Q: Are you a pessimist or an optimist about the economic future?
A: I’m an optimist. Whatever mistakes have recently been made by government and by the banks, companies will go on organising their affairs in order to maximise returns, making whatever adjustments are necessary in response to changes to the world economy. Individuals will continue to structure their economic lives in such a way as to improve the material well-being of themselves and their families. This is the dynamic that drives economic growth, and I see no reason why this should have changed since Adam Smith’s day.
Q: What are the principal obstacles to growth?
A: Barriers to trade and ill-devised or excessive regulation. Free trade has raised tens of millions of people from conditions of abject poverty. It is scandalous that the very poorest people in the world should be prevented from selling their goods on the world market as a result of trade barriers. And it is patronising for some people in the West to assume that the economically impoverished are incapable of achieving for themselves what others around the world have achieved.
I understand the pressures behind protectionism, but it should be avoided. Business must operate within a framework of regulation, but lawmakers need to be aware that even well thought out regulation can have undesirable side-effects. It’s a cliché – albeit one that is undeniably true – that we need better regulation, not more regulation. Regulations should contain a sunset clause: once they have outlived their original purpose they should be scrapped.
Q: Do the conditions for business success vary from region to region?
A: The determinants of success do not vary much from place to place. Focus, single-mindedness, imagination, hard work, resilience, business integrity and a readiness to take calculated risks – these are the important things. However, I would say that a reputation for straight dealing and honesty are even more important in the Middle East than elsewhere. In countries where the framework of law and institutions may sometimes be fragile personal trust is even more crucial than in established democracies where individuals and businesses can look to the state or to the courts to settle grievances. Sharp practice or corruption may pay off once, maybe even twice. In the long run such behaviour is fatal to the prospects for business success.
Q: Was there a crucial turning point on which your subsequent success was built?
A: When I just started out in business I took on a government contract to build a small and not especially profitable pipeline outside Baghdad within a very tight deadline. There were tough penalty clauses and not much money to be made, but this represented a significant opening for me because none of the big construction firms was interested in competing for the project. In order to demonstrate my personal commitment I rolled up my sleeves, picked up a shovel and joined my workmen. The fact that I was able to meet the deadline without losing money, and even make a small profit, established my reputation for getting things done and for not promising more than I could deliver.
Q: Does business have a social responsibility that goes beyond those owed to its employees?
A: Most certainly. I try to make sure that I contribute to charitable and humanitarian concerns in all of the countries in which I do business. I believe that business does have ethical responsibilities. I also believe that business should do in its own interests what it should do for ethical reasons. Experience suggests that business works best in a society where people behave well in their dealings with others. Unless a deal is mutually beneficial it is likely to fall apart. A shrewd businessman makes sure that at the end of the day all those involved feel that they have been given a fair deal.
Q: In what ways have your views changed since you entered business?
A: I cannot pretend to have exactly the same opinions as I had as a young man in Iraq. Until I became disillusioned with it I believed in the goals of the Baathist party, which I joined as a student. My strong belief was in Arab unity and a fairer distribution of wealth.
Although I left the party after four years, I still actively support the concept of Arab unity and measures to reduce conflicts and division within the Arab world. And, while I may be less of a socialist than formerly, I still believe in a fairer distribution of wealth! The present gross disparities of wealth between the very rich and the very poor create a sense of injustice and resentment that are inimical to economic progress. The challenge is to raise the living standards of those at the bottom without de-motivating the rich through punitive levels of taxation.
Q: As an Arab and a practising Muslim do you believe that those who share your faith are the victims of prejudice in their business or social lives as a result of fears about Islam and large-scale immigration?
A: Prejudice exists in every society, but I believe that Britain remains one of the most tolerant societies in the world. I am a British citizen and proud of that fact.
I believe that all lawful immigrants should be treated with respect. Equally, I believe it is incumbent on newcomers to integrate. I believe that the Jews have an excellent reputation in this respect. Wherever they have settled, their contribution to the charitable, cultural and philanthropic life of their adopted countries has been disproportionate to their numbers. I personally have been extremely pleased to note the growth in charitable donations in recent years from Islamic groups and organizations within Britain. And I am honoured to be associated with the Anglo Arab Organisation which aims to encourage Arabs to play a greater role in the political, cultural and charitable lives of their adopted countries and to build bridges between the Arab and Western world.
Q: Which historical figures do you most admire?
A: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela.