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February 10, 2011updated 08 Jan 2016 5:45pm

Gift of the Gabr

By Spear's

As Egypt enters a turbulent new period in its history, the role of smart, charismatic, outward-looking business leaders such as Shafik Gabr will only become increasingly important, says Josh Spero
WHEN I VISITED Egypt in November, Tahrir Square, Cairo’s central plaza, home to the hideous pink-orange Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, girdled with luxury hotels’ building sites and six lanes of traffic playing pinball with one another, was just another one of Cairo’s bright, dirty public spaces, where the polluted air throttled tourists and locals alike.

At the time of publication, it is occupied by half a million people protesting against the autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak, the crowds swelling as they enter a second week of demonstrations and riots sparked by the fall of the Tunisian president. The outcome seems set — people scream on the nightly news of accepting death rather than dictatorship — but the path to that resolution is unclear.

All this was of course in the future when I flew out to interview Mohammed Shafik Gabr, Egypt’s second-wealthiest man, but discontent among people I met in the markets and mosques was vocal, powerful. They talked about their poverty — UNICEF says nearly half of under-eighteens live on less than $2 a day, while one-fifth of the whole population lives on the same, according to the World Bank.

One man, who had qualified as a lawyer but earned very little, used an Egyptian proverb, referring to the protection money brings, ‘If you have a front, no-one beats you on your back.’ Many of the Cairenes I met were feeling beaten on their back, and the riots and protests which started in January bore this out.

The homes of the middle classes in Cairo have been attacked by mobs furious at their relatively comfortable lives and their own unemployment and poverty, but they are unlikely to reach the headquarters of Gabr’s company, ARTOC, and his home, which are in the suburb of Mokattam, in the mountains to the east of Cairo. After the choking air of central Cairo, where every scene appears to be an Impressionist painting with the pollution softly diffusing the light, the breathing-room of Mokattam explains its Beverly Hills-ish attraction.

It is not Impressionism but Orientalism which has taken Gabr’s fancy. His house, cool with marble and carved into the hillside, is a museum for his collection, acquired over the past twenty years, which says something about his bravery as a collector: 19th-century Orientalism has only just come back into fashion after many decades of scorn. Critics derided the genre as naïve or patronising, Western European painters caricaturing the simple folk of the East. Edward Said’s Orientalism proved fatal, imbuing every West-East interaction with colonial overtones. After Said, everything we thought about the East — even the concept of ‘the East’ — was a function of our structural disregard for it.

At first glance, you can understand why these paintings have led to cultural cringe. Ludwig Deutsch’s A Gathering around the Morning News, Cairo has a turbaned man reading the paper outside the souk to his illiterate friends who stare on in wonder, while a popular composition of the genre is fortune-tellers making their predictions to befezzed men as incense burns in the background. Nubian guards stand outside elaborate Moorish palaces, a sandstorm blows up as laundry hangs across streets, young girls in local costumes stare wistfully at the painter.

These images define ‘the East’ for many people, a land of homogeneous wonder and reflective mystique, from an era when these were our only source of information about what Egypt looked like. If they are documentary pieces, they are of a world which only existed when a painter turned up and chocolate-boxed it.

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Gabr thinks differently. As we walk into his study, triple-height with bookshelves, he talks about these painters as messengers, bringing back the news of the East to the West, well-intentioned instead of patronising. In these paintings he sees the desire of the West to connect with the East. He talks of the ‘misperception’ that existed then and exists now of the East by the West, seeing the paintings as a bridge between the two, their painters ‘early globalisers’.

The world seems to be coming round to Gabr’s view, with major Orientalist shows in Europe and record prices being paid at auction. The Art Newspaper has reported that an index of Orientalist artists, based at 920 in 1976, reached 52,524 in October 2010. (By contrast, European Impressionists reached 26,651 from base 1,014.)

In the foreword to the heavy-duty catalogue of his paintings, lavishly produced with glossy reproductions and scholarly essays, Gabr puts up the sort of defence someone from the West would have a hard time making: the world of the painters ‘was not a world of greed and exploitation: they were respectful onlookers’. (Compare this to the early Egyptologists with their ‘dubious intentions’.) ‘They could sit at a street corner and paint … and find in a seemingly mundane and everyday scene (that you can still see in Cairo’s streets today) something that touches the essence of our culture.’

The reason he collects these works, he says, is pride in his culture, and it is not a problem that these paintings represent ‘all that is exotic and romantic about the Orient’, since those are the aspects Gabr clearly admires.

That Gabr does (or at least did, when we met) still admire Cairo for its exoticism and romanticism is the true surprise, not his love of the art which embodies it. After all, there is little about Cairo which immediately strikes a visitor — let along a resident — as romantic. Most of its buildings are the dull daydreams of a town-planner who thought concrete was both practical and aesthetic. Walking the streets for a prolonged period will give you bronchitis.

Inside Cairo’s grandest museum, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, where much of Tutankhamun’s jewellery is kept, thousands of visitors all crowd round the same sarcophagi, making a din which could wake Akhenaten, their tour guides sticking yellow umbrellas into the air for attention. In January 2011, rioters and looters — freed criminals? government plants? — will have torn through here and smashed some statues.
GABR’S FATHER WAS a diplomat under Nasser’s post-monarchical republic who took his family abroad before returning to set up his own business in e early Seventies — Egypt’s 62nd in its nascent private sector, according to its company registration number. The business dealt with infrastructure: ‘You have to understand,’ Gabr says, ‘in Egypt in 1971, the infrastructure was in a poor state. There were power shortages, brown-outs.’ Egypt was also between the 1967 and 1973 wars, with windows blacked out and sandbags protecting every external door.

