At 90 years of age and in frail health after suffering a stroke in 2002, Hasib J. Sabbagh is that rare billionaire who not only made his fortune in the construction business but also defined Arab work ethics and quiet-behind-the-scene efficiency.
Sabbagh's contribution to peace efforts in the Middle East are well-known, although his attempts to find "a solution to the dilemma of the Palestinian people" through the establishment of an independent state have not borne fruit. Committed to the advancement of interstate cooperation among different ethnic and religious groups, Sabbagh sustained an incredible philanthropic journey for decades, eager to provide educational opportunities to many.
Though his enduring goal was to also soften the hearts and minds of senior Israeli and American decision-makers towards salient developments in Palestine and Israel, his lifelong dream was not achieved, though many appreciated his unflinching commitment to peace.
The refugee business tycoon
Sabbagh's name is synonymous with the Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), established in Haifa, Palestine, in 1943. Before embarking on this lucrative career, the young American University of Beirut (AUB) graduate sought positions with the public works department in Occupied Jerusalem, a Jewish firm that was engaged in work for the British military, and an engineering firm headed by Ahmad Faris in Haifa.
All three experiences left negative impressions on the independent-minded explorer. With Mohammad Zayid, Sabbagh became a consultant on real estate matters for three lawyers: Mohammad Al Yahya, Subhi Al Khadrah and Ahmad Al Shuqayri (who became the first leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1964).
By 1945, when his financial situation improved, Sabbagh and his partners embarked on CCC, with a first contract to build 100 apartments for the Haifa municipality for Jewish ex-servicemen from the British army. Two years later, CCC won a major contract to build the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC) Headquarters in Haifa, which augured well for the nascent business.
Untenable conditions associated with the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 compelled many Palestinians to flee, though the majority was forcefully expelled from their native land. Sabbagh went to Beirut, where a number of his brothers and sisters had already sought refuge and, with Fahmi Karagulla, formed a new contracting company, Caracalla. The latter won a construction contract in Iraq with then booming IPC, whose pipeline was rerouted to Lebanon, necessitating infrastructure additions. In 1950, Sabbagh set up his own company with his brother-in-law Said Khoury and Kamil Abdul Rahman, again calling it CCC.
Over the years, the company consistently secured large contracts to build pipelines from Kirkuk in Iraq to Banyas in Syria with a spur to Tripoli, Lebanon (1950). In 1952, CCC obtained a major contract for a Bechtel-Wimpey joint venture, this time in Aden, to build a refinery and a camp for workers.
A year later, CCC secured projects in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar, which opened new doors. In fact, CCC's reputation was so strong — by now fully vetted by senior Arab decision-makers — that the Government of Abu Dhabi approached the partners to create the National Petroleum Construction Company (1973), which provided offshore services to the oil and gas industries in most Gulf states.
The Palestinian tycoons faced their latest crisis in 1975, when civil war broke out in Lebanon, which closed the airport for months at a time. CCC moved its headquarters to Athens in 1976 and, naturally, Sabbagh and his family went along, while Khoury settled in Kuwait and Abdul Rahman operated out of Cannes, France.
Abdul Rahman sold his shares to Sabbagh and Khoury in 1976, and the company was restructured in the 1980s when Fawzi Kawash was made executive vice-president. A major expansion into Europe, the United States and Asia occurred on his watch, as CCC acquired Underwater Engineering, a leading British firm that specialised in underwater oil projects, along with ACWA, an environmental company, and SICON, an Italian mechanical engineering company specialising in petroleum-related projects.
An American venture did not succeed but CCC was unbeaten in the Middle East, becoming one of the largest contracting companies.
Although the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait dealt a blow to CCC's operations in the region, the corporation diversified into Yemen and Egypt, where it built roads, sewage systems and electrical grids, and housing for the Egyptian army. It won the bid to rebuild Beirut's international airport and, after Kuwait's liberation, returned to the Gulf with a vengeance. Simply stated, its refugee founders knew how to survive amid adversity and emerged stronger from unimaginable losses.
The political wizard
For Sabbagh, political responsibility was something he learnt early in life, growing up under British Occupation and, in time, Jewish diktat. Even though Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in Palestine, Sabbagh understood as early as 1929 that confrontations were inevitable. At the onset of the Al Buraq Wall conflict between Arabs and Jews in 1929, Sabbagh witnessed how the Jewish quarter in Safad was burnt and how his mother Faduk instructed Sabbagh and his brother to provide assistance to Jewish families of her acquaintance.
