Palestine's patriarch

Billionaire Munub Masri was offered the Palestinian premiership after the death of his close friend Yasser Arafat. In a rare interview, he tells Massoud A. Derhally why he declined the job, but why he still hopes to build a sovereign state for the Palestinian people.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  February 27, 2005

Palestine's patriarch |~|INFLUENCE-200.jpg|~|INFLUENCE: Munib Masri has been at the heart of Palestinian issues for over 40 years, and is a major investor in the state.|~|Not abrasive in the least and quite candid, Munib Masri, a Palestinian billionaire and scion of a prominent and successful family from the West Bank town of Nablus, apologises for being on the phone with his doctor. He acknowledges that he’s no spring chicken anymore. “I have six stints,” says Masri point- ing to his heart. “It’s all because of Palestine and the years I put into the Palestinian struggle,” adds the 69-year-old businessman, whose interests span the Arab world, Africa and other parts of the globe. Munib Masri is perhaps one of the few people that can be grouped along with former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat. Their 40-year friendship led Masri to put his heart and soul into helping Palestinians, both financially and morally. The former geologist went on to lead the massive EDGO Group, and helped create PADICO, which has invested US$500 million in the Palestinian terrortories and created 7500 jobs. The dream of wanting to see an independent Palestine underpinned much of what he set out to achieve in both his professional and personal lives, he says. “I yearned to see that we have an independent country with Jerusalem as its capital. I have worked my entire life with this in mind and my family has been affected by all of this,” he adds. Masri’s awakening as a Palestinian was ignited when he was 13. It was about the same time that Jewish migrants from Europe, who descended upon Palestine following World War II, clashed with Palestinians in 1947-1948. His formative years were marred by the eruption of violence and seeing his elder brother, who joined the army to defend his homeland, wounded. Other junctures that have influenced him include the Suez Canal Crisis, the unification and the disintegration of the union between Syria and Egypt. After attending the Al Najah High School in Nablus, a resilient Masri made his way to Texas, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. It was Masri’s chance interaction with two members of an organisation affiliated with USAID in 1951 that drew him to the wild west of America. Masri laughs at his innocence and naïve nature back then. “One of the people said Texas was the best place to study, the best for everything. At the time I didn’t know Texans liked to exaggerate and I believed him and in 1952 I went to Beirut and got on a boat and headed to New York,” explains Masri. He had two bags stuffed with everything his parents thought he would need for three years, and when he arrived in New York, he hailed a cab and told him to take him to Texas. “He thought I was crazy and he took me to the Greyhound bus,” says Masri. At Texas, Masri studied Geology and met Angela who would become his wife and mother of his six children. Masri credits his wife with raising their family and instilling in them patriotism for their homeland. This was especially the case as later in his life, projects he worked on in the Gulf and elsewhere, would take him away for nine months at a stretch. “She embraced the Palestinian cause. She used to take them to the refugee camps and during Israel’s occupation in Lebanon, she stayed in Beirut,” says Masri. After graduating in 1956, Masri made his way back to Jordan and he wanted to desperately work with the government. He shuttled between Nablus and Jordan every now and then to see if an opportunity would arise. It never did. Instead Masri joined E. W. Pauley and Phillips Petroleum as a geologist. His move would prove to be both lucrative and defining. At the same time, Masri convinced his new employer to allow him to establish the Engineering and Geological Services office, which would be a pre-cursor to EDGO Group, which he chairs and developed into an international conglomerate involved in contracting, industrial development, trading, distribution, project development, operation and maintenance, project finance and representation. Masri’s business dealings took him to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf where he established ties that would shore up his business in the future. At one point Masri went to Abdel Majeed Shoman, chairman of the Arab Bank, and said he had a big project in Saudi and needed US$2 million for two years. Masri got the money from Shoman and returned it in six months. Ten years after the event, Masri says Shoman gave him a bank guarantee for US$400 million for a maintenance and operation project in Saudi Arabia for the Saudi navy. Masri denies, what he says, is a common mistake people make; crediting him with building American bases in Saudi Arabia. “Our speciality was oil and gas and power and water,” says Masri, adding, “I never built the American’s any bases and have never worked with the American army.” Though Masri does not say this, it is, in fact, his younger cousin Sabih Masri, also a wealthy businessman in his own right, who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia through military contracts, supplying the US Army during the 1990 Gulf War with food. After his initial stint with Phillips Petroleum in Jordan, Munib Masri was promoted to become president of the company’s office in Algeria when the North African country got its independence. In his late twenties, Masri spent two years in the country, which not only inspired him but was an important juncture in his relationship with Yasser Arafat, whom he met for the first time in 1963. “Algeria was very important … [It’s] independence and its struggle were important. I continuously tied Algeria’s independence with Palestine’s,” says Masri. After a couple of years in Algeria, Masri took a sabbatical from Phillips to join the Jordanian government as a special consultant supervising the execution of major public projects in Jordan. Masri left his position and returned to Phillips to become the company head in Beirut, Lebanon from where he oversaw the operations of 16 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time his own company’s operations in Saudi Arabia and Dubai were thriving and he was accruing millions of dollars that would