Worse, the economy was in a terrible state because 80 per cent of GDP came from state-owned companies, and their only trading partners were the Soviet Union and its bloc. (Now 80 per cent is from the private sector.) His father’s success came from what must have been a rather daring move at the time: he started doing business with American and Western European firms. The projects were based around infrastructure: airports, water treatment plants, major construction endeavours. The methods of construction were pioneering and innovative.

In his determination to instil a work ethic in his son, Gabr’s father cut him off: no more allowance after the age of sixteen; a loan for the American University in Cairo which would have to be repaid if he didn’t get a scholarship (he did); no money for graduate school at Wharton, forcing Gabr to go to London and work at an investment bank while pursuing further studies; no job at his father’s company — at least until his father went travelling and Gabr managed to persuade the executives to give him one. ‘When he came back, he wasn’t too happy,’ Gabr says, which sounds like an understatement of paternal anger. His father labelled him the ‘company gofer’, and in the late Seventies, he fired him.

That’s when he joined the Arab Trade and Oil Company, a European-Middle Eastern joint venture ‘teetering on bankruptcy’. Gabr worked without salary for almost a year, then joined as the deputy managing director. As he climbed up the company, turning it around, he acquired its shares until eventually he owned it. The daring market he broke into was, ironically, the one his father had been trying to escape, but now that Eastern Europe was liberalising after years of communism, it provided ripe new opportunities. ‘Out biggest strength was we were able to be entrepreneurial and go into areas where we were pioneering, such as cell phones, which played an instrumental role in countries with very few fixed landlines.’

Back in Egypt, ARTOC was dealing with the legacy of the government’s failure to modernise, building potable water plants, power plants and airport terminals. (Today, ARTOC deals in real estate, publishing and cars, as well as its core infrastructure and oil businesses, in 32 countries.) An entire class of Egyptian entrepreneurs is needed for these tasks, as Mubarak has not dealt with them and a nascent democracy may not be able to.

Equally, this legacy required a philanthropic contribution to society, and Gabr pays for medical caravans and primary schools, the basic services of health and education for tens of thousands of Cairenes. A certificate in his house commemorates the American University in Cairo’s theatre and performing arts building named after his daughter. Is Egypt a failed state, then, since it takes a philanthropist to provide these services? ‘Egypt is not a failed state,’ Gabr says when we meet in his office, ‘but it definitely needs the resources of all its people to emerge and compete in today’s global world.’

Gabr now finds himself, through his philanthropic activities, in the vanguard of the twenty-first century’s most important movement. He and his fellow billionaires around the world are finding solutions to problems the state has neglected, failed at or simply not taken enough of an interest in. This movement is most visible in organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has an endowment principally comprised of the Gates and Buffett fortunes: it is trying to wipe out polio and malaria, sidestepping corrupt or inefficient governments with the acumen for innovation which made them wealthy in the first place. If the twentieth century saw the growth of the state, this century is seeing billionaires disregard it and substitute their own structures for it, taking over its functions and improving on its failings.

‘I don’t believe governments can solve everything,’ he says, uttering the credo of this movement. ‘We need to have a partnership between government, the private sector, NGOs and the population at large.’ As well as his projects in Egypt, Gabr supports a research centre into cerebral palsy in Illinois, a hospital in Gaza, New York women’s initiatives, a scheme to combat human trafficking and many educational institutions around the world.
WE TALK AGAIN after the revolution in Tunisia, just as the revolution in Egypt is starting, before Gabr heads to Davos, and whereas most businessmen are silent on politics, preferring platitudes to attitudes, Gabr is open with his thoughts on whether the same sort of thing could happen in Egypt. He talks of his own experience trying to do business in Tunisia, where captains of industry wouldn’t even say the president’s name. ‘The middle class was thriving but was not paying any attention to a growing frustration of youth unemployment,’ he says, but this is different from Egypt, where a ‘huge open free press’ which ‘criticises everyone, even up to the president’ provides a safety valve. Mubarak could even win a free election, in his opinion. A week later, this is proved thoroughly, indelibly wrong.
THERE WAS A dinner at Gabr’s house on the Sunday evening of my visit to honour the vice-president of Yale, Dr Linda Lorimer; Gabr was the keynote speaker at a forum of emerging global leaders at Yale in 2009 and is keen on strengthening the take-up of Egyptian students by Ivy League universities. Gabr, who seems possessed of a perpetually cheerful demeanour, greets his guests, some of Egypt’s most significant people, with smiles and jokes. At table, over smoked salmon and venison, one of Egypt’s top oilmen chats to the head of the Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement. The head of a bank sits across from the consul general of the American Embassy in Egypt. A strong and influential nexus surrounds Gabr.

The dinner is in fact an impromptu celebration because Dr Lorimer has arrived a day early. A larger party is planned for Monday evening, when the ballroom in ARTOC’s headquarters will fill up with two hundred Cairenes and Yalies from the Arab world. Elaborately-arranged tables of canapés and miniature macaroons and chocolate fountains surround the room. There is nothing strongly suggestive of Egypt in the refreshments or food, although the room’s walls are pharaonically-inspired, Gabr says; they express his pride in that civilisation and what it brought the world in medicine, astrology and agriculture.

However, it seems that it is a westernising wind which blows through Cairene high society, an assimilation which almost rejects the enduring Egyptian identity embodied in Gabr’s collection of paintings. Gabr may embrace the Orientalists for a timeless glimpse into Egypt, but everything else about him and ARTOC suggests Egypt is emerging into the world. With the protests on the streets, it seems that Egypt’s people are finally acting for the same thing.

From top: Jean-Léon Gérôme’s La Mosquée Bleue (1878); Ludwig Deutsch’s The Nubian Guard (1896); Deutsch’s A Gathering around the Morning News, Cairo (1885). Images courtesy of M. Shafik Gabr

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