I had the pleasure of being invited for a weekend to a beautiful Greek island to meet a dear and longstanding friend Theo.
I was staying at their well-positioned villa overlooking the Aegean Sea.
The view was spectacular and the weather, whilst hot, was moderated by a slight northerly breeze.
I was sitting calmly with an espresso after having breakfast, gazing at the shimmering sea and as the profile of a sailing boat crossed my vision, in came Theo along with his attractive wife Irene and a group of friends that I had not met before.
We sat in a semi-circle facing the sea. Theo in green shorts and a white t-shirt smoking a wide Churchill cigar, Irene in a dazzling sky-blue kaftan. I was introduced to their friends.
Pierre, a French politician who was sitting rocking his left leg nervously and had a serious look on his face.
He was chain-smoking. Alberto, an Italian from Rome who is an analyst, author and international speaker was in swimming trunks and a polo shirt, ready for the pool.
He was with his wife Sabrina who was half Lebanese and half Italian.
Both of them with warm smiles and eating chocolate croissants with cups of coffee.
Matt, a young American in cut jeans and red flip-flops with many chains adorning his neck was full of energy and speaking loudly about his latest start-up.
I later learned that Matt had already sold two of his companies at values approaching a billion US dollars.
Theo, who invited the group to his summer home for the weekend, was a Greek shipping magnate but he also owned retail chains in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Theo was a workaholic, and even though he was over 70 years old he was still traveling extensively, always engaging and looking for the next diamond in the rough.
We were all listening to Matt talk about his new venture.
I was listening intently as I am always fascinated by new technologies. In response to Theo, Matt said that he expects to sell his new platform named Human Tree, which is a biotech company focused not only on anti-aging, but also on enhancing health conditions for those over 60. Matt added, with a flourish as he fiddled calmly with his chains, that tests on a trial group across three years have been very positive.
Irene, who was an economist and CFO of Theo’s holding company, interjected and asked Matt about the impact on his start-up given that the world is witnessing major market drops, especially in tech, plus a recession in Europe, US economic contraction and inflation.
Alberto added that food and gas prices are also spiking.
He frowned, and I did not know if it was from what he said or the continuous cigarette smoke from Pierre who was on his third Gauloises cigarette, unfiltered, from the moment we sat on the balcony.
Theo waved to his butler who was in the background and tapped his cigar ash into a large ashtray with the Habanos logo in the corner. We all ordered drinks: cocktails for Irene and Sabrina, orange juice for Matt, iced tea with lemon for Alberto and myself and a Ricard for Pierre. I did not show my surprise, although I wondered how one could drink powerful anise or liquorice-flavoured liqueur so early in the day. I said to myself that the French will be French, as Ricard is France’s national drink created by Paul Ricard in the 1930s.
Alberto, in a calm voice with only a slight Italian accent (although his hand movements betrayed his nationality) said that all indications are that, as the world vacations this summer after two years of Covid, we will hit a wall. Pointing to his fingers, he said that first, politically, the world is a mess. Biden’s polls show his popularity has tanked, Johnson was forced to resign, Draghi – the best Prime Minister Italy has seen in decades – resigned,Scholz is weakened and unable to fill Merkel’s slippers let alone shoes, Putin is on a rampage, Zelensky cares more about Zelensky than stopping the war and destruction, Xi Jinping with a major Covid outbreak is silent and playing all sides as China’s economy recedes just as Europe’s recession has reared its head.
Pierre suddenly lurched forward in his seat and added: “Secondly, in the world of economics, Apple froze hiring, Eurozone consumer confidence dropped to a record low, negative 27, and that comes before Russia cuts its natural gas supplies to Europe.” Pierre coughed, took a deep breath, and continued: “The euro is falling in value, energy rationing is on the horizon, interest rates are rising which enhances the cost of business, businesses are recalculating their next earnings down, the UK inflation rose to a 40-year high – over 9 percent – competing with US inflation.”
Irene joined in the gloom and said: “Major companies in all fields are shedding workers, manufacturing production in the US and Europe is contracting and supply chains are in a mess.”
Sabrina, sitting and staring at the sea and looking at her iPad turned to us with a smile and said: “Don’t forget Microsoft, Facebook, Lyft and many other companies are laying off staff as more economic pain is on the horizon – and there is not a shred of evidence of any leadership, either political or economic, to correct the path we are rapidly sprinting towards.” In Arabic, she added: “Kharab bedoun daiee, zy Lebnan.”
I translated: “Ruinate without necessity like Lebanon.” Sabrina went back to her iPad and
I explained I believe the gist of what is being said is that Lebanon is witnessing major ruin with the only reason being hugely poor leadership, and that Sabrina thinks this is what is happening worldwide now.
Sabrina nodded as if she heard what I said. The drinks arrived with a flourish carried by the butler with his white gloves, followed by a female assistant out of Vogue.
The drinks were laid out around us on separate tables along with mouth-watering canapés: salmon, crostini with cheese, sesame prawn balls, devilled eggs, blue cheese and pear on salted crackers, and pea and mint croustades.
