Shafik Gabr: Man with a mission - how to get the East talking to the West

The Egyptian billionaire talks to Margareta Pagano about his campaign to build bridges and defuse 'the ticking time-bomb' that threatens his region

Shafik Gabr has just published a book of his fabulous collection of Orientalist art, one of the finest in the world. He shows me one of his favourite paintings; it's of a European chatting to a group of Arab men dressed in beautiful flowing robes in the side-streets of 19th century Damascus. Even the camel is staring at the quaintly dressed man wearing a pith helmet, as do the women, their headscarves flamboyant rather than today's daunting black.

The European is the German artist himself, Gustav Bauernfiend, and Mr Gabr loves the painting because of the mutual curiosity shown between the foreigner and the locals; all the more poignant today as Syria implodes with meddling from East and West. "Do you know why I like it so much?" he says. "It's because it shows how these artists – I call them the early 'globalist travellers' – could move round the Middle East without fear or prejudice. They travelled for weeks, carrying their paints and canvases, to come to strange lands. Yet many integrated with the societies, sometimes settling for years with Arab families: it was an extraordinary period and we need to restore this respect towards each other's cultures."

And that's precisely what Mr Gabr, one of Egypt's wealthiest businessmen, hopes to do. Inspired by these Orientalists, he is launching a new East-West initiative, The Art of Dialogue, to repair relations between the Middle East and the West. His one-man mission, to change the geo- politics of "the ticking time-bomb" in the region, launches with a conference in London today. Surprisingly perhaps, ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his role leading the Middle East's Quartet group, will be one of the speakers. "I've invited him even though I didn't agree with him over Iraq. But we have to engage, even with those we disagree with," Mr Gabr says.

At the heart of his campaign is his plan to fund six "young leaders" a year from the Middle East, the US and Europe to travel and work in each other's countries. His charitable foundation will choose them from the worlds of business, arts and sciences.

"Tragically, my generation has failed to bring about constructive dialogue, so we have to look to the young to break down stereotypes and prejudices," he says. It's also ironic that in an era of 24/7 media, with Twitter and Skype, he adds, that it's become more difficult to have proper dialogue and all too often impossible to tell fact from fiction: "Religion and politics have got mixed up and that's toxic." As a Muslim from a mixed background – his mother was a Copt – he believes he has a better chance of building bridges than most. "In the West, politicians need to understand that the extremists do not represent the majority of the Muslim world. They use religion as a cover," he says.

If that is so, I ask him, why don't more in the Muslim world stand up and say so? "Apathy and fear; the radicals have a long hand," is his answer. But dialogue won't work if the West doesn't realise that most Muslims fear the radicals as much as the Western world does: "All I hear in the US these days are phrases like 'We've got to take them out' or, here in the UK, 'We've got to go to war.' It's insanity."

Mr Gabr has just arrived in London and on the desk in the Berkeley Square club where we meet he has four phones: one for Egypt, one for the UK and one for the US, the other for emails, and they keep jumping up and down. He sighs a little: "Life is hectic with the launch of my initiative. What I wouldn't do for the three S's – sun, sea and silence."

That will have to wait. He's got a company to run – he's chairman of Artoc, one of Egypt's biggest industrial companies, with interests from oil to newspapers and 3,500 employees. It has international interests too – in the UK, Czech Republic and the US – and sales in 2010 were $1.7bn (£1.1bn).

Business has been tougher, he says, since Egypt's uprising. "Egypt could soak up at least $25bn a year in overseas investment. Unemployment is rising fast and tourism is falling," he says, adding that President Mohamed Morsi's government needs to show tolerance. "Egypt is a proud country, one of the oldest in the world. There is huge potential, but we need to keep our doors open to the West and we need funds from the IMF. If we work together, it's a win-win situation." There's so much more he believes could be done to open up trade – like building a road from Morocco across to Cairo and up to Syria: "Isn't it crazy that you can't drive across North Africa? And, in some cases, you still have to fly back to Europe to travel around the Middle East."

Instead he has a 200 Gulfstream jet to fly him between his homes in London, Prague, Washington and in the foothills of Cairo, often making a detour in search of new Orientalist paintings.

No wonder Mr Gabr has such twitchy feet: his late father was a diplomat, so he grew up travelling around the world. His father also gave him backbone: "When I was 16, he stopped my allowance. This was 1967, just after the Six Day War. Our country's infrastructure was a shambles, even the phones weren't working properly. So with some friends we got on our bicycles and started delivering messages." He remembers making $148, which paid for a hiking trip around Greece. "A few years later my father called me into his office and told me if I wanted to go to the American University in Cairo, he would lend me the money but only if I won a scholarship. I got the scholarship – it was $10 a month. Enough for more hiking trips," he laughs.

After a spell in London, he joined his father's engineering business: "I was the gofer. After five years my father called me in and fired me."

So Mr Gabr offered to work for nothing for a friend at the Egyptian subsidiary of the Arab Trade and Oil Company, Artoc. After 11 months, he started being paid. Over the next few years he bought out Artoc's investors until he had full control.

He knows his latest ambition will not be so easy. Is he a dreamer perhaps? "Oh yes, I'm definitely a dreamer. If you don't dream you will never get anywhere. I push the envelope out." Yet he's an eternal optimist, and hopes President Barack Obama's re-election will give him the courage to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma. "There has to be a plan first; then all parties have to be brought in to negotiate a solution. There's no point leaving it to the local politicians to negotiate: they can't and won't." He quotes his father, who advised him during his first ever deal: "He who eats the whole cake, gets stomach ache." Let's hope the politicians get the message.

The CV: Shafik Gabr

Born 5 November 1952.

Education American University of Cairo; Studied economics and management, University of London.

Career Chairman of Artoc, an Egyptian conglomerate with interests in steel fabrication, prefabricated factories, and logistical services for oil and gas companies as well as newspapers and magazines.

Personal wealth According to Forbes magazine last year, he is ranked as Africa's 19th wealthiest man, believed to be worth $1bn (£630m).

Outside interests Chairman of Egypt's International Economic Forum and on the boards of Zurich Financial Services and MIT's Centre for International Studies.

Family life Married, one daughter.

Passion He has one of the finest private collections in the world of Orientalist art: the first painting he bought was by Deutsch, "Egyptian Priest Entering a Temple" (1892), which he bought in Paris for $3,940. Today it's worth many times that as some of the Arab world's wealthiest individuals have also started collecting, pushing prices in the art world to an all-time high. It's no surprise he disagrees strongly with the views of the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, who claimed that Orientalist art was degrading to the Arabs.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game