PERCHED HIGH ON Mount Gerizim, overlooking the urban bustle of the West Bank city of Nablus, stands an imposing Italianate villa, magnificent with a 16th-century sculpture of Hercules, a glasshouse originally built by Napoleon for his wife Josephine and a 120-seat Roman-style amphitheatre. The house was built by Palestine’s richest man, Munib Masri, and is now the base from which the 77-year old resident directs his business and philanthropic activities.
Masri owes his fortune to Edgo, the oil and gas services company he founded in 1956 and one of the first private engineering companies to emerge in the Middle East. Today, he leaves most of the day-to-day running of the company to his sons, preferring to devote the majority of his time to his real passion: Palestinian philanthropy and social issues.
Returning to his home country following the signature of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Masri encouraged fifteen fellow Palestinian businessmen to help him set up the Palestine Development and Investment Company (Padico), which now makes up a quarter of the Palestinian economy. He was a close friend and confidant of late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and was seen as instrumental in forging a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation earlier this year. But despite his political clout Masri has consistently turned down formal positions within the Palestinian government.
For Masri, the ongoing failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is both a political and a personal tragedy. In May this year his grandson was critically injured when Israeli troops fired on a Nakba demonstration, commemorating the anniversary of the 1948 exodus of 700,000 Palestinians, on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Sophie McBain
Josh Spero: I am sorry to hear about your grandson, who was injured last week during a demonstration. Is he making progress?
Munib Masri: What happened to my grandson was very bad. But I mean, there were over 120 people injured, 37 critically. Of the 37 critically injured, he was the most injured unfortunately. The bullet came from 15 metres away, it went through his side, it damaged his spinal cord and exploded through his kidney and his spleen.
JS: And this was during a peaceful protest?
MM: He is a university student and was participating in a peaceful march along with many of his classmates and thousands of Palestinians and Lebanese. He was fifteen or twenty metres away from the border, and he was not even facing the Israeli soldiers when they shot him.
JS: You’ve been very heavily involved in efforts to try and create a Palestinian state.
MM: That’s very true. For the last 40 years I’ve been working very hard on the peace process and creating a Palestinian state that could live in peace with Israel. Unfortunately what I hear from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is that he does not want peace. I wish that he’d gone to Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority] and said to our president, ‘Let’s make peace together,’ rather than going to Congress. I wish he could have done something like what President Sadat did when he flew to Jerusalem. He can, but he doesn’t want to.
JS: Do you think he’s reflecting the desire of the Israeli people, or do you think it’s his own political need?
MM: The majority of the Israeli population want peace, but Netanyahu is a prisoner of his coalition, and he wants to stay in power. So I don’t think he’s representative of the people. A lot of coalition partners don’t want peace, and I think Netanyahu is putting his own desires and those of a minority ahead of the majority that they should be serving.
JS: Do you think then that there will be no two states as long as he’s in power?
MM: We have offered him to have two states, but he didn’t want that. It’s up to him and those who keep him in power and have influence over him. But the Palestinians, in spite of all this, are marching towards peace, and they hope to have an Israeli leadership that will fulfil the wish for peace. My dream is to have a strong and productive peace, not just peace of any sort, that will allow us to live side by side with Israel and allow both states to flourish.
JS: Would the ideal be not two states, but one state where people lived together?
MM: We’ve been working on the two-state solution for the last 40 years. When the Israelis wish for one state, they want a Jewish state. Nobody has a religious state except the Vatican now. The Vatican is only one square kilometre, and everybody there is Christian anyway. But you cannot have, say, a Jewish state, when that means no right of return for Palestinians and refugees, and no place for Christians or Muslims in Israel. That would not be a just state if the rights of minorities (which some day could be the majority!) are not respected and treated equally.
JS: And you have been heavily involved in Palestinian efforts to reach a two-state solution.
MM: I was involved with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. I’ve been involved with everybody, but after Rabin we haven’t had a real leader in Israel. Rabin seemed sincere in his wish for peace and I told him how he made one mistake during the massacre at Hebron mosque, I told him, ‘This is your best time to stop building colonies or settlements,’ but he did not listen. At that time there were 40,000 or 45,000 settlements, and now we have half a million. So I have always been involved in trying to make peace.
JS: You were offered the position of prime minister in Palestine?
MM: During Yasser Arafat’s leadership, yes, I was offered three times. I thought at the time that Abu Mazen was a better fit for this role so I told him he should be our President. And now I’ve been nominated again as a candidate for Prime Minister, but I feel I could do more outside the government than inside the government.
JS: What are you able to do? I mean, you’re a very successful businessman and you know many senior people, but how much effect —
MM: I worked very hard on the most important thing for us, which was the reconciliation [between Fatah and Hamas], and we have succeeded. Now we need governments and states who are not hypocrites, who will say, ‘It’s time, the Palestinians have done everything in the book to prove that they can build their state.’
JS: Do you think there’s been a failure of Palestinian leadership, in the sense that Yasser Arafat was respected but sometimes he didn’t work for the best for the Palestinians, and then there were the money laundering allegations?
