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Bader Al Kharafi, one of Kuwait’s most powerful figures

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Bader Al Kharafi

Bader Al Nasser Kharafi, is rapidly establishing a reputation as one of Kuwait’s most powerful figures and as one of the most influential young Arab businessmen in the world.

Bader Al Nasser Kharafi, is rapidly establishing a reputation as one of Kuwait’s most powerful figures and as one of the most influential young Arab businessmen in the world. Making a name for himself has never been Al-Kharafi’s focus, but as the son of the hugely respected late Nasser Al-Kharafi, his family name was already synonymous with Middle Eastern business.

It is never easy for a child to follow in the footsteps of a highly successful and renowned parent. Nasser Al-Kharafi had taken the family company, MA-Al Kharafi & Sons (MAK), to dizzying heights before his death. However, since taking the helm of the family conglomerate, in 2012, Bader Al-Kharafi has stepped out of his father’s shadow and maintained the company’s long-standing reputation.

A long tradition of family-run success

MA-Al-Kharafi & Sons (MAK) was set up, in 1956, by Bader Al-Kharafi’s grandfather Mohammed Abdul Mohsin Al-Kharafi and the contracting company rapidly expanded into multiple markets outside his native Kuwait.

However, it was one of the sons, Nasser Al-Kharafi, who became a legend within Kuwaiti business, and turned the company into a vast conglomerate of varied operations. It is, therefore, no surprise that when Nasser died, in 2011, stocks in many of the MAK owned entities plummeted and a host of investors began to feel decidedly nervous.

Replacing a highly esteemed business leader is never easy and when there is a potential for in-fighting between family members, shareholder unease is understandable. Bader Al-Kharafi himself said, “I think it is very hard to convince someone to have confidence when you lose someone like Mr. Nasser.” Despite initial concerns, the company made a united, and fairly quick, decision to appoint Bader as the senior figure within the organization.

Bader Al-Kharafi commented on how this helped to placate any concerns with shareholders and thus arrest the initial drop in share prices saying, “The committees running the company and the family members and uncles all united together, that is the message that the market wants.”

Diversified interests and an eye for new horizons

Bader Al-Kharafi was not just taking control of a very prosperous company in 2012; he was heading up a corporation that operates on a huge scale and over a multitude of industries and nations. According to Arabian Business Magazine, in 2012, MAK was operating over 28 countries with 135 companies under its umbrella and was worth over $8 billion. The group has major interests in a plethora of areas, from its large holding in the telecommunications company Zain, to its petroleum, manufacturing and even hospitality interests.

Telecommunications is one of the most significant strings to the MAK group’s bow, and its company Zain has over 44 million customers across 8 nations. Zain has continually invested in new technology to try and keep ahead of competition and Al-Kharafi proudly states, “We introduced…new technologies before Europe and some other countries, including the United States.”

To continue the growth of Zain, Al-Kharafi signed a deal with Vodafone allowing the latter a greater access to the Middle East and allowing Zain to benefit from Vodafone’s existing British and European networks.

Tradition behind continued growth

Al-Kharafi has already expanded his own interests and personal positions of influence since taking over the family company. In 2012, shortly after taking over MAK, he was asked to join the board of Gulf Bank, adding to his existing positions as a board member of Foulath Holding (Bahrain Steel) and as chairman of Gulf Cables and Electrical Industries. By 2014, the world famous private bank Coutts had also added Al-Kharafi to its board.

Aside from continuing the family legacy, Al-Kharafi has shown a dedication to investing in other people and providing the youth of Kuwait with new opportunities, as the job market continues to change and adapt. INJAZ Kuwait is a non-profit NGO that was founded, in 2005, to provide educational support for young people in Kuwait.

Under the guidance of Al-Kharafi and other board members, INJAZ Kuwait has helped over 25,000 students at more than 25 educational institutions learn entrepreneurial and leadership skills. Al-Kharafi says, “I am always up for challenges and risks; mainly because I was introduced to the business at a young age…I like to make sure that I make the first step to becoming a pioneer.”

With such support, INJAZ could help provide the education for the next Al-Kharafi to emerge from the small but prosperous gulf state.

Although he continues to invest in new ideas, Al-Kharafi believes that continuing his father’s ethos is what will ensure ongoing success saying, “The model my father proved time and time again to be vital to success is: people, honesty and making sure you deliver.”

