INTERVIEW-Yemeni Tycoon Shrugs off Risk from Unrest
* Hayel Saeed sugar refinery due to open next year
* Government working on re-tendering airport project
* Yemen's location a boon despite poverty, tycoon says
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
SANA'A- Feb 24, 2011- Accustomed to instability during five decades in international business, Yemeni businessman Abdul Wase Hayel Saeed shrugs off the unrest in his homeland as another chapter in Yemen's turbulent history.
The soft spoken 70-year old, whose family's empire stretches from Egypt to Indonesia, is building a $230 million sugar refinery in Yemen he says will open next year and expanding scores of businesses ranging from biscuits to an oil concession and a Porsche franchise.
"When we built our first factory in 1970, Yemen was emerging from civil war. No one accepted to go into partnership with us. We employ now 16,000 people in the Yemen factories alone," Hayel Saeed told Reuters in an interview.
"What we are seeing is a cloud that will pass. Yemen is ripe for all kind of investments. This is a country with cheap labour force and an unparalleled strategic location," he said.
Hayel Saeed, who is also active in politics, heading the parliament's transport committee, would not be drawn on the demonstrations demanding an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule, but he expected compromise to be reached between the president and his opponents.
The unrest, prompted by the fall of Tunisia's and Egypt's presidents, has killed at least 15 people. Saleh has said he will not be pressured out of power by opponents he said were advocating anarchy, but promised to protect peaceful protesters.
Pictures of a young Saleh opening Hayel Sayeed businesses hang at the group's headquarters, along with photos of Taiz, a mountainous province from where Hayel Saeed's father embarked on a rags-to-riches journey that took him to France and back.
The sprawling business empire, set up by the father and his three brothers, is now among the mightiest in the Middle East, comprising banking, insurance, trading, industry, commodities, construction, oil, pharmaceuticals, health services, real estate and two factories in the United Kingdom.
More than 40 U.S-educated members of the third generation help run the business, an indication of the deficiencies of the domestic education system, which Hayel Saeed says is unable to cope with a 3.7 percent population growth and an addiction to qat, a stimulant leaf chewed by over half the population.
"Yemenis spend over $7 billion year on qat. It's a disaster. Think of the damage to health, the labor hours lost," said Hayel Saeed, co-founder of the Yemen Without Qat organisation.
Yemen, he said, still has decent ports and roads, with the government working on re-issuing a tender for a new eight-runway airport to replace the decrepit Sanaa airport after a dispute with a Chinese company that was awarded the project.
He points to 400,000 tonne wheat silos the Hayel Saeed group has along the coast, and two million tonnes a year of palm oil the group imports from Asia, processes in Yemen and re-exports mostly to Africa.
"Aden is five nautical miles from one of the world's most important shipping routes. It makes sense to set up businesses with an eye on exports, like we did," Hayel Saeed said.
"If a foreign investor is considering a project in Yemen we'll look into taking a minor stake to help allay any fears he might have," he added."
Yemen's national income per capita was a little over $1,000 and foreign direct investment stood at a mere $129 million in 2009, according to the latest World Bank figures, but the counrty has drawn interest from the Gulf, including a $600 million real estate project in Sanaa being built by Qatari Diar.