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a city vision

One of Palestine’s wealthiest businessmen, Bashar Masri, has built a city – Rawabi – from scratch in the West Bank, valued at $1.5bn. But misperceptions are widespread and the historic project needs more FDI, as he explains to Sebastian Shehadi.

Q: What inspired you to build Rawabi?

A: Rawabi is a ‘Marshall Plan’, a developmental project aiming to lift Palestine’s economy by creating a domino effect. Since starting, we’ve been approached by two individuals ready to invest billions in Rawabi-like projects. For 15 years, Rawabi has created 10,000 jobs a year. It’s the first planned city in historic Palestine since 900AD.   

Q: Did the project receive any FDI?

A: We identified people whose heart is in Palestine and told them: ‘It’s highly unlikely you’ll make good returns.’ Who would listen? The Gulf. I set up 73 meetings. The first was with the Qatari government, and it was the last. It put in hundreds of millions. I walked out skipping. It has not interfered with the project, politically.

Q: Could Rawabi be profitable?

A: Probably not for another five years. To access Rawabi, one must go through the West Bank. We started excavation for an access road in 2010, but it wasn’t until 2012 that it got approved by Israel. Worst still, we were ready to deliver housing units in 2014, but Israel disallowed Rawabi’s access to the water mainline. We had to stop construction for a year, but couldn’t just lay off staff immediately. That cost us $100m.

Q: Why do you think the Israeli government did that?

A: The Palestinian Authority [PA] had just formed a unity government with Hamas. Israeli authorities used this issue to punish the PA through Rawabi. Eventually it approved the water because of international and [domestic] pressure. So some Israelis love Rawabi and others hate it. Another cost for Rawabi was that the PA failed to build any of the public infrastructure it promised.

Q: Is Rawabi complete, and are you still looking for investment?

A: All the infrastructure has been built and the city is about 10% filled, with 4000 people. It’s a destination for outdoor activities and shopping. Thousands come here daily. We need $200m investment in hotels, retail and services. It’s hard to bring private investors into the core project without promises of profit. We are talking to commercial banks, such as the Arab Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. There are several international technology companies who are setting up in Rawabi, such as Melanox, an Israeli start-up.

Q: Are you happy to have Israeli investors in Rawabi?

A: Any investor that comes to Palestine and creates jobs for the Palestinians is more than welcome. The tech hub is the most promising aspect of Rawabi. Our planned industrial area will take three to five years, but IT can pick things up more quickly and attract investors. The tech hub has created several hundred jobs that offer excellent opportunities to Palestine’s highly educated, motivated, internet-savvy and bilingual people. FDI does come to Palestine. I own two private equity funds and they have attracted millions in FDI to be invested in the West Bank, but not Rawabi.

Q: What is stopping more FDI coming into Palestine?

A: It’s the misperception that bullets and rockets are flying everywhere. You are more likely to be hurt by crime in London than by crime and politics in Palestine. Rawabi is helping to overcome this perception. The city is being visited by Fortune 500 CEOs and international politicians. A lot of these companies are only an hour’s drive away in Israel. We just need to show them that we exist close by and with the same infrastructure, timezone and intelligent people.

Q: Generally, are Palestinians supportive of this?

A: We have gone through stages of criticism, especially when we first announced we would invite Israelis. Most products in Palestinian supermarkets come from Israel, and Palestinians cross every day into Israel to work. Rawabi offers Palestinians higher income jobs without crossing the border.

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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