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Maha Al-Ghunaim, CEO, Global Investment House

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maha al ghunaim

Maha Al-Ghunaim, founder and CEO of Global Investment House, is a pioneer in the world of Arab finance

In the world of Arab banking and finance, Maha Al-Ghunaim is something of a pioneer as the founder and CEO of one of the Middle East’s largest investment companies, Global Investment House. As a women in a male-dominated industry, both in the Middle East and beyond, working in a country where only 15% of women are in the workforce, she is also something of a rarity.

Building Global Investment House

Al-Ghunaim trained in mathematics, graduating from the San Francisco State University in 1982, and has worked in asset management and investment banking for the over 30 years since. Straight out of university she joined the large government-owned investment company, the Kuwait Investment Authority. And she comments: “At that time they really took care of young Kuwaitis who were entering the workforce… I started from the bottom and learned how things are done and gradually moved my way up the ladder.”

She would work there for many years, before taking positions at the now dissolved Kuwait Foreign Trading Contracting & Investment Co. and the Kuwait Investment Company.

In 1998, Al-Ghunaim launched Global Investments House with four colleagues, having spotted a gap in the Middle Eastern market for integrated solutions in brokerage, asset management, and investment banking. She says: “We understood that the capital markets in Kuwait lacked certain products and services and we capitalized on that.” Focused specifically on opportunities in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Middle East, the company chose to offer funds and investment products which were wholly new to the region, including bonds, index funds, fixed income funds, and private equity. The company also pushed research and development. “We widened the capital markets rather than everybody competing for the same slice – make the pie larger. We started to create very new funds and products,” comments Al-Ghunaim.

Global is now an investment bank with $3.7 billion under management, 210 employees, and offices in Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE. In 2008 the company became the first Kuwaiti firm to list on the London Stock Exchange, and was also listed on the Kuwait, Dubai and Bahrain bourses. “We started Global with a capital of $50 million in 1998 and, by mid-2008, we were trading at a $5 billion market cap,” comments Al-Ghunaim.

Regularly included in Forbes’ Top 100 Most Powerful Women, Al-Ghunaim is also a leading Arab businesswomen who chairs or sits on the boards of numerous companies and bodies including Kuwait’s National Industries Group, Kuwait University, Bank Muscat International, Bahrain, Baring Private Equity, Hong Kong, and Jehangir Siddiqui Capital Markets, Pakistan.

Steering Global through the financial crash

But the journey has not been easy. Having launched Global during the phenomenal Middle Eastern boom when oil prices were soaring, the company found itself significantly over-leveraged when the financial crisis hit in 2008. The company’s accumulated losses exceeded 75% of its capital in 2011, breaching Kuwaiti market rules, and the group’s shares were suspended from trading. One year later, it was forced to delist from the country’s stock exchange. “We found ourselves in the middle of liquidation disasters to pay off our debts and simultaneously organize Global International, regionally or locally. The financial crisis hit everyone around the globe… but also [there were] some mistakes that we encouraged in the way we do business,” she comments.

Al-Ghunaim successfully steered Global through this trying time, but needed to completely restructure the way the company did business. “We chose to be completely transparent with our clients, shareholders, and regulators throughout it all. This approach was unique in a culture that generally conceals problems, but we stuck to our commitment to being honest… Our earnings will be completely different from what we had before; it’s no longer about how much you make but about the quality of your earnings which provides sustainability and better valuation.” Now a risk-averse company, she reports that Global is well capitalized, debt-free, and profitable, and business is growing.

Committed to opportunities in the Middle East

Going forwards, her focus continues to lie in the Middle East, as committed as ever to the opportunities for Global in the region. “We create a strong bridge connecting buyers and sellers across the region. This is where we can really add value. Many investment houses offer similar expertise and experience in financial engineering and technical sides of the business, but our regional footprint, insight and placement power gives us an edge.”

Global is also continuing to pioneer in the region, adding new products to its range of billion dollar private equity funds. Two new products due to launch include a fund to invest in secondary private equity funds in the region, and a healthcare platform “which will allow investors to take advantage of the healthcare domain at the GCC-MENA-Turkey level”.

Al-Ghunaim also sees significant opportunities developing in education, consumer goods, and retail, “considering the demographics on the consumer-side, the strong inflow of expats, and the growing entrepreneurial spirit among SMEs”. And a spreading of bets across these sectors seems a particularly valuable strategy for Global considering the continued low oil prices in the region.

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