Sawaris, Onsi (1930–)

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Sawaris, Onsi

Onsi Sawaris is a commercial magnate, titan of industry, and billionaire entrepreneur. The political and economic trajectory of Egypt and the Middle East significantly shaped Sawaris's career in business. After his company was contracted in the socialist onslaught of Egyptian president Jamal Abd al-Nasir (Gamal Abdel Nasser) in 1961, Sawaris migrated to Libya where he rebuilt his lost fortune. Following Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's Infitah (Open Door Policy) of the late 1970s, he returned to Egypt to work with his three sons Naguib, Sameeh, and Nassef and became actively engaged in building of a new business empire for the twenty-first-century Middle East. With the myriads of opportunities offered by globalization, the Sawaris family demonstrated shrewd entrepreneurship in transforming Orascom, a modest company in the 1980s, into a conglomerate a decade later. Sawaris is the 129th richest man in the world with a fortune of $4.8 billion, according to Forbes magazine. While Africa has produced many wealthy individuals, Sawaris earned his fortunes from the biggest non-oil and non-political business empire in the Middle East.


Name: Onsi Sawaris

Birth: 1930, Sohag, Egypt

Family: Wife, Youssriya; three sons, Naguib, Sameeh, and Nassef

Nationality: Egyptian

Education: BS in agricultural engineering, Cairo University


  • 1950: Proprietor, Orascom Construction Company
  • 1961: Director, El Nasr Civil Works Company
  • 1966–1976: Self-imposed exile to Libya
  • 1976: Orascom Contracting and Trading Company
  • 1985: Contrack International Inc, Virginia
  • 1990s: Orascom Construction Industries
  • 1990s: Orascom Telecom Holding


Onsi (also Unsi) Sawaris was born in 1930 in Sohag, a Coptic Christian city in Upper Egypt. The Copts are a Christian minority in Egypt but highly represented in financial, government, and intellectual sectors. Sawaris enjoyed an early life in the Upper Egyptian gentry. His father was a lawyer and landowner. After earning a BS in agriculture engineering from Cairo University, Sawaris managed his family's land holdings rather than take a government job. From this family business, Sawaris developed a keen interest in a construction firm initially located in Upper Egypt but then rapidly expanded its operations to Cairo and the Delta areas. He married Youssriya in 1953. The couple has three sons—Naguib, the eldest, attended the Polytechnic School in Zurich; Sameeh studied engineering in Berlin; and Nassef holds a degree in economics from the University of Chicago. Each works in the family business: Naguib controls a telecommunications subsidiary; Nassef runs the corporation's construction business; and Sameeh controls the tourism and travel subsidiaries of the family business.


By the 1960s Sawaris's contracting firm used patronages from the government to grow into one of the largest construction firms in Egypt and the Middle East. He received several contracts from the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation to dig waterways and basins. He built canals and ditches that collected overflow from the Nile River, and he completed the Aswan Dam in 1970. He also won road-paving contracts. Nasir's nationalization policy halted the rapid expansion of the construction firm and shattered the business. Egypt nationalized his firm for five years, renamed the construction firm El Nasr Civil Works Company, forced Sawaris to work as an employee of the firm, and seized Sawaris's passport. Sawaris and his family migrated to the oil-rich Libya as the socio-political situation in Egypt deteriorated. Between 1966 and 1977, he was able to revive his business fortunes by constructing water works and undertaking similar projects. In 1976 he returned to Egypt and established Orascom, a general contracting and trading company with five employees. By the 1990s Orascom had transformed into an international conglomerate with operations in the entire Middle East, Africa, Europe, and the United States. The company won contracts from the U.S. Agency for International Development. In 1985, the family established Contrack International in Arlington, Virginia.

Sawaris eventually transferred management control of the conglomerate to his three sons who have embarked on ambitious diversification. The corporation has invested in cement, building materials, cinema, catering, tourism, telecommunication, and broadcasting. Naguib Sawaris established Iraqna, Iraq's first mobile phone network with over 500,000 subscribers. He also established an Iraqi television station, al-Nahrain (Two Rivers).