eventually put him on a different footing in the future. He spent most his time in the Gulf labouring in the desert under the scorching heat of the sun. “I remember when Sheikh Zayed came to power and was still young; we planted trees in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, as he strongly believed that the trees brought rain. We used to sleep on the sand and even the water we drank was salty.” Life took a different turn in 1970 when he was in Nigeria exploring a gas venture and Jordanian prime minister Wasfi El Tal called asking him to head to Jordan. Masri flew to Jordan and joined the government at 36 as the Minister of Public Works. He accepted the new position, with the blessing of Arafat, but on condition he would not be paid a salary and a close friend of his would join the government as well. At the time, the atmosphere in Jordan was tense, due in large part to the presence of Palestinian commandos in the country and skirmishes between them and the Jordanian army. The challenge of King Hussein’s authority at the time and the erection of a state within a state by the Palestinians led to an all-out war between Jordanian forces and Palestinian militias in September 1970 (also known as Black September) resulting with the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation to Lebanon where they stayed until 1982. The turmoil set the stage for Masri to become a mediator between King Hussein and Arafat. He invited the Jordanian prime minister Wasfi El Tal to meet with Arafat at his home. “It took seven continuous months of negotiations. I would go at 7am to the ministry and work ’til 4pm, and then the political negotiations would start at night. King Hussein would come to meet Arafat and his people.” The discussions were often heated and, as Masri says, at times the Palestinian party would not be mature. There was also a fifth column on both sides says Masri. It tried to “create problems, not wanting the Palestinians and the Jordanians to see eye to eye. They always created stories to make both of them fight.” When Masri first met Arafat over dinner in Algeria in 1963 it wasn’t love at first sight. “I didn’t like him because he spoke with an Egyptian accent. It took me half an hour to get used to it,” says Masri. “I thought a Palestinian would talk like me. He was very charismatic; he won my heart [later]. I did everything I could from smuggling things … everything for Fatah,” Masri says. Though Masri is vocal about the trauma of occupation Palestinians have endured and continue to suffer from, he is neither pessimistic nor is he defeatist in his outlook. “When things don’t work out, I always create optimism. From the 1970s I have told my children there will be a Palestinian state and they would think I was a liar. The driving force [throughout] has been to work, to be successful and help realise the dream of Palestine,” he says. Though he doesn’t like to be compared with anyone, Masri is in many ways the Palestinian Rockerfeller or Warren Buffett and has drawn on lessons from Jewish history and believes Palestinians can too, as they seek to redefine themselves and re-establish their homeland from scratch. “I think without a doubt the misery they [Jews] suffered from, we don’t want it for them, and we don’t want to suffer from it. But without a doubt the problem is that they came and took our homeland,” says Masri. “The first immigrants that came to Palestine worked very hard and I always tell Palestinians we should be close to each other and work closely with each other the way they did.” But Masri has no misconceptions about the difficulty of such a dream. He acknowledges that it has been hard for the Palestinians to work in a unified manner. “Each of us is a leader, but when it comes to [working] collectively something is wrong,” he says. “When the Jews came, they didn’t have schools or hospitals, they came and stayed in their Kibbutz and worked. Our unity is very important … our country has no debt so it is easy to achieve miracles," he says, adding: “When I flew in a helicopter with Abu Ammar over Palestine, we concluded we could house 3 to 4 million Palestinians easily, provided there [were] funds. We can create a tiger economy like those in South East Asia, but our enemy is fierce.” “There are a lot of things they [Jews] achieved from nothing, and so I ask all the Palestinian brothers who made money abroad that the time has come to invest at home. There are possibilities that [newly elected Palestinian president] Mahmoud Abbas [also known as Abu Mazen] can produce, and so we should back him and create an independent Palestinian state.” Masri was, in fact, so optimistic, like many amid the euphoria that followed the signing of the Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993 that culminated in a short-lived period of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. During that time, he created the Palestine Development and Investment Company (PADICO), which Masri says he did “to economically help realise our political dreams”. The company, which is a behemoth, was created with US$200 million. During its start-up, Masri and his associates put in place a rule that no one partner could own more than 2%, but this was increased to 5% when they couldn’t fulfil the initial capital they had declared. Today with some 2000 shareholders and over US$500 million invested in the Palestinian territories, PADICO has investments or fully owns entities in tourism, real estate, industry, the stock exchange, telecommunications and electricity. Though the Masri family is widely admired and hailed for developing the Palestinian economy, there are critics who say the family has a monopoly and a carte blanche in the business landscape. Masri denies this vehemently and says he has been, and always will be, transparent. “We don’t have a monopoly. We work hard and we have many shareholders. The stock market is there. I own 5% of PADICO. We created jobs for 7500 people, which many families can earn from. We are, under the circumstances, one of the successful companies in Palestine and I think the coming years will be good years and I ask investors to come,” he says. “When we came, everybody thought we were sharks and after a few years they discovered we were not sharks, but people who came to do something out of our hearts and [a] determination to do something.” Masri is a resilient investor. Even throughout the years of the destructive intifada, which crippled the Palestinian economy and nearly bankrupted the Palestinian Authority. “We established