Naguib Sawiris: betting on a crisis; hoping for peace

Only a brave or very foolhardy investor would put money into North Korea. But Egyptian telecoms billionaire Naguib Sawiris has never been afraid of taking risks. Jane Lewis reports.

Egyptian telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris is making a characteristically big bet, says Bloomberg. He’s put half his $5.5bn net worth into gold, believing the price will rally while stocks crash. “People tend to go to gold during crises and we are full of crises right now,” he says. “Look at the Middle East and the rest of world, and [Donald] Trump doesn’t help.” Still, the unpopular US president could aid Sawiris in one way. If Trump brokers peace between North and South Korea, Egypt’s second-richest man could see his most unlikely gamble succeed.

Over the years, Sawiris made his reputation investing in telecoms in Egypt and “less popular markets including Iraq, Pakistan and North Korea” where, in defiance of Western sanctions, he set up a 3G mobile network, Koryolink. Sawaris describes himself as “a goodwill investor” in the country, claiming to have done “a lot of good stuff there”. But if a deal is forthcoming, he also stands a chance of finally repatriating some profits after ten years of waiting and $250m in investment.

A dynasty of wealth

Sawiris is a scion of Egypt’s wealthiest family, says Forbes. His father, Onsi, founded Orascom Construction, once the country’s largest employer. Although he is the oldest of three sons, he is not the richest: his brother, Nassef – who owns stakes in construction firms around the world – is worth $6.9bn, estimates Bloomberg. Sawaris, 63, joined the family firm in 1979 and pioneered its thrust into media and telecoms, which were spun off as a separate company in the 1990s. Overextended and overindebted, he was forced to sell off assets in 2003, but was back on track a few years later to strike the Koryolink deal in 2008.

With his yacht and art collection, Sawiris comes across as “an elegant businessman”, continues Forbes. But he’s also “a street fighter” and “a consistent advocate for freedom” both in Egypt and elsewhere. “I have a strong feeling in me against injustice,” he says. He made headlines during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015 with a plan to invest $100m in buying ten Greek islands to house 200,000 refugees and give them “a normal life” by kick-starting a hotel-construction programme to provide jobs. The idea came to nothing because the Greek government would not help, he told The National – “the first time in my life that I put something to my mind and it doesn’t get done”. The investment in North Korea can be seen in a similar way: it satisfies him that six million people have phones: “the first tool of communication, liberty and freedom”, he told Forbes. And if the deal never pays off, that reflects his appetite for taking risks: “I’m willing to lose everything”.

The biggest gamble

After all, the “biggest gamble in his life” was surely his decision to enter politics in 2011, says the Financial Times. Following the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s leader for three decades, Sawiris – a member of the country’s Coptic Christian minority – “vociferously opposed” the Muslim Brotherhood who won the ensuing elections. “The Brotherhood were going to be undemocratic, and they will mix religion with politics and we will end up with a big mess.” This “brought on his family the wrath of the then government” – Nassef “was slapped with a tax bill and fines of almost $2bn”. But he persisted until mass protests, partly fuelled by Sawiris’ TV station and his funding for activists, led to the Brotherhood being overthrown by the military in 2013. Compared to that, his North Korea deal seems a mere flutter.