The Sawaris Group is the National Bank of Egypt's largest private borrower, and Orascom Construction Industries (OCI) is a leading cement producer in the region employing more than 40,000 in twenty countries. Orascom is also the largest cement exporter in the Middle East. Orascom's Egyptian Cement Company has an annual capacity production of ten million tons, while Algerian Cement Company has a five million ton capacity per year. Orascom's Egyptian Cement Company is constructing cement plants in the United Arab Emirate, Algeria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia. It also has expanded to Spain and Turkey. Orascom's construction division has completed landmark infrastructural projects including the world's largest swing bridge over the Suez Canal, railways, water treatment plants, five-star hotels, and the three tallest buildings in Egypt.

In 2004, Orascom purchased the Sheba Telecom Company for $50 million. In 2005, Orascom was the top bidder ($256 million) for a 51 percent stake in the Nigerian telecom firm NITEL. Orascom has more than fifty million customers in its countries of operation and another fifteen million in Italy. The company also acquired Italy's largest telecommunication firm, Wind, in June 2005.


Sadek El-Sewedy, proprietor of Elsewedy Cables, transformed a local manufacturer into a large Middle East regional supplier of cables. Elsewedy Cables is the largest manufacturer of power cables in Egypt and the second largest in the Middle East. The family business has facilities in Egypt (56% market share), Sudan (70%), and Syria. El-Sewedy's family started its operations as a trader in electrical equipment. By 1986 the company became Egypt's and the Middle East's first private-sector cable producer, operating as Arab Cables. Within a decade Arab Cables' capacity quadrupled from about 6,000 tons of copper cables in 1986, to 23,200 tons in 1996. El-Sewedy is one of the Middle East's leading groups in the field of cables, plastics, lighting, and construction.

Orascom Telecom Holding has more than $2 billion in annual revenue and 14.5 million subscribers in the Middle East and Africa. Following the company's expansion in the 1990s, a financial crisis began 2001 when global demand for telecommunications plummeted. The company had gone public at the height of the Internet boom, raising $320 million by listing on the Cairo Alexandria Stock Exchanges and the London Stock Exchange in 2000. In 2001, the company lost $95 million. The Sawarises mortgaged their assets, including a valuable franchise in Jordan, to offset the debts. Yasir Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, rescued the business empire. Since then, the Sawarises kept expanding and taking risks in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Orascom Telecom bought a license to operate a mobile network in Algeria in 2001 for $747 million and another mobile network in Tanzania for $454 million in 2002.


Sawaris is regarded as the business patriarch whose entrepreneurship built a business empire that he has entrusted to his sons. While many leaders in Africa amassed wealth at the expense of the poor, Sawaris built his non-oil business empire through his entrepreneurial talents. Sawaris is respected internationally for rebuilding his corporation after it was nationalized by the Egyptian government.


The Sawaris family has impacted the Middle East significantly by its varied entrepreneurial endeavors, especially its construction of projects that developed the infrastructure of the region. It also has contributed generously to higher education in Egypt through the Onsi Sawaris Scholarship for Egyptian nationals.


Gumbel, Peter. "East Meets West." Time. 24 April 2005. Available from,9171,1053598-1,00.html

Lofthouse, Richard. "Egypt Rising." CNBC European Business. 1 September 2006. Available from

Raafat, Samir. "From Suares To Sawiris." Cairo Times. 24 December 1998. Available from

                                         Rasheed Olaniyi


I can barely give them (his three sons) advice. The new generation has its methods and ideas and I have to practice consummate diplomacy when I want to make them see it my way. That is not to say that I am never overruled. My problem with my sons is that I am their friend, because the generation gap is smaller than usual. We talk frankly about everything and they do not believe that obeying their parents is a sacred duty—unlike us in the past. Every decision is open to discussion.