MENA Capital CEO Nabil Sawabini, advises those coming up in the business of Levantine real estate development and private equity management – in a riff from the famous song – “if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.”
During his years of business in Beirut, and the Middle East at large, he still never ceases to be amazed by the economic roller coaster action and news of political instability that has a knock-on effect throughout the various business sectors.
With a business degree from the American Univeristy of Beirut in 1973, Sawabini has worked from Beirut to Wall Street and back again, bringing a wealth of experience, financial street smarts, patience and conservative investing principles to MENA Capital.
Founded in 2004, Beirut-based MENA Capital sal – a noted real estate development player and fund-management company – has investment targets throughout the Middle East and North Africa region, along with selective investments in the international market.
MENA’S byword in business is stability, sensible investing, and as a basic – wealth preservation, not loss.
While emphasis is on growth for MENA’s investor, like many veteran business persons, Sawabini believes in not selling a false bill of goods.
He noted that in all investing – whether it is stocks, bonds or property development – “nothing is guaranteed.” Development in Beirut can be lucrative, but Sawabini said, “Operating in a place like Lebanon, one has to be conservative financially.”
“MENA Capital has been steady, successful and purposeful,” Sawabini said.
The company’s signature Beirut residential properties include the Ibrahim Sursock Residences, Qoreitem Gardens, Hochar Tower, the under-construction Bella Casa, a triple-tower complex and the under-construction Sky Gate.
MENA Capital’s current and in-the-pipeline projects are worth an estimated $1 billion. The private equity fund has an estimated $200 million under management in its investment vehicles and projects, predominantly in Lebanon and Iraq.
Asked about the current slowdown in the residential real estate sector, the MENA Capital CEO noted that while Beirut and Lebanon were going through a rough patch, “the truth is we [the country] have been through this several times,” in recent terms.
Political shake-ups are the name of the game in Levantine business, Sawabini said, advising that those new to the development and investing fields proceed conservatively in order not to become over-leveraged. “It doesn’t matter how smart you are once the bank comes knocking” as a result of taking on high levels of debt.
Commenting on the period running up to 2010, he says: “Certain people were newer to the business and got carried away in the euphoria. They were aggressive in the prices they paid for development properties, which they financed with a significant level of bank debt to only find that the market was not there for their product.”
Sawabini said the current challenge for MENA Capital – a comment echoed by many in the real estate sector – “has been getting more of our products out the door.” He clarified, however, that the sales rate has been in excess of 60 percent for the company’s projects, with the exception of one, which is 100 percent sold.
While MENA Capital had focused more toward the upper end of the market in the past, the firm has started emphasizing projects with small to medium sized apartments, while maintaining the company’s quality standard. Sawabini noted that the basic amenities remain the same, including a gym, swimming pools, running track, children’s playground, ample parking and security.
“The targeted buyers are executives and professionals who are seeking good quality living at affordable prices” he said.
Before founding MENA Capital, Sawabini launched Middle East Capital Group, a regional investment and merchant-banking firm headquartered in Beirut, with international institutions and Middle Eastern business and investor groups among its shareholders.
Sawabini was earlier with JP Morgan, working in high-ranking positions under the Morgan flag for over 20 years in the United States, Europe and Middle East, including being the managing director of Global Assets Services and the senior VP of Corporate Finance and Specialized Finance.
Sawabini is also the founder and chairman of the Entrepreneurial Development Foundation, launched in 1999, a non-profit organization serving to develop and provide financial support to entrepreneurs in Lebanon. Since its inception, the foundation has assisted over 2,200 small business startups and expansions.