Ghazi Abu Nahl, insurance magnate, philanthropist, and father-of-five, shows few signs of slowing down. Despite turning 72 this year, his schedule sees him in a new city virtually every week. So how did a former refugee, who describes his ideal day as being at home with his wife and children, build a global business empire with more than $5 billion in assets? Alexandra Newlovereports
Bill Gates famously spent only two years at Harvard before leaving to start work, eventually founding Microsoft. For Ghazi Abu Nahl, his tertiary education was even shorter—just 40 days.
The eldest of six brothers and five sisters, he was sent to university in Cairo in 1960. But the young man quickly became distressed at the realisation that his parents had borrowed money to fund his studies.
“I lived in Cairo for 40 days, then I went back to [my father]. I could not swallow the food, and I realised I had to help to educate my other brothers and sisters.”
Compelled by an urge to find paid work and help his parents, the 17-year-old went to Qatar—then a British protectorate at the cusp of an oil boom—landing a job with insurance agency Arab Commercial Enterprises, where he spent the next 20 years learning about the region’s fledgling insurance industry.
This selfless decision to support his family was prompted by personal experience. Born in the small Palestinian town of Barbara in 1946, Abu Nahl’s family were forced out of his home village when it was captured by Israel during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.
Israeli forces destroyed the village to discourage its 2,000 inhabitants from returning. Abu Nahl’s family fled to Gaza—an incident that, while he was too young to remember, has encouraged him to act with compassion and patience in business, and inspired his philanthropic efforts.
Fast forward almost six decades and Ghazi Abu Nahl has built three multi-million dollar companies, pioneering and advocating for the insurance market in the Middle East at a time when it was seen as an un-Islamic form of gambling.
A man who chooses his words carefully, talking about his loved ones is the closest he comes to gushing. He credits the support of his wife, Hind Ali Tabaja, as one of the main reasons for his success. And when he does talk about his family, there is plenty of material, as one of 12 siblings, with five children of his own, and seven grandchildren.
How then did a 17-year-old refugee create the second-generation conglomerate, Nest Investments, spread across six sectors and 23 countries?
“It was a basic life in Qatar, and really, it was mainly work. [The business] grew with the growth of the economy. We trained our people and expanded into the other Gulf States,” Abu Nahl says.
“At that time, the population was limited, and people were not aware of insurance as such. Only foreigners were involved with insurance. It was only for the British expatriates, and so we were the only company speaking Arabic and dealing with the local people.”
Insurance was largely unpopular at this time as it was seen as akin to gambling.
“Insurance, in the early times, [was] not acceptable. But after a while they started to understand that insurance is a protection to families, to businesses… and it is very useful,” Abu Nahl says.
“It was hard, but you had to challenge it. You had to convince people of the advantages. [Insurance is] actually standing with your client at a time when he is suffering a big loss, and it is a pleasure.”
As part of the effort to boost the reputation of the industry, Abu Nahl met the Emir of Qatar, then His Excellency Ahmad bin Ali Al Thani, to speak to him about why motor insurance was ethical, necessary, and of benefit to the government.
“It was at that time not obligatory to have motor insurance,” Abu Nahl says. “It was really for the government’s benefit, but I am the person who had the initiative to meet with the authorities. Life at that time was very simple and it was very easy to access the Emir and the high court.”
Fuelled by the meeting and other lobbying, the Qatari government brought in compulsory motor insurance in 1967, creating more activity for the industry. So in 1979, Abu Nahl was well-placed to set up his first business from scratch, Qatar General Insurance & Reinsurance Company, which still exists today, turning over 638 million Qatari Riyal ($175 million), in 2016. Abu Nahl remains the group chief executive.
Dr Abdul Khalik Raouf Khalil, secretary general of the General Arab Insurance Federation, describes Abu Nahl as having “remarkable finger-prints in the insurance and reinsurance industry”.
He said Abu Nahl’s businesses “blend some of the best technical and managerial Arab expertise with high levels of professionalism and adherence to high standards”.
On a personal level, he describes him as “someone who has never hesitated in lending a helping hand whenever he felt needed”.
Building a Nest
Abu Nahl was introduced to Hind Ali Tabaja, and married her in 1971. They went on to have five children: sons Kamel, Fadi, and Hamad, and daughters Reem and Amal.
In 1986, the couple took their young family to Australia, selecting Perth—then relatively isolated on the west coast—as their new home.
“It was very beautiful with a Mediterranean climate.”
His children completed much of their schooling in Australia, and during these years in Perth, Abu Nahl worked to establish Trust International Insurance and Reinsurance Company (Trust Re) as well as the family holding firm Nest Investments, which today acts as the umbrella firm for the family’s various business interests.
“Nest from the beginning was started as a family company by me and my wife,” Abu Nahl says.
“My ambition at that time was to have an organised holding company… I am a person who every time I move my family’s personal wealth, I stop, I reconcile, and then take another step.”
