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Samih Sawiris
The Man Who Saw Magic in the Mist

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Words Ken BaronImages Mario Depicolzuane

Samih Sawiris is not afraid to be misunderstood. The son of Egyptian construction magnate Onsi Sawiris made his name and expanded his fortune by seeing things that, well, aren’t there. No, not ghosts, but entire towns.

Where other developers perceive only rocky wastelands, empty deserts, or barren coastlines, the founder of Orascom Development sees unlimited potential. He sees hotels, schools, hospitals, restaurants, marinas, and more. In short, he imagines finished towns sprouting out of empty, undesired landscapes. And sprout they do—in Egypt, Montenegro, and Switzerland—proving that with a lot of vision and even more patience, the impossible can become the incredible.

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“How many people will tell you, ‘My job is to build towns!'?”

Samih Sawiris

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Mamula Island sits near the quiet coastal town of Herceg Novi

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People describe you as a businessman or real estate developer, but given that you almost always start with empty land—a completely blank canvas—one might say that you are an artist. Do you see yourself as a creative person?

I really don’t like this description “businessman” because a businessperson is all about making money, and I am not as interested in making money as I am in creating successful venues. I’m willing to give up profit if I’ve created a sustainable, well-developed project. But artist? Well, I will accept the compliment and say, “Thank you!”

You studied in Berlin before the wall came down. That must have been an interesting and exciting place to be as a young man.

Oh yes! At that time, Berlin was a really wild town. The students were constantly striking. There were all these leftist movements. And you could open a bar in the basement of your house without a license, so every building had its own bar! It was a chaotic but very exciting time. One memory that I will never forget: witnessing a traffic jam at 2:30am. There wasn’t even an accident; it was summer, so everybody was out in the street partying. And also at this time in history, music, art, and culture were subsidized tremendously by the German government, which did whatever it took to show that West Berlin was great and East Berlin was shit! So, yes, the result was I had a very rich life those five years. I mean, I don’t think anybody saw Herbert von Karajan more than I did, practically every second night. He was the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and turned that orchestra into the greatest on the planet. I lived next to the Philharmonie. His concerts were sold out years ahead, but I would go ten-minutes-to-eight every night and find someone with an extra ticket to sell.

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Sawiris enjoys a morning coffee and good conversation at Mamula's Atrium

“When you have been exposed to several cultures throughout your life, it changes who you are.”

Samih Sawiris

You have a reputation for being an amazing host. What makes a great dinner party or gathering?

Vary the age, vary the nationality, and make sure that the guests don’t know each other—then you have the best dinner ever. It’s true! That’s how I do my dinners. I’ll cook for eight or ten people, and I’ll make sure to invite the husband one time and then the wife to a different dinner, but not both together; otherwise, it ends up being four couples sitting around basically just repeating things they already know about each other.

Any especially memorable events or gatherings with friends?

They are all memorable! But listen, people become much freer when they are among strangers. So for me when I host, by design I make sure to have different ages, sexes, and professions. You’ll have a young physician, an old painter, a banker, a writer. And they love it because it is very rare for them to be in a social setting with such people. Normally, doctors hang out with doctors, artists with artists, etc. But when you do this tutti-fruity mix, it becomes a very interesting evening; the conversation jumps all over the place. This is my formula for success. And it has never failed me!

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The catch of the day at local restaurant Ribarsko Selo, on the coast across from Mamula

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Belavista Square, in Herceg Novi, is home to a pretty church and a number of restaurants

Ok, moving back to your nine-to-five life, how old were you when your father relinquished his business to you and your brothers?

He didn’t give us his business. But he did give us something that was worth millions—the right to call our company after his company: Orascom. My brothers and I each started a business in a field that most interested us. I started a company called Orascom Touristic. One of my brothers started a company called Orascom Telecom. Another started a company called Orascom Construction. Having my father’s company name gave us immediate credibility and access to opportunities. It was like getting brand equity worth millions. But moneywise, he was quite strict, and he said, “You have to do it yourself.” I got $60,000 from him to start my company. This was his way of helping without spoiling us.

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Your projects seem to be about long-term commitments. Luštica Bay, for example, is an entire town that you are building on the Montenegro coast. Not many people have the patience for that kind of undertaking.

I have a lot of patience and the persistence to take as much time as is needed to turn a project into what I have envisioned in my dreams. But I am better at envisioning than at convincing. I fail miserably at getting others to imagine what I imagine. Before my projects are done, I’m just happy if people don’t make fun of me. For example, who can imagine a town growing up from nothing in the middle of the desert? But then, when my projects are finished, they get it.

So, for you, development is all about trusting your gut and intuition. Do you have a philosophy for hospitality?

I need people to be happy because they are the ones, not me, who are ultimately creating that all-important sense of community.

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The water polo club Jadran, in Herceg Novi

But it takes a long time to build a community. You can’t easily factor community into bottom-line building costs, can you?

Everything I do takes 15 to 20 years before it starts making money. But if I build a town correctly, with a long-term vision and not a make-money attitude, it will live forever; it will continue to grow and, yes, ultimately make money because all the commercial real estate, the hospitals, the schools, the entire town is something we own. Listen, I don’t like competition, so I’ve never done business in competitive environments. I learned early on that 99 percent of businesspeople do not have the patience to wait 10 or 15 years for a return on their investment. They are not satisfied with value creation because for them cash is more important. That’s why I got into a niche where I have no competition—I mean how many people will tell you, “My job is to build towns!?”

When did you first visit Montenegro? What are your ties to the country?

