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.

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