A place to live, laugh and love … how Orascom is reinventing the future of towns … from the Swiss Alps to the Red Sea

December 7, 2018

Orascom Development Holding (ODH) creates fully integrated towns, like the one here in La Gouna, a purpose-built location on Egypt’s Red Sea. Escape from the hustle and bustle, the noise and crowds, the density and pollution of big cities, to live a better life.

That’s how billionaire Egyptian Samih Sawaris started out. He loved fishing. He found the perfect spot on the coast line – peace and tranquility, limitless space and sunshine – at a site 40 minutes north of Hurghada. He built a house here. Then started building more homes for his friends.

But they were isolated, with not much to do when the fishing ended. They wanted a community, so he set about creating one. Add everything from a marina to restaurants, cinema to fitness clubs, school and hospital, library and social clubs, horse stables to golf courses. Soon more people wanted to be part of the community too. Even for a more temporary visit, so hotels started to emerge alongside second home, then first homes. It even became a great place to locate your new business, and all your staff too.

ODH now has a diverse portfolio of worldwide “integrated town” destinations from Egypt (the latest one O-West opens soon in Cairo), the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Morocco, Montenegro, Switzerland and the United Kingdom (an eco-town in Cornwall). The group operates a total of 35 hotels with 8,016 rooms and controls approximately 100.3 million sqm of land. Only a third of it developed so far.

The opportunities for growth are immense. Also the ability to realise a vision of a truly integrated town. A place where people can love, laugh and live together. How life should be.

As for Samih, he has now stepped back from ODH to enable a new generation of professional management to lead the business. He is the second of three sons of Onsi Sawiris, the other two being Naguib Sawiris and Nassef Sawiris. He remains executive Chairman of the Board of Directors. As of 2011 his net worth was estimated at $1.4 billion, making him the 879th richest person in the world. He became a Montenegrin citizen in 2011, the location of one of his latest towns.

This week Iim here in El Gouna with the ODH leadership team, exploring new strategies for their future growth – how to go further, do it better, and grow faster. What really is a perfect “integrated” town, and who is it really for? What’s the right business models to use? What additional types of services could be useful? What really builds a community? And how could the concept spread further and faster?

The Sawiris family is the wealthiest in Egypt, running a multi-activity business with global interests that stretch from mobile phones in North Korea a new hotel resort in Switzerland.

One of the Sawiris brothers is also an investor in a highly influential Egyptian newspaper and the owner of TV interests. Father figure Onsi, was born in 1930, the son of a lawyer in southern Egypt. He started out in agriculture, before switching to construction and becoming one of the country’s largest contractors. But his early business career was frustrated by the socialist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser, which prevented him from leaving the country for six years in the 1960s.

After a spell in Libya, he returned to Egypt during the more business-friendly regime of the next Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. The Sawiris family have continued to prosper over the past three decades under Hosni Mubarak’s government. With Osni Sawiris now effectively retired, his three sons – all educated in western universities – each run different arms of the family empire, Orascom.

Eldest son Naguib, who was educated in Zurich, is executive chairman of Orascom Telecom and a media owner in Egypt. Nassef, a graduate of Chicago University, is chief executive of Orascom Construction Industries. Naguib is said to be the intellectual guru of the family, with strong connections in the Cairo political elite and liberal sympathies.

The Guardian suggests that he is close to Mubarak’s son and heir apparent, Gamal, who has advanced some of the country’s neoliberal economic reforms. Observers of the Egyptian political scene say he is an advocate of a progressive, liberal future for Egypt. He is an investor in the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm, which was launched in 2004 and has earned a strong reputation for pioneering an independent editorial agenda. He also launched the satellite TV network OTV, which he describes on its website as a service “for young people, without religious or loud content”.

“We want to report on the good and bad qualities of Egyptian society but without being neither vulgar nor superficial. The aim is to attract the public’s attention onto itself and to make people reflect on who they are. Recently, television in Egypt has enjoyed more freedom and, though it’s not enough, it’s better than nothing.”

The Sawiris family’s wealth has made them a visible symbol of the huge gulf between Egypt’s rich elite and its impoverished millions. They are drawn from Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, who form roughly 10% of the population, and Naguib has spoken of the importance of faith in his life. “What gives me strength and confidence is my belief in God,” he told US interviewer Charlie Rose. “I’m a very strong believer and this has been always the source of my strength, not the money.” Like his father and brothers, Naguib is undoubtedly a rich man: his wealth was estimated at $3bn, putting him just outside Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s top 200 billionaires in November.

Orascom Telecom runs Egypt’s leading mobile network, Mobinil, and has expanded into Algeria, Tunisia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even North Korea, where it became the secretive communist state’s first mobile phone operator. But global expansion can be difficult: after Algeria defeated Egypt in a World Cup playoff in November, sparking violence in both countries, rioters in Algeria attacked Orascom’s offices at a time when the Algerian government had slapped the company with a huge tax bill.

And Naguib sold the company’s mobile business in Iraq over concerns about the need for fresh investment amid the country’s instability, while he has also spoken of the difficulties of doing business in China and India. He has also entered the European mobile market, with his Weather Investments vehicle, buying mobile operators in Italy and Greece.

Samih Sawiris has been active abroad too. Responsible for holiday resorts in the Middle East such as El Couna and Taba Heights, he has turned his attention to an eye-catching development in Switzerland, where he is turning a disused barracks at Andermatt into a resort with an artificial beach and a golf course.



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