About fifteen years ago the government of Montenegro was made up of very young people. The Minister of Tourism was 26. The Minister of Economy was 32. The Prime Minister was 37. And they all went to kitesurf at El Gouna, the town in Egypt that I built on the Red Sea [once barren desert land, El Gouna is now home to hotels, restaurants, marinas, golf courses, health and wellness facilities, education institutions, co-working spaces, private residences, and more]. These government officials were super impressed that an entire town was built from nothing, and they asked me to replicate that model in Montenegro. That’s how my relationship with the country started, with Luštica Bay.

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If you look at Luštica Bay now, you see an entire small city. Was there once really nothing there?

Nothing! But if you want to get a lot of land and not pay much, then you have to go to spots that nobody wants. You cannot go to London and try to find 2 million square meters. That’s why all our projects are on green fields, on huge land banks, because that was the gameplan: You take a lot of land that is basically worthless, and then slowly start to make it interesting—and therefore more valuable. That’s how you make money.

Your father made his name and great wealth in the trading business. As a young man, did you feel pressure or competition to succeed, to do better than your brothers?

No, there was no competition between my brothers and me because we have always been friends. Also, we didn’t work together; we each were in a different sector. So, depending on the world economy, each of us had our boom time. Once, I was the biggest. Then it was telecom. Then it was construction. The beauty of our setup, and this was thanks to my father, was that though my brothers and I were in different business sectors, he ordered us to be partners. So it didn’t really matter who was making what—at the end of the day, we were all shareholders in all of the companies.

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Poolside at Mamula Island

“Before my projects are done, I’m just happy if people don’t make fun of me. But then, when they are finished, they get it.”

Samih Sawiris

But now you are giving up a large part of your future role in your business to your son. Is that hard for you to do?

I own 51 percent of the company in Switzerland. My son owns 49 percent. So I’m still the boss there! [laughs]. But everywhere else, he has 100 percent; he’s the boss. No, I think it’s good to bring in new blood and energy. When a company gets very big, with thousands of employees in many countries, it needs a fresh style of management. Plus, now I can focus on smaller projects that are special to me. Like Mamula.

How did you come across the Mamula Island project? Maybe it’s not the same as building an entire town, but it’s still quite an undertaking to revitalize an old island fort. What made you decide to do this?

The first time I went to Montenegro, the government officials showed me around in a helicopter. I saw an island below and I said, “What is that?! It looks so cool.” And they said, “It’s an Austro-Hungarian fortress, but you can’t have it. We are going to make it into a museum.” A dozen years passed, and they couldn’t get any money to do what they wanted. It was falling apart, being vandalized, and so on. Finally, they said to me that if I respect the site and the building codes for an antique, I could have a 49-year lease on the island. I brought in archeological experts, antiquity experts, heritage experts, a team of people to make sure that any changes we made did not alter the character of the island. It has become one of my favorite places.

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“The first time I went to Montenegro, the government officials showed me around in a helicopter. I saw an island below and I said, ‘What is that?! It looks so cool.’”

Samih Sawiris

Speaking of favorite places, you live on a yacht that moves around the Red Sea. What is it about the aquatic life that appeals to you?

I have always loved the sea and I’ve always been passionate about boats. I remember, as a young boy, my first boat was the tube of a truck tire. I asked my nanny to sew a bedsheet to the bottom of the tire so that I could sit inside it. And I’ve never stopped having boats. In fact, the first money I made was from a boat factory.

Is that why one of your hobbies is converting old ships into yachts?

Absolutely. I started refurbishing old boats with a de-mining vessel that I bought from the German navy. I transformed it into a six-room yacht. My second conversion was a Japanese government tuna fishing boat—after twenty years of use, they have to sell them and they are not suitable for anything else, which means that automatically nobody wants them. I found this old tuna boat and bought it for peanuts. Then I transformed into a yacht. And now I live on it for three months a year in the winter.

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I hear you can pilot it yourself, that you don’t need a staff.

No, no, no. Not big ships. My license stops at a boat 20 to 30 meters long. But yes, those I can run myself. I’ve been doing that for ages.

Does the rocking motion of the ocean make you feel calm?

I think the closeness of water is what I mentally need to feel free.

I guess it’s a lot of water and not a lot of people.

Yes, I think the water around a boat protects one from feeling overly involved in things; you are on your own. If you want people, you go to shore. If you want friends, you have them join you on the boat. So there’s a sense of privacy and control.

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“I think the closeness of water is what I mentally need to feel free.”

Samih Sawiris

When preparing for our meeting, I watched a few YouTube interviews with you. In them, you spoke German, English, Arabic...I lost track! How many languages do you speak?

Six. Arabic, German, English, French, Spanish, and Italian—in that order of proficiency.

So do you see yourself as more Egyptian or more a citizen of the world?

I don’t think I’m your typical Egyptian anymore. I was that up until the age of 15 or 16, but going to a German school opened my eyes, my mind, and my soul to other cultures. And then later, when I started living abroad, traveling between different countries, I became, yes, a citizen of the world. So, when I am in Switzerland, I am not really Swiss, but I can adjust. When I am in Egypt, I am not really Egyptian anymore, but I can adjust. The fact is when you have been exposed to several cultures throughout your life, it changes who you are.

And that life has been such a rich one, with so many experiences. Looking back, is there one experience that means the most to you?

Six years ago, when I started to give away the company and slow down the business, I decided to learn how to play the piano. I worked very hard at it. And just recently I performed with an orchestra in a public hall. It was amazing!

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