Billionaires of Palestine

Despite impressive Palestinian tycoons, Palestinian economy remains quite dismal.

Munib al-Masri 521 (photo credit: ABED OMAR QUSINI / REUTERS)
Munib al-Masri 521
(photo credit: ABED OMAR QUSINI / REUTERS)
If the Israeli economy is seen to be dominated by a score of families with close ties to government, in the relatively small Palestinian economy one family is preeminent – the Al-Masris of Nablus.
According to the Passia Institute in East Jerusalem, which lists the most prominent Palestinian personalities, 11 members of the Al-Masri family are worthy of note; more than any other except the Al-Husseinis of Jerusalem.
The family’s name indicates that their forefathers came from Egypt, probably at the beginning of Ottoman rule. In recent years the family has produced a Jordanian prime minister, Taher al-Masri, six Jordanian and Palestinian government ministers, two mayors of Nablus, and a long list of businessmen and public figures.
The most prominent member of the family today is billionaire Munib al-Masri, who built himself an eye-catching palatial estate atop Mount Gerizim in Nablus. It is an exact copy of a 16th century Italian villa. He has filled his palace, surrounded by gardens and a swimming pool, with art collections, including an original Picasso painting, a Raphael tapestry and an Egyptian golden throne.
Al-Masri, 78, studied geology in the United States and made his fortune in the oil business in Algeria and the Gulf.
His estimated worth is $1.5 billion. After serving in 1970 as a minister in the Jordanian government, he became a supporter and friend of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and followed him to the West Bank and Gaza to create the economic foundations for the nascent Palestinian state.
Quarter share
Al-Masri’s company, Padico Holding, controls over a quarter of the Palestinian economy. It owns real estate businesses in the territories and East Jerusalem and the profitable Jawwal Palestinian cellular network. His companies are also involved in the tourism and hotel business in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah. He is a partner in plastic, electronics and medicine factories, as well as in the Nablus-based stock exchange company. He is involved in Palestinian politics and has mediated between Hamas and Fatah, and was even mentioned a few times as a candidate for prime minister. He has expressed his belief several times in conversations with me that Israel and the Palestinians must reach a true peace. To that end he has maintained contacts with prominent figures in Israeli politics and economics.
The second member of the Al-Masri family who has made a considerable mark on the Palestinian economy is Bashar al-Masri.
He is 51 years old, that is, one generation younger than his relative Munib. While still a high school student in Nablus, he participated in demonstrations and threw rocks at IDF soldiers and was arrested in 1978. After completing his high school studies he went to study in the US, where he earned a degree in chemistry. From there he went on to Saudi Arabia, where he prospered.
After the Palestinian Authority (PA) was formed in 1994, Bashar returned home and became heavily involved in the local economy. He founded the Ramallah-based daily newspaper Al-Ayyam and set up the first Palestinian high-tech companies, which provided services for banks and the PA, and even outsourced for Israeli and foreign companies. Bashar’s initiative to found the new Palestinian town of Rawabi adjacent to Ramallah has brought him international attention. The ambitious, multi-milliondollar project is mostly funded by Qatari princes.
Rawabi town
I recently visited the Rawabi construction site and found that the work is progressing slowly. The infrastructure has almost been completed and the foundations of the first homes are already discernible. Bashar even attempted to buy an Israeli company that started building in the Jabel Mukaber neighborhood of east Jerusalem, alongside the Jewish neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv, and had encountered financial difficulties. Israeli entrepreneurs prevented him from carrying out the deal, claiming he was acting on political grounds. He tells The Jerusalem Report that his motives were purely economic, and that he is simply trying to solve serious housing problems faced by the Palestinian population in east Jerusalem.
Another notable member of the Al-Masri clan is Sabih who, despite living in the Jordanian capital Amman, has also invested in several West Bank-based businesses and owns a grand house in Ramallah. Unlike his relatives Munib and Bashar, who make efforts to keep in the public eye, Sabih is modest and camera shy and rarely makes public appearances. He is probably the richest of all of them. His businesses include agricultural farms in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which provide agricultural produce to the Gulf countries. He is believed to have been the primary food supplier to the US armed forces when they were based in Iraq and the Gulf. He owns tourism and hotel companies in Aqaba, on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea and in Amman. He has other companies and factories in Jordan and Saudi Arabia and spends most of his time east of the Jordan.
Apart from the Al-Masri cousins, there are two other wealthy families that have had a significant influence on the Palestinian and Arab economies. The most veteran is the Shoman family, who are originally from the village of Beit Hanina in northeast Jerusalem. They are the sons of Abdul Hamid Shoman, who in 1930 founded the Arab Bank in Jerusalem, the first Palestinian bank in the country. Over the years, the Shoman family succeeded in turning it into one of the biggest Arab banks, with dozens of branches in all the Arab countries, Europe and the US. The Shoman family and the Arab Bank also have branches in the West Bank and Gaza, but their investments in the Palestinian economy are fairly limited.
In contrast, a self-made wealthy man stands out in the Palestinian economy today – Nasser Nasser, 60. Born into a poor rural family in the small town of Yatta, south of Hebron, he started, at the age of 12, helping his father with quarrying near his home. Years later he managed to buy a small quarry near Bethlehem. Caught up in the big building spree in Israel and the Palestinian territories after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, he began selling building stone to Israel.
From 1973-1983, the years known as the Arab “decade of oil,” when the Gulf countries enjoyed a great economic boom, Nasser sold building stone to Arab countries and gradually became one of the world’s biggest producers. Today he owns dozens of quarries and stone-cutting facilities on the West Bank, as well as in Jordan and the Gulf. He has made good use of the West Bank’s limestone, which is very suitable for construction and is in demand all over the world. Quite often, the stone resources of Judea and Samaria are called “Palestine’s oil.” Nasser also exports these products to Europe and the US.
Limited economy
But despite some impressive Palestinian tycoons, the Palestinian economy as a whole is still limited and quite dismal – certainly in comparison to Israel. The average income per person (Gross Domestic Product) in the Palestinian territories ranges from $3,000 to $4,000 a year, compared to Israel and Europe where the GDP is around $30,000 a year.
Unemployment rates in the territories are high, fluctuating at around 17 percent in the West Bank and nearly 30 percent in Gaza.
The continuing conflict with Israel – particularly the first and second intifadas – led to the restriction of the movement of Palestinians in the territories and to economic distress, mostly in Gaza. In response to these conditions, countries around the world started donating to the PA budget, eventually creating a situation in which most of the funding for education, health and welfare comes from donations from abroad. In other words, the Palestinian budget has become dependent on charity.
Almost all the West Bank and Gaza’s import and export trade is conducted with Israel. This is mainly due to the Oslo Accords, which defined a “customs envelope” for the territories and Israel. The Israeli customs authorities collect payments for Gaza and West bank-bound products at Israeli ports, and transfer the money to the PA. Moreover, nearly 60,000 Palestinians work in Israel and in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, earning almost twice as much as workers in the Palestinian territories.
The relatively quiet years, in terms of security, since 2008, have led to an upsurge in the Palestinian economy. The illegal tunnels between Gaza and Egypt have also significantly improved the economic situation in Gaza, as it has enabled the entry of cheap Egyptian goods including gasoline.
During peaceful times the potential for the development of the Palestinian economy is high. The Palestinians’ education level is high, certainly in relation to other Arab countries, and their proximity to Israel enables them to develop technological skills. Christian and Muslim tourism to the Holy Land can serve as a major source of income. The limitations of the Palestinian economy are almost solely due to political and security-related obstacles.