Earlier this month, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris saw the tragic results of the Syrian refugee crisis, and announced that he wants to do something about it. He is prepared to use a substantial amount of his massive wealth in order to purchase an island in the Mediterranean and establish a home for up to 200,000 Syrian refugees. Currently, he is calling upon the governments of both Italy and Greece to sell him an island.
Sawiris, whose net worth is around $3 billion USD, is the Chairman of two major global telecommunications companies and sits on the boards of several prominent organizations. In 2001, his family established the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, an charitable organization that works to provide job and training opportunities for Egyptians as well as university and college scholarships. A Coptic Christian, Sawiris says he was deeply affected by the image of a small Syrian boy who drowned and was washed up on a Turkish beach.
He told National Public Radio:
I’m not the kind of person who likes to sit down and watch and do nothing. It’s just as simple as that. I don’t need anything. I don’t need fame. I’m famous. I don’t need money. I have money. There’s nothing in it for me. I just want to have a good conscience for myself – that I did something, I didn’t watch it. That’s all.
If either the Greek or Italian government will agree to sell him an island, Sawiris’ plans are to initially provide temporary housing, then hire the refugees at fair wages to build their own community from scratch, complete with infrastructure that would include educational institutions and hospitals. Refugees will be hired to perform the jobs for with they are trained: “If he [a refugee] was an engineer, he will work in construction. If he was a doctor, he’ll work in the hospital.”
There is no shortage of private islands for sale in the Mediterranean. For example, the 1,335-acre Greek island of Dulichium is currently available for just under $50 million – a small fraction of Sawiris’ wealth. It’s not about the island. It’s about getting the cooperation of Greece or Italy, because the island would still be under the government’s legal sovereignty. That means dealing with bureaucratic red tape, including passports, work visas, residency requirements and more. So far, neither Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras (a Socialist who should appreciate Sawiris’ proposal) nor his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi, have responded.
Sawiris points out, “The fact is nobody is doing anything about this. You have a small boy thrown to the shore like that in front of our eyes. What, I should wait until it’s my son?” On CNN, he added, “I sometimes think the politicians don’t have a heart.”
The obvious problem with Sawiris’ concept is that it would take many hundreds of billions of dollars to build the infrastructure he is envisioning for 200,000 people. It likely would take trillions. He only is worth $3 billion. Where does he plan on the money coming from? Also, the refugees need a place immediately. His island would take years to develop the infrastructure to home even tens of thousands of people. He needs running water, sewage, electricity, roadways, etc.
It’s not clear whether Sawiris is a pure humanitarian who has not really thought about the immense realities of trying to do this, or whether he is partially an opportunist. Either way, he has at least begun the discussion on how the wealthiest individuals in a country can step up to try to bring about solutions to social problems. Greece and Italy at least owe him a response.