Abu Nahl says trust is the foundation of the insurance industry, and so when Trust Re was born in 1989 it had just a handful of clients gathered through personal dealings and recommendations. The name is also meant to reflect the trust Abu Nahl has in the potential of the Arab markets, and trust in the fact that hard work and perseverance pays off.
As with his first business, Abu Nahl made a point of focusing on how the company could upskill and care for its staff. Today, the company employs 280 people and has paid-up capital of $250 million.
But the international businessman’s tendency to not stay in one place for more than one week and the fact Trust Re primarily catered to Arab and African clients made doing business from Perth difficult, due to its geographical remoteness and, at the time, poor communication systems and unreliable phone lines.
This meant that in 1990, the family somewhat reluctantly shifted back to the Middle East, this time to Bahrain. Soon after, Iraq invaded Kuwait sparking the start of the first Gulf War.
“This was a big shock to me at the time, and really, I started feeling that the geopolitics were really very dangerous,” Abu Nahl says.
“So I selected Cyprus to be the headquarters for the family [holding company, Nest].”
The children were sent to London to continue their studies, beginning their respective involvement with Nest around the time they reached 15. This was the age at which Abu Nahl judged they would “start to realise the common sense of business”.
“They were a shadow board at first. They did not make decisions, of course, but they would debate each other. The family, all of them, were aware of what I am, and what my wife was as well.”
On the issue of succession, Abu Nahl has used a combination of gut instinct, early involvement, and formal education.
“Most of our business is rated with rating agencies and so succession planning is part of our corporate governance and our policy. We follow all the regulations and all the best practice,” he says.
All five children, now aged from their late twenties to mid-forties, sit on the board of Nest which is 100% family-owned. The group manages more than $5 billion in assets and has annual turnover of more than $620 million across insurance, banking, property, and education. The remaining board members are Abu Nahl, Hind, and close family friend Mehran Eftekhar.
Kamel is also the chairman of Trust Re in Bahrain, while his brother Fadi acts as chief executive. Reem is involved in underwriting at Trust Re, while Hamad is working in an investment bank gaining experience. The youngest of the family, Amal, has a family of her own, but still sits on the Nest board. While Abu Nahl remains as chairman, he stepped away from the Nest executive when he turned 60—“I became supportive, and the children became the executive,” he says.
In December, Nest was given the Cyprus International Business Association’s annual Excellence Award in recognition of its social responsibility and, according to the judges, “significant contribution to the promotion of Cyprus as an international business destination”.
While the family’s activity is concentrated in the Middle East, their business interests also span the Indian Ocean to the city they once called home—Perth.
In 2017, Nest spent $50 million buying a property bordering two of the city’s major train stations. Planning is underway to build a unique commercial, residential and entertainment precinct on the 1.9ha site, that includes a 75-storey skyscraper, tipped to transform the coastal city’s skyline. The Perth City Council estimates the planned project will bring more than AUD $100 million ($78 million) to the region each year.
“Australia is very close to my heart,” Abu Nahl says.
“All my family is Australian [citizens] except me.”
The Perth precinct comes under another of Nest’s business interests: The World Trade Center (WTC) Association. There are 330 business precincts in more than 90 countries operating under the WTC brand, including the site in Lower Manhattan that was targeted in the 9/11 terror attacks.
Abu Nahl is a board member of the association, while Nest owns WTC Cyprus. The Cyprus subsidiary in turn operates 15 business centres in the Middle East and north Africa, plus the planned Perth project.
“I think it will be very helpful to Australia,” Abu Nahl says.
“It will link the business community with all other business communities around the world. This will be very good, especially as Western Australia is more isolated, with less population, but lots of potential.”
Like many business families, the Abu Nahls are also keen philanthropists, mainly focusing on education and health causes. When Abu Nahl meets CampdenFB, he is in London being appointed, along with Hind, to the University of Oxford’s Chancellors’ Court of Benefactors, which recognises those who give “exceptional support” to the university.
This academic year, Abu Nahl is supporting 74 law students specialising in human rights. Given his family were displaced by war when he was just a small boy, it is not hard to see why this is a cause close to his heart.
“I am of Palestinian origins and I could say we are a humble people. We never like to see anybody suffering,” he says.
“[These students] will be good fighters for human rights, and against the abuse of humiliated people.”
Abu Nahl says part of the joy of doing business is providing stability and prosperity not just for his family, but the families of his employees.
Nest companies now have about 1,300 workers, but Abu Nahl expects this number to grow to more than 6,000 in “the next few years”, as Nest undertakes more property development projects.
“I think whoever is working with us will find a good experience and you could go on to work anywhere else in the world. Our employees are a target to be taken by other professional employers.
“I am proud of all of this, when I see a big number of families that can grow their families with stability, it is a good feeling.”
But Abu Nahl says one of his proudest achievements is accomplishing a goal he set himself as a young man in his late teens.
“My brothers and sisters have all been educated in good universities and schools. And I have children and grandchildren that are happy. I worked hard for that. My success in this was to keep my father and mother happy, because I stood with the family.”