Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris stumbles in North Korea

Times have changed since 2011, when Egypt-based Orascom Executive Chairman Naguib Sawiris, was photographed with then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and Jang Song Thaek, former vice chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea.

Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris has enjoyed unprecedented access to North Korea’s secretive leadership since signing a deal to build North Korea’s first commercial mobile phone network.

He has been a regular visitor to Pyongyang in recent years and, in 2011, he was photographed holding the hand of the late Kim Jong Il and linking arms with the North Korean dictator’s brother-in-law Jang Song Thaek.

Since then, Kim has died, Jang has been executed—by Kim’s son, Kim Jong Un, the nation’s new leader—and Sawiris now says his North Korean venture’s cash is trapped in the isolated nation.

Such changing fortunes illustrate the perils of doing business in volatile and authoritarian nations around the world. But it is an environment in which Sawiris’s family generally have thrived on. That strategy helped make the Sawiris family Egypt’s wealthiest, with a combined net worth of over $10 billion, according to estimates by Forbes magazine.

Sawiris is the eldest of three sons of Onsi Sawiris, 85 years old, who founded Orascom in the 1950s as a construction business. His youngest brother, Nassef Sawiris, is Egypt’s richest man and now controls Orascom’s construction operations. In 2007, as the North Korean mobile phone deal was being negotiated, Nassef made a $115 million investment in a cement business in the Hermit Kingdom. Middle brother, Samih Sawiris, now heads Orascom’s hotel and resort business.

Naguib Sawiris doesn’t shy away from controversy. He made headlines in recent months by offering to buy an island from Italy or Greece as a base for refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, although the proposal hasn’t moved forward. In his verified Twitter profile, he describes himself as a “freedom fighter.” A member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, he founded a political party and television station opposed to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were swept from power in 2013.

Orascom declined to make Sawiris available for questions, but in a 2011 interview with an Australian journalist, he said Orascom’s first contact with North Korea came through a meeting with Pyongyang’s ambassador to Switzerland. A few years later, Sawiris traveled to North Korea to formally present his business proposal.

By December 2008 he was back in Pyongyang for the official launch of the Koryolink wireless venture, giving a speech under a banner that read: “Long live the friendship between Korean people and Egyptian people,” according to television footage of the event.

North Korean state media has reported on at least seven visits by Sawiris to North Korea since 2007. In December 2009, he was presented with the “Order of the DPRK Friendship First Class” award in Pyongyang, a medal given to foreigners with close relations to North Korea.

Former Koryolink employees say Sawiris has always been fully committed to investing in North Korea. Orascom set up a bank in Pyongyang in 2008 to help transfer funds in and out of the country and also invested in the construction of the massive pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel in the city.

During one visit Sawiris said: “Whenever I come here and order tea with milk, they bring me canned milk. Do you think we need to invest in dairy farming?” according to Mohamed Mounir Mursi, a marketing manager for Koryolink in Pyongyang from 2010 to 2011.

Source: The Wall Street Journal