Sabrina attacked her cocktail and a sesame prawn ball without looking at us, keeping her eyes on her iPad. Alberto said that Sabrina has been very hurt by what happened in Lebanon.
He added that her Lebanese family lost everything due to corrupt and inept leadership.
Pierre ordered his second Ricard and lighting – I lost count – another Gauloises cigarette with its pungent smell with dark tobacco from Syria and Turkey reflecting a strong aroma which made Alberto shuffle his seat a meter away from Pierre.
Pierre looked seriously at Alberto and said: “What happened in Lebanon is now at the welcome mat for the world.” Receiving his second glass of Ricard from the butler and taking a loud sip, he said: “Inept governments are driving around the world with no GPS.”
“You mean the world is burdened with kakistocracy,” I said, and everyone looked at me. Theo broke the moment of silence and asked what kakistocracy was.
I explained that it is a word I learned from my friend Eric Peterson, Managing Partner of AT Kearney, which means ‘government by the worst persons, a form of government in which the worst persons are in
Munching loudly on his blue cheese and peas on a cracker, Alberto said: “The world is full of kakistocracies, from Sri Lanka to my own Italy and America.”
Matt, speaking on his cell phone, hung up and said: “Yes, the US is suffering after it messed up its role as the world uni power: going into Iraq for no reason; messing up Afghanistan; failing to lure Russia into our orbit and continuing to threaten Russia; messing up our relationship with China that Kissinger and Nixon opened up; and now the huge internal divisiveness and a Supreme Court ruling on abortion based on an ideological basis and not the constitution, adding to the divisiveness of America. God help us and the world.”
Theo said: “Before we go to the pool for some refreshingly cool water to clear our heads, does anyone have a solution?”
Pierre jumped in and said: “Leaders need to start ceasing escalation of the problems and work together without hidden agendas.”
Irene added: “Sanctions don’t work. Look at Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. Sanctions must end and supply chains must be improved to halt this inflation.” “Food and energy prices must stabilize,” Alberto added. Sabrina turned to her husband and said: “I need a cold swim, but don’t forget we must have better leadership to work together to deal with pandemics, and health issues and to negotiate conflicts and occupations such as Palestine, Donbas, Kashmir, without war.” Matt, again on his cell phone, gave a thumbs up. Theo turned to me and with a questioning tone said: “Shafik, any ideas from you?”
I put down my iced tea and said: “We must immediately have a ceasefire in Ukraine, remove the sanctions, resume the grain shipments from Russia and Ukraine plus resume the gas supplies to Europe, start the Israel-Palestine negotiations in a similar format to the Madrid Conference or Oslo, bring Russia, China and Iran in the fold on win-win terms, bring convergence and globalization back and stop the divisiveness, divergence, deglobalization and escalation of conflict.”
Theo stood up and, saying nothing, quickly led us to the beautiful expansive pool.
Irene walked beside me and said: “I feel sorry for the world population nonchalantly vacationing on the eastern shore and California in America, St Tropez in France, Algarve in Portugal, Marbella and Mallorca in Spain, all over Greece and around the world – and having no sense of the rumblings beneath the volcano.”
I smiled thinking of the Sahel in Egypt and as I was about to respond, Pierre came and grabbed Irene’s attention – cigarette and a third Ricard in hand. Matt was still on his cell phone, Sabrina in the pool with Theo and Alberto smiling widely.
I stood gazing at the blazing Greek sun, the calm sea, and the beautiful landscape, and took a deep breath of clean air hoping, against all odds, that next year the world would be a better place.
M. Shafik Gabr is a renowned leader in international business, innovation, investment and one of the world’s premier collectors of Orientalist art, and an accomplished philanthropist.
During his career, Gabr established over 25 companies plus three investment holding companies including ARTOC Group for Investment and Development which, established in 1971, is a multi-disciplined investment holding company with businesses in infrastructure, automotive, engineering, construction and real estate, over the past three years focusing on investment in technology and artificial intelligence.
Gabr is the Chairman and a founding member of Egypt’s International Economic Forum, a member of the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum, a Board Member of Stanhope Capital, an International Chairman of the Sadat Congressional Gold Medal Committee, and a Member of the Parliamentary Intelligence Security Forum. Gabr is a Member of the Metropolitan Museum’s International Council and serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for Financial Stability, the Advisory Board of The Middle East Institute, and the Global Advisory Council of the Mayo Clinic.
Through the Shafik Gabr Social Development Foundation, Gabr is helping to improve elementary-school education in Egypt, introducing students to arts and culture and promoting sports and physical fitness for youth. The Foundation has its first Medical and Social Development Center in Mokattam, Cairo, offering free medical and health services. In 2012 Gabr established in the US the Shafik Gabr Foundation which supports educational and medical initiatives plus launched in November 2012 the ‘East-West: The Art of Dialogue initiative promoting exchanges between the US and Egypt with the purpose of cultural dialogue and bridge-building.
Gabr holds a BA in Economics and Management from the American University in Cairo and an MA in Economics from the University of London.