Innovator: Zahi Khouri is Creating Jobs and Encouraging Investment in Palestine

Zahi Khouri was born in a Palestinian Christian family in the city of Jaffa, then part of Palestine.  His family fled Jaffa during the Israeli invasion in 1948, becoming refugees in Lebanon.  He moved to the US in 1967 where he built a career in international business.

In the 1990’s he moved back to Palestine to launch a business.  But the move back “wasn’t just about building a business. It was about building a thriving Palestinian economy that could serve as the foundation of an independent state.”

Khouri’s success was recognized in 2015 as he was a recipient of the “Oslo Business for Peace Award” given annually to individuals and organizations creating economic value that in turn generates value for society.

He helped establish the Palestinian Development and Investment Company (PADICO), the largest Palestinian investment company, as well as the Palestinian National Beverage Company, and has served as the CEO of Jawwal, the only Palestinian telecommunications company and cellular service provider.  His is active in a spectrum of NGO, civic, cultural and sports organizations.  Khouri describes himself as “a faithful Christian” and serves on the Board of DIYAR Consortium.

A vocal critic of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, he has frequently met with American officials to voice concern especially over the impact of the occupation on the Palestinian economy.   

We are honored to feature his contribution to this week’s ‘Peace Doers’ blog:

by Zahi Khouri

Doing business in Palestine is not for the faint-hearted. Every single aspect of our lives is controlled and managed by Israel, and in business this is no different. Yet we manage the numerous obstacles with perseverance and creativity.

When I returned to Palestine after the signing of the Oslo Accords, I wanted to bring a business to Palestine that would be instantly recognizable, that would bring an undeniable presence to our nascent state. I found that in Coca-Cola, plus their willingness to help me create jobs in Palestine and contribute to our economic prosperity, let me to open the first Coca-Cola factory in Palestine in 1998.

While running our bottler, the National Beverage Company (NBC), has not been easy, it has been a success beyond my dreams. To date, it remains the largest direct foreign investment in Palestine, creating hundreds of direct jobs and thousands more indirect jobs. Recently, we won The Coca-Cola Company’s award to the best bottler in our region, against 92 other bottlers. However, I individually cannot claim our success, as it could not have been achieved without my colleagues, most of them much younger than me. As I witness their drive to persist, to succeed, to exist, I realize that Palestine’s greatest resource is our human capital, unique in the Arab world, as has been proven time and time again.

Their determination humbles me and motivates me to continue to build economic opportunities in Palestine. Most recently, I am proud to have co-founded Ibtikar Fund, Palestine’s newest venture capital fund. Unlike any other fund in the Arab world, our focus is investing at the earliest stages– taking risks in companies when they need it most and closing a critical funding gap for Palestinian entrepreneurs.

And, I am proud to say that the majority of our funding comes from Palestinians, both from within and outside Palestine, many of whom are investing in Palestine for the first time, and who are so excited to offer our companies not only their financials support, but also their expertise and their networks to help them grow.

I am so pleased with our progress thus far—we have invested in ten innovative tech startups and have many more promising companies in our investment pipeline. These companies are no longer “mom and pop” shops around the corner, but they are creating solutions to problems in the Arab region and the world. For example, Mashvisor is helping real estate investors make more intelligent investment decisions, and RedCrow is taking their experience living in Palestine and helping organizations operating in MENA navigate increasingly volatile environments.

The young men and women creating such companies are not deterred by the challenges they face. That is what makes them such wonderful entrepreneurs– they are always looking for innovative solutions. But, more importantly, they have not allowed the occupation in which they grew up define them. They refuse to be victims and instead want to prove to the world that they too, as Palestinians, can make great companies, right here from Palestine. These young men and women are Palestine’s future, and it is BRIGHT.

Our occupier, one of the world’s leading “Startup Nations” has taken advantage of the billions of dollars it invests in the occupation of our people and land to create amazing technologies it then markets for civil use. But, our state will not be secured by building bigger walls or better weaponry and defense systems, but from the creation of a sustainable society, through which we can develop relationships with our neighbors, including trade relationships, as equals.

Every year our Palestinian universities graduate thousands engineers, over half of them women, and over half of them cannot find work after graduation. By supporting our young entrepreneurs in building great companies, we provide them with an opportunity to join their colleagues in the global marketplace, to prosper, and to dream once again.

Every one of us knows the hard situation facing Palestine today—an ever growing unemployment rate, limitations on our economic growth and potential, and an unstable political situation. Yet, I believe there is absolutely no reason why the next Bill Gates cannot be from Palestine. Diamonds are created under tremendous pressure, and Palestine has mines full of diamonds.

You can follow the work of Ibtikar Fund on Facebook or on Twitter: @IbtikarFund.

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