a lot, but then the intifada came. We kept close to the investment we had in PADICO and thank God we have the Palestine Telecommunications Co., which carried a lot of our investment. The environment during the intifada was not good for investment, but I stayed there to protect what we had. By staying there I earned a lot of respect from people,” says Masri. PADICO earned nearly US$34 million in 2004 compared with US$8 million the year before. With the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian president, Masri believes there is a window of opportunity for Palestinians to build their economy. “There are so many things that Palestine needs and I think the democratic Palestinian independent state will help a lot to attract capital,” Masri says. Masri says he believes in Abu Mazen because he “is clean, credible and honest”. He believes Abu Mazen’s success largely depends on the support he gets from the Palestinian people and, most of all, if the Israelis and the Americans support him. “The most important thing to have is the national unity among Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah. Abu Mazen has to show that he is a president for all [Palestinians] and he has to accommodate all these movements together. He shouldn’t appear as a Fatah president but a president for all the Palestinians and I think he will do it.” Despite a new page in Palestinian history, Masri admits he suffered a severe blow when his long-time friend Yasser Arafat died last year in Paris. “We were friends since 1963. When his friends weren’t there for him, very often I was,” he says, adding that he was: “A true phenomenon. If independence comes we owe it to him. He lived for Palestine. He drank and smelled Palestine. He was a brave man when it came to [making] decisions. He struggled to do his best, but needed help with management.” Masri was with Arafat to the very end, and is suspicious about Arafat’s death. He doesn’t rule anything out. “His death was not natural. I saw him the past two years. The same thing happened to him in 2003, but he had enough immunity to pass it [then]. The same symptoms occurred in 2004, but his immunity was low. [Arafat] felt there was something wrong with this health,” explains Masri. He adds, “Most of the doctors who saw him couldn’t trace that there was poison, but it was a possibility. He is buried with a secret. I don’t discount that Israel could have killed him because of the attitude of the Israelis before and after [his death].” When asked why he didn’t accept to be the first prime minister when Arafat offered him the position, Masri says he wasn’t the right man for the job and that Abu Mazen was in a better position. “I thought about it for four days and then said that I would like very much for [Arafat] to relieve me of this. I declined and said Abu Mazen can do a better job, and another thing is that it was tough to work with Abu Ammar. I couldn’t see eye-to-eye in managing the affairs of the ministry with Abu Ammar. I loved the man, but I could not agree with him in the way he used to run the country,” explains Masri. Arafat who dubbed Masri the Palestinian Hariri offered him the position again after Abu Mazen resigned because of differences with Arafat and again a month before he died. “It was very difficult to do what I wanted to do without coming head-to-head with Abu Ammar. I wanted to have a technocrat government,” says Masri. Like most people, Masri would like to see two states living side by side in peace. For Palestinians, he says, his number one preference is an independent Palestine with a referendum later on regarding unification with Jordan or a confederation. If this doesn’t, work then a secular state with Israel is “fine”, he says, but adds, such an eventuality is “like utopia because then the Zionist doctrine will fall. It doesn’t go with the Zionist doctrine because they want a pure Jewish state and this is so strange that a state is built on religion. I think they have to rethink this.” Masri’s success in business and the ability to be a skilful middleman and politician have, over the years, also meant he could engage himself in philanthropic activities. Along with other Palestinian businessmen and intellectuals, he set up The Welfare Association, a private non-profit organisation based in Geneva which has collected over US$150 million over the years by drawing on the wealthy Palestinian Diaspora to help finance Palestinian nation-building activities, from financing education to supporting Palestinian refugees. Philanthropy aside, Masri is also a scavenger of sorts and has a keen interest in architecture. He has a very hard time parting with anything he’s acquired over the years. His home, called Palestine House, in Nablus, Palestine, is a mansion reminiscent of a structure one might have come across during the Greek or Roman periods. The inspiration for it was a palladium Masri saw when he was 18 in Chicago. “I am an avid collector. I like to enjoy things. I like to collect art from the Romantic period; I like impressionism, things from the 17th century, from the European renaissance, the Islamic renaissance,” explains Masri enthusiastically. In his office in Jordan he has a number of paintings, but a Madonna by a student of Raffaello Sanzi the Italian painter and architect of the Italian High Renaissance stands out. In his home he has several paintings that stretch across the length of the walls of his living room and there is a Picasso as well. Like most successful businessmen, Masri is both envied and admired. Some describe him as a shrewd businessman. But Masri says he’s nothing of the sort. “People give me more than I deserve when they say I am a shrewd businessman. I am a hard worker, a good negotiator and a philanthropist. All my sons are better than me. I’m not easily duped and am modest,” he says laughing. “We are not traders or merchants. Luck surely helped me a great deal, but the reality is I am far from being a shrewd businessman. I am good at negotiations; if I believe in something, I negotiate well. Everything I have bought I don’t know how to sell. The businessman knows when to buy and when to sell. All the property I bought I never sold and it now weighs multiple its value.” There is no doubting that Masri's place is already secure in Palestinian history. But he insists power has never been a factor in anything he has done. He says the most important thing is “to be in touch and at ease with yourself. I lead a very simple but busy life”. ||**||

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