According to Mary-Jane Deeb, who edited (with Mary E. King) a 1996 Middle East Institute volume titled Hasib Sabbagh: From Palestinian Refugee to Citizen of the World, the young man was shocked when in 1948, the favour was not returned. After Safad was evacuated, Sabbagh's mother "brought together all her aged relatives and refused to leave her home. Jewish authorities discovered that Faduk was harbouring many refugees in her home and evacuated her to Haifa, before they moved her and her older relatives to a convent in Nazareth." She remained there until 1953, when the Red Cross arranged for her to return to Lebanon, bitter about the inhumanity inflicted on her and thousands of others.
If childhood memories impregnated his spirit, AUB enlightened Sabbagh politically. The unique environment mixed in him an admiration for freedom imparted by the university's liberal penchants with raw power politics practised by its sponsors.
At AUB, the future businessman was exposed to a rich amalgam of ideas from leading intellectuals such as Asad Rustum, Constantine Zureik and Charles Malek. His fellow students such as Salem Khamis from Nazareth; Faraj Bishouty from Safad; Fahmi Karagulla from Iraq; Sami Haddad, Fareed Haddad, Khalil Maluf and Raymond Ghosn from Lebanon; Ishaq Ali Reda, Wasfi Al Tal, Khalil Salem and Hamad Farhan from Jordan; Najib Tlil from Occupied Jerusalem and Jawdat Shuhaybar from Gaza, would all leave their marks on Arab business and politics.
At the height of Arab nationalism, AUB was transformed into the most politically active seat of original thought, which inspired students to rise against French and British colonialism. With such exposures to various trends and marked by the 1948 Exodus, the refugee could not but assume his responsibilities towards his nation. To his immense credit, Sabbagh understood that the Palestinian diaspora needed political and financial leaders, which propelled him to hire many of his countrymen, who eventually became wealthy investors and donors.
After 1970, when Sabbagh befriended Yasser Arafat and developed a close relationship with the then Chairman of the PLO in Beirut, he played a critical role in mediation between the Palestinian officials and Lebanese authorities. At the height of the 1979 American hostage crisis in Iran, and following discussions with then Prince Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, Sabbagh interceded with Arafat on behalf of the Americans. In the event, Arafat flew to Tehran and persuaded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to release 13 black and female hostages.
Once again after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Sabbagh, "accompanied by Munib Al Masri and Abdul Majid Shoman, went to Saudi Arabia to ask King Khalid Bin Abdul Aziz to intercede with the United States to help stop the Israeli bombing of Beirut". The intercession allowed the PLO to leave the city and Sabbagh was instrumental in acting as an intermediary between the PLO and the US. Still, for all his efforts Sabbagh remained frustrated that his lifelong dream, to see an independent Palestine, remained unfulfilled.
Though Sabbagh promoted the peace process in Palestine, his philanthropy towards his nation is perhaps his most valuable contribution. A past deputy chairman of the Health Care Organisation of the West Bank and Gaza and chairman of the Palestinian Students Fund, he provided social and economic services to residents in the Occupied Territories, especially to train and educate young men and women pursuing academic degrees. Financial aid packages are allocated on an annual basis to institutions such as the Al Najah University in Nablus, the Bethlehem University, the Islamic University in Gaza, the Gaza National College, and the Bir Zeit University in West Bank.
A believer that one was duty bound to earn other nations' trust, Sabbagh gave generously to other causes, especially after the death of his wife. Through the Diana Tamari Sabbagh Foundation, Sabbagh allocated significant assistance to the Beirut Charities Foundation, the AUB, the Jordan Charities Foundation, the Welfare Association in Geneva and the Vatican.
Several American healthcare and educational institutions were also privileged, including the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, along with Harvard University (his daughter's alma mater), Georgetown University (in particular the Centre for Muslim-Christian Understanding), the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington DC think-tank, Eureka College in California and Webber College in Florida (where his sons studied). In 1995, he endowed a chair that supports a leading scholar or policymaker at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where The Hasib J. Sabbagh Chair in Middle East Studies was successively occupied by Richard W. Murphy (1995-2004), Steven Simon (2006-2009) and Steven A. Cook (2009- ).
Presumably, the chair was geared to provide insightful analysis on present developments throughout the Middle East, which has yet to produce a single meaningful study that has left an impact on Washington decision-makers. Still, Sabbagh's seeds may yet germinate, which has been his intent all along.
Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of Faysal: Saudi Arabia's King for All Seasons, Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2008.