Zahi Khouri was nine when his Palestinian Christian family left their home in Jaffa. It was 1948; modern Israel was being born, and his parents, listening to the messengers running into town with news of fighting, decided to leave.
He’s always second-guessed that decision by his parents. “It was a mistake to leave,” the now 77-year-old said. “It’s your home.”
And that’s why Khouri went back. After a career that saw him climb to the position of president at the giant Saudi Arabian consumer conglomerate, the Oylayan Group, he returned in 1997 to run a Coca-Cola franchise, now a $100m operation and the third-largest employer in the territory, with 450 staff.
This month, he is doing something many predicted would be impossible, opening a new $20m Coca-Cola bottling factory in the Gaza Strip. It’s the first significant economic development in decades in a territory with a 42% unemployment rate, among the highest in the world. The plant, owned by Khouri’s company, will directly employ 250 and, including people working for suppliers and subcontractors, provide employment to an estimated 1,000 more people.
It is hard to describe the impact of what he is doing.
After a stellar career and with plenty of money saved, Khouri could have retired to Florida in the US, where he owns a home. Instead, he joined the millions of people over 50 around the world who embark on second acts, be it entrepreneurship, volunteerism, pursuing a long-held passion, or a mix. For expats and refugees, the path sometimes leads home.
Of course, not everyone goes to the extreme like Khouri, who returned to one of the hardest places in the world to live, let alone run a business.
“When you have McDonald’s or Coke, you put a country on the map,” he said, explaining his thinking, which began to form after the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.
A refugee story
Khouri’s stature in the business world, his alliance with Coke, and his relentless optimism have enabled him to stick to his business-building in the Gaza Strip for nearly 20 years.
After his childhood as a refugee in Lebanon, he attended university in Germany, arriving there in a coat donated by the United Nations. He completed an MBA at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, and then worked for US manufacturers such as Reynolds Metals Company and Phelps Dodge from 1967 to 1972, cutting his teeth as a leader in an era of labour disputes. “My plant was the only one without a strike,” he said of time spent with Phelps Dodge at its operations in Brazil.
The time spent with American companies enabled him to become a US citizen. In 1973, he was one of the management team that formed American Express’s investment bank in Beirut. He signed a management agreement that gave him an equity stake in the Oylayan Group, a Saudi Arabian company that which holds licenses for Coca-Cola, Nabisco and General Foods, among others. Working between New York and Saudi Arabia, he spent 20 years with Oylayan, retiring as president of its holding company in 1994.
But he didn’t retire to a life of leisure. “I’ll be hanging around when I lie horizontally forever,” he said. It took him two years to lobby Coke to open the factory. Product finally rolled out of the factory in 1998.
When you have McDonald’s or Coke, you put a country on the map.
“I felt, ‘I’m back to being a first-class citizen’,” he said of his return after so many years. In his long career elsewhere, he said, “I felt like a guest.”
But the place he remembered in scraps of childish recollections had changed, of course. “When I left, Jaffa was a highly-cultured city. We had the only country club, churches, a lot of elegance,” he said.
In the years he has been back, though, Jaffa has gone from an informal settlement of Tel Aviv to a popular beachfront resort, but he still feels a sense of loss over what once was, he said.