MM: I must tell you you’re asking the wrong man. I think Yasser Arafat was a great leader, and he was a hero. Of course he made some mistakes like any other person, but Yasser Arafat was a hero for Palestine. And this is the way we will remember him forever. He was the one that brought me back to Palestine, he brought hundreds of thousands back to Palestine, and he brought back the dream to make a Palestinian state. He made it, although he accepted 22 per cent of the land of historical Palestine, something he accepted because he wanted to make peace, and for this he needed to compromise. Arafat was a great hero despite having made some mistakes.
JS: Of course heroes aren’t perfect. Can we talk about your career as a businessman?
MM: I’m much more interested in resolving the problems of the Palestinians than business, but I will answer you. You know, most of all, the Palestinian problem is a political problem, not an economic one. It’s been a political problem from day one until now. No matter what we do, we as businesspeople, we try to protect the land and the Palestinians. That’s why we created Padico which makes up 25 per cent of the Palestinian economy. We Palestinians from inside and outside ought to help the political problem. Padico is very nationalistic, but at the same time it is successful.
We own over 25 companies here in Palestine: three companies are successful and the rest are not making money, because of the Israeli occupation. Nobody can do anything under the occupation. We’re trying, but it’s like swimming upstream. The Israeli occupation is the worst enemy of economic prosperity. We are trying to create businesses, to create jobs, to create health care, education. We’re trying our best, but we cannot succeed if the occupation continues.
JS: Tell me how you came to set up Edgo, your company.
MM: Edgo is a family company that I started in 1956, which is involved in geological surveys, oil and gas services and water. We are involved in a range of activities and sectors, but we are mainly an oil services company. I’m a geologist, and my wife’s a geologist. However, I now spend most of my time in Palestine where I concentrate on Padico, as the Chairman of the company. We set it up in 1994 after the Oslo agreement, in order to help with the peace process and building of the state.
JS: How have you found dealing with the governments of the Middle East, particularly given the disruption in many of the countries you work in like Algeria, Libya and Egypt?
MM: We have a lot of local partners and we have never really had any problem with any governments because we target the private sector more than the public sector, and are careful to respect the laws and regulations of any given country. We always try to steer clear of politics, and focus instead on offering our services and help to local businesses and individuals, and we are very professional in our approach.
JS: Had you always wanted to start your own business, and was it difficult founding Edgo?
MM: Always. When I got back from the States [where he went to university], I set up a company called Jordan Engineering and Geological Services, from day one of my arrival in Jordan. Of course founding Egdo in 1956 was a difficult thing. I was managing an oil company called Phillips Petroleum Company in the region at the same time, but they allowed me to form a business of my own.
JS: What did you learn in America about business that you took back to the Middle East?
MM: I went to school in Texas, and in America I learned how to work hard, very hard, to be professional and then hope for some luck. I have been hard-working in all the places I’ve been, and luck was, most of the time, with me. I work eighteen hours a day, and all of my children do the same.
JS: But when did you retire from Edgo?
MM: I continue to be Chairman of Edgo, but I focus my efforts on Padico and Palestine now. This year Padico took home a profit of 8 per cent, which is magical under the suffocating weight of occupation. It’s a miracle to do that.
JS: Tell me about your philanthropy.
MM: Yes, I’ve set up the Munib R Masri Foundation. We started around 1970, teaching students and giving scholarships, now currently we are building an institute at the American University of Beirut, called the Munib and Angela Masri Institute of Natural Resources, and we are finishing a library at the University of Jerusalem. We are setting up an IT college and research institute and we’re doing another project in the University of Palestine in Gaza. We have a very robust foundation. We are involved primarily with education and healthcare. I would rather be a philanthropist than a businessman. Now I can afford to say that.
We would like to do a lot of things in Palestine, but unfortunately few people return to Palestine in these troubled times, except for the very nationalistic. The Israeli occupation is the enemy of investment. They say that capital is always a coward – it wants to see returns, stability, and a plan for the long-term. And in Palestine we live on a daily basis, sometimes on an hourly basis, to see what the Israeli army is going to do, are they going to close this check point, or open the other check point? It’s terrible. I wouldn’t even wish it upon my enemies, the situation we have in Palestine.
But we are succeeding where we can and we see the light at the end of the tunnel – that this occupation will soon end, a Palestinian state will emerge and our people can live in the peace and prosperity that most other nations in the world take for granted.
JS: Now we’re back on to the political situation, what effect do you think the Arab Spring has had on Palestine?
MM: I think Palestine will benefit a lot from the Arab Spring, because they feel they will have a stronger Arab platform, that they will be heard and will be more powerful. They don’t care what the West is going to give them as aid. They are seeing more independence. They feel that they can make the right decisions, the best decisions, for their countries.
JS: So they’re less likely to acquiesce to America saying, ‘Support Israel,’ and they will have more independence?
MM: I think you are absolutely right. Many Arabs and Palestinians are educated in America and they have a great respect for its people and ideals, but they wonder why America pursues a double standard in its foreign policy. When it comes to Palestine and Israel, they put Israel first, second and third! We don’t oppose them liking and supporting Israel, but at the same time, we want them to be fair, because our cause is just.
The problem of Palestine is that most world powers are not dealing in a just way and even-handedly as far as Palestine is concerned. We need justice; we need the world’s justice. And we need peace, we need the media, we need people like you who could write things about this. We don’t want to be favoured, but we want justice, that’s all.