Morocco: Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris bets (again) on the kingdom

By Bilal Mousjid
Posted on Thursday, 27 October 2022 12:20

Egyptian billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris. © Patrick BAZ/AFP

Engaged since 2007 in a tourism project that has still not seen the light of day, Egypt’s Orascom is now interested in the kingdom’s other sectors, in particular, electric cars.

Egyptian tycoon Naguib Sawiris told Asharq Business on the sidelines of the Choiseul Africa Business Forum, which took place on 19 and 20 October in Casablanca, that he is ready to invest $100m (around €101.4m) in Morocco. “We will enter the Moroccan market in the coming years if we find a sector where there is no great competition,” said the Orascom Investment Group’s president.

One of the sectors that have caught his attention is technology. And particularly recharging electric cars. “Morocco is preparing to build a battery factory for electric vehicles. If the authority decides to add to this investment authority by investing in recharging stations for these cars, we will be very interested in this project,” says the tycoon who made his fortune in the telecoms sector.

The government is following his intentions with “interest”

With a production capacity of 700,000 cars per year, the kingdom now wants to support the automotive sector as it transitions to electric cars. Last August, Ryad Mezzour, the minister of industry and trade, told us that his department was negotiating with “five operators on three continents (US, Europe and Asia) to install” a “gigafactory”, a large factory that produces batteries for electric cars that could power 40,000 to 60,000 cars.

The government, while welcoming this interest in “one of the flagship industrial projects”, prefers for the time being to wait for the discussions to progress. “We are watching with great interest the intentions of Mr Sawiris,” the minister of industry told us on 24 October. According to the Egyptian billionaire, a meeting was scheduled with Mohcine Jazouli, the minister in charge of investment, “to clearly define possible investment opportunities”.

We reached out to an authorised source in Jazouli’s department, who dismissed the idea: “In general we never talk about the discussions we have with investors. So, I cannot […] give you a yes or a no.”

Oued Chbika, Orascom’s forgotten project

Nevertheless, Sawiris is not only targeting the electric car charging stations market. “We have a company that invests in alternative solar energy and Morocco has significant opportunities in this area. The same goes for food industry projects, such as the sugar factory we own in Egypt. In addition to the very active tourism and hotel sector… These are important opportunities but we have not yet made a firm commitment on a specific project so far,” he told Business.

The 67-year-old engineer, who has spent the past decade taking on Africa’s gold industry, is not, so to speak, entering uncharted territory. Orascom Development Holding (ODH), a subsidiary of the Sawiris group, even lists the kingdom among its “portfolio” of destinations, along with Egypt, the UAE, Switzerland and the UK.

In 2007, Orascom had indeed launched, alongside the Caisse de Dépôt et de Gestion (CDG), the Oued Chbika seaside resort project, a site located about 50km south of Tan-Tan between the dunes of the Sahara and the Atlantic. It is made up of eight hotels with 2,500 rooms, 2,000 flats, villas and other riads, a golf course, a marina and a cinema. The project, which covers an area of 1,500 hectares, was supposed to cost just over €550m.

Fifteen years later, the seaside resort has still not seen the light of day. This makes some public officials sceptical about Orascom’s ability to carry out certain projects in Morocco. “In reality, I believe in this project and its potential, even after 10 years of delay. It is true that the conditions were not favourable for investment at the time: the world went through a number of crises (real estate, financial), which discouraged several other investors, who withdrew from their projects in Morocco,” Samih Sawiris, Naguib’s brother, then head of Orascom Development Holding, said in 2019.

‘He is a very serious investor’

“I also recognise that we remained in the background when the PJD arrived until we understood that nothing was going to change for the tourism business and the business climate,” said Sawiris, whose family is known for its commitment against the Islamists in Egypt.

Minister of tourism from 2012 to 2016, Lahcen Haddad, agrees. “The situation was not favourable. The project was first delayed by the Arab Spring. Orascom intervened at a time when tourism was experiencing many problems. As most of its investments were concentrated in Egypt, this affected financially what it wanted to achieve in Morocco,” says the parliament member, adding that Moroccan banks, which were scalded by the failure of some tourism projects, especially seaside ones, were reluctant to embark on the Oued Chbika project.

“Moroccan banks, which were already exposed to tourism between 2007 and 2015, did not want to help finance Oued Chbika. The project did not see the light of day because the objective elements converged. But Orascom had started the work,” continues the former minister, who says “Sawiris is a very serious investor with strong backs and a clear vision.”

“If he says something, it is because he is ready to do it,” he concluded.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options