“I have always been a bridge-builder, and been able to create an environment where people can have dialogue and form partnerships.”
— M. Shafik Gabr
Shafik Gabr’s immaculately trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard is the face of industry in the Arab world. Over the past many years now, Gabr has been a willing and authoritative source of opinion for the global media on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, especially on its business. So much so that in the various “World’s Most Influential Arabs” lists, the name ‘Shafik Gabr’ is a permanent fixture.
Gabr, who was born in 1952, is chairman and managing director of Egypt’s ARTOC Group for Investment & Development. An international conglomerate modeled like an investment holding company, ARTOC, through its subsidiaries, has interests across sectors — real estate, engineering, technology, consumer products, and publishing, among others. The value of all the assets ARTOC manages is a little over $1 billion. And according to Forbes, Gabr himself is worth around three quarters of a billion dollars. Not an eye popping fortune in a region known for its gilded palaces and gold-plated cars, but Gabr’s reputation stems more from his reach than his riches.
A consummate networker, he flies around the world in his Gulfstream-200 business jet, tirelessly promoting the Arab region in the global business community. Gabr has connections across the globe, and he likes to count among his friends and acquaintances heads of state, business leaders, and the who’s who of Washington D.C. In fact, former U.N. secretary generals and serving ambassadors are known to attend the much-talked-about parties at his palatial hillside mansion in one of Cairo’s toniest neighborhoods, Mokattam.
Yet, Gabr is no run-of-the-mill lobbyist. His CV is crowded with the prestigious positions he has held while employing his extraordinary capacity to make the right friends in the right places. He is a founder and past president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt as well as a former chairman of the Council of Advisers (MENA Region) at the World Bank. In the early 2000s, Gabr had also helped establish the now-disbanded Arab Business Council to promote economic reforms among MENA countries. But perhaps it is Egypt and the ARTOC Group that have benefited the most from Gabr’s hectic contact-building.
Gabr’s father Adel Gabr had set up the Adel Gabr Consultant Company in 1971 soon after retiring from the Foreign Service. In its early days, the firm acted as a bridge to Egypt for American and European companies. Under Gabr senior’s watch, the company did evolve into ARTOC or Arab Trade & Oil Co., but it was only after Shafik Gabr took over its helm in 1980 that the organization started expanding not just in scope but also beyond Egypt to other emerging economies.
ARTOC now operates mainly through partnerships, which Gabr is quite clearly adept at creating. But what is more remarkable is that the ARTOC Group is one among just a handful of large Arab companies that are not owned either directly by the state or by a state-owned entity. The MENA regional economy is dominated by government-owned enterprises. Noteworthy private-sector firms in the area are rare, tending to be either too small or too short of capital to undertake big money-guzzling projects. Significantly, Gabr has been able to attract large private investments for ARTOC ventures in Egypt, where even the Army’s business interests, besides those of other government bodies, account for 10% of the country’s GDP.
In the Arab world today, Gabr, who is married and has one daughter, is as much a business leader as he is a philanthropist. He runs the Mohamed Shafik Gabr Foundation for Social Development, which funds various education, health, sports training, and cultural projects. But he is also well known in an entirely different area. Gabr is a celebrated collector of Orientalist Art or a form of paintings that depict Middle Eastern street life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The paintings were made by American and European artists, who traveled through the region for weeks and months, absorbing the culture and imbibing a new way of life. Gabr, whose Orientalist Art collection is worth around $40 million, is known to be fascinated by these painters. “I see them as early globalists, who brought the Arab world to the West. They were bridge builders,” Gabr has said in an arabianbusiness.com report.
It is easy to see from where he draws his inspiration. For, clearly, if there was a modern-day globalist, Shafik Gabr would be one.
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© Thomas White International, Ltd. 2019