Born in Ethiopia to an Ethiopian mother and Yemeni father, Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Ali Al Amoudi’s life has always straddled East Africa and the Middle East. A Saudi Arabian citizen since 1965, he has never lost touch with his African roots, investing billions of dollars in projects as diverse as agriculture, construction, oil and media, all the while becoming one of the world’s richest men.
According to recent figures, Al Amoudi is now worth more than $13 billion, which makes him the richest person of Ethiopian descent. He is also Ethiopia’s leading investor and, unusually, the largest foreign investor in Sweden, thanks to his significant oil interests.
Originally working in construction and real estate investment in Saudi Arabia, Al Amoudi acquired Sweden’s largest oil company, OK Petroleum, for $750 million in 1994, at a time when the Swedish economy was having severe difficulties. Because of his strong Saudi links, Al Amoudi was able to connect Swedish and Middle Eastern oil interests to their mutual benefit. For Al Amoudi, the acquisition was an opportunity to enter the growing markets of Eastern Europe, such as Poland, with its 40 million population. For OK Petroleum it meant access to Saudi Oil, which was cheaper and less dangerous to produce than its traditional sources of oil from the North Sea.
Al Amoudi changed the company name to Preem Petroleum and invested in its refinery capacity, its chain of gas stations and its exploration facilities. The latter included Svenska Petroleum Exploration, which has drilled for oil in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden as well as in African waters, off the Ivory Coast. He put further investment into civil and industrial contracting in Sweden and other engineering assets. Although Al Amoudi put Svenska Petroleum up for sale in 2012, with a reported price tag in the region of $2 billion, no sale has yet taken place.
Another oil-based investment followed, this one in a country that couldn’t be more different to Sweden: Morocco. Al Amoudi established Samir Sami in Morocco, expanding its operations through the years to the point that it now boasts profits of $57 million per year.
Both the Swedish and Moroccan oil interests are controlled by Al Amoudi’s company, Corral Petroleum Holdings, one of several companies through which the billionaire runs operations in countries all over Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Al Amoudi also owns and operates Mohammed International Development Research and Organisation Companies (MIDROC). MIDROC has extensive interests in Ethiopia, covering mining, agriculture, hotels, hospital, finance and engineering.
Al Amoudi first took an active interest in investing in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, founding MIDROC in 1994. He has consistently stressed that his main ambition for the country is to increase the standard of living of its people, to build infrastructure and to create jobs. Nevertheless, he has come under frequent criticism for what some see as his using his contacts in government to acquire assets at discounted prices and further enrich himself. Al Amoudi counters that he has donated many millions of dollars to good causes in Ethiopia, funding a 140-bed healthcare facility, sponsoring sporting events such as the Council of East and Central African Football Associations (CECAFA) cup tournament (the oldest football competition in Africa), and bringing prosperity to many parts of a country, known in recent years for natural disasters and impoverished people.
Among Al Amoudi’s Ethiopian investments is a gold mining business, which produces around five tons of gold each year. In 2007, his company, National Mining Corporation, bought from the Ethiopian government in 1997 for $172 million, announced that it had found a massive discovery of gold in the southern Oromia region of the country, with a possible valuation of up to $1 billion. The company is also prospecting for silver deposits in the Northern Amhara and Tigray regions.
Ever versatile, Al Amoudi decided in 2004 to move into the private airline business, forming Trans Nation Airways to provide both domestic and international passenger and air cargo services. The airline also covers the industrial needs of farmers, medical professionals and exporters through activities like crop spraying, emergency evacuations, geological surveys and search and rescue operations, among others.
The extent and range of Al Amoudi’s business empire has continued to expand through the years. In 2008, he signed an agreement with Tigray State administrators in Ethiopia to launch new investment projects, spanning mining, leather products, glass goods, sugar and soft drinks manufacturing factories. In late 2012, he announced the development of a massive steel mill in Toussa, Ethiopia, with a production capacity of 1.3 million tons per year.
MIDROC’s agricultural interests have also grown in the last few years. In 2008, the company announced that it would invest 250 million Birr ($15 million) to develop 250,000 hectares of land in three different areas of Ethiopia. Ethiopia Horizon Plantation will develop palm tree, rubber tree, Jatropha and tea plantations in the Mezenger, Metekal and Bench-Kaji areas of the Gambella, Benishangul-Gamuz and South Ethiopian Peoples’ States respectively. This was expected to create up to 50,000 jobs for local people, in addition to residential units, schools and other infrastructure projects. In 2011, Al Amoudi announced a plan to develop a $2.5 billion rice farming project in Ethiopia, leasing tens of thousands of hectares in preparation. This and other projects may now need Al Amoudi’s political skill to complete. This may no longer be easy.
Previously, Ethiopia’s leaders appeared keen to offer assistance to Al Amoudi, granting him 3,000 square metres of land to construct a residence, naming a street in the town of Mekele after him and erecting a large picture of him in the town centre. The state also presented Al Amoudi with the Highest Martyr’s Medal for his contribution to increasing trade and investment in the area. But his relations with Ethiopia’s ruling elite suffered a hitch in August 2012 when his long-standing ally, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, died. Al Amoudi’s relations with his fellow Ethiopians have not always been smooth. During the disputed 2005 elections in Ethiopia, he was spotted wearing a T-shirt supportive of the ruling party, the EPRDF, which was accused of intimidation and violence in the run-up to the election. As a result, Al Amoudi found himself facing severe criticism in the press, since many people felt that he was endorsing and assisting a repressive government.
Al Amoudi was deeply shocked by this reaction and went to great lengths to reverse this tide of hostility. Most dramatically, he wrote an emotional plea to his fellow Ethiopians both at home and in the United States, begging them to judge him on his actions as an investor and philanthropist, rather than as a political supporter. “You will recall that as a result of my exercising my democratic right during the recent elections in Ethiopia, there have been campaigns of hate and vilification against me, both in Ethiopia and abroad,” he wrote. “These attacks were maliciously designed to force me to leave my country and people to whom I am deeply attached and to abandon the many investments in Ethiopia and the large number of employees and their families who are dependent for their livelihood on these investments.”
Al Amoudi stressed that he would love nothing more than to see true multi-party democracy take root in Ethiopia. While some Ethiopians praise Al Amoudi’s investment and philanthropy in their country, others point out that a free press should be able to make criticisms. Much of his difficulties with the press stem from his decision, in 1998, to give financial support to an organisation called the Islamic Assembly of North America, not realising that it supported a jihadist ideology. This caused him embarrassment in Time magazine and elsewhere. Al Amoudi’s MIDROC group issued a press release following the Time magazine article, calling the report “baseless”, saying it was made to “undermine the Sheikh’s development efforts” in Ethiopia.
Al Amoudi no doubt prefers those days when he can focus on developing businesses and organisations in Ethiopia and elsewhere that bring prosperity and improved living conditions to millions of Africans. These acts of wealth generation (for his countrymen as much as for himself) are little mentioned in the international press – partly because Al Amoudi rarely speaks to the media and shies away from the spotlight. Nevertheless, his dedication to improving the lot of his country – and of Africa as a whole – is much to be admired.