. How can I worry about a restaurant running out of plates when I may be working on a million dollar business deal on the other side of the world?
My hourly rate could be 1M dollars, and the time I put into these ventures isn’t lucrative. So, I have to put these business ventures under the category of “hobbies”, so that I don’t think about the cost. Most of all, I want to do massive charity activities. In the past I have dedicated about 15% of my time to charity projects, but mostly I have been focusing on growing my personal wealth. Now I want to dedicate my time to charity work.