Ahmad Atwan credits an essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with helping him win a Rhodes scholarship.
Bridging the East and West
Ahmad Atwan blends in with the other bankers milling around cafes at the Dubai International Financial Centre, with his flashing Blackberry, collared shirt and technical views on troubled market conditions. Like many of the region's bankers, Mr Atwan sports a classic pedigree: a Harvard University-educated Rhodes scholar who completed a master's degree in international relations at Oxford University. Still, as typical as his resume might be, Mr Atwan has found himself on a different career path from many of his peers, who sought to reach the upper rings of the Wall Street ladder. Instead, friends say he chose a more entrepreneurial path, on which he landed in the Middle East as the chief operating officer of Millennium Finance Corporation in Dubai. His wanderlust "has opened doors and brought opportunities to him from Brazil to Texas to Dubai", said Hussein Ayoub, a friend and fellow Oxford alumnus. "He has an uncanny ability to get comfortable quickly in new, unfamiliar environments." Mr Atwan's parents, an American mother and Palestinian father, met as exchange students in Germany, raising their son in Kuwait and eventually in the US. "I'm a product of my multicultural background," he says as he rattles off a few German phrases in a muddled accent for effect. "While I was growing up, we moved around a lot so I was exposed to new cultures at a young age." Since joining Millenium a year ago, Mr Atwan has been scouting out investment opportunities for Millennium, which is partly owned by Dubai Islamic Bank and Kipco and provides Sharia financial services, even for non-Muslim investors. Millennium is working on about a half-dozen deals in the telecommunications, real estate and general industrial sectors in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The company pairs investors from Asia, the Middle East and North Africa with business opportunities on the African continent, so a presence in the UAE is crucial. And as a man who greatly values his Arabic background, Mr Atwan says he was drawn to Dubai, a Muslim city that has embraced western-style capitalism, as a professional home base. "It's extremely important for us to be in Dubai as a bridge between Africa and Asia," he says. "We can't do what we do without being here, because we come across tons of opportunities and network connections." Operating in Sharia finance means the company should not be involved in investments that are "Sharia repugnant" - such as having links to alcohol, gambling or pornography - and all transactions are subject to review and approval by a Sharia board. Sharia-compliant funds and advisory businesses are gaining popularity as an investment option in the West, including the UK and US. Mr Atwan says Millennium also does business in countries in Asia, including China and India, where demand for Sharia-compliant services is strong enough to justify opening offices. The firm has aggressive expansion plans. By the end of this year, it plans to set up shop and hire local staff in Nigeria, India and Saudi Arabia. "Those areas have been affected [by the global crisis], but a little less so than the first-world area," he says. "We aren't seeing a slowdown for demand of these financial services [there]." His company consults with a Sharia board to ensure that the investments comply with Islamic law. If not, the firm rejects them. The firm is planning to raise ?100 million (Dh463.4m) to finance the production of a film chronicling the life of the Prophet Mohammed, a remake of the 1976 movie The Message. Mr Atwan hopes the updated film will enhance understanding between the Muslim world and the West. The film will be subject to review by the Sharia board to ensure that it complies with Islamic law. "The goal is to produce a movie that is attractive not only to Middle Eastern audiences, but stays true to the story of the Prophet Mohammed and is Sharia-compliant." The film project is just one way that Mr Atwan is using his business ventures to tighten his ties with his Arabic background. Born in Kuwait, he grew up in the US and visited his family's hometown of Hebron, in Palestine, with his father once a year before he left home to study. While completing an economics degree at Harvard, he became the president of the university's Institute of Politics and frequently visited the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Israel. He credits an essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with helping him secure a place as one of the 32 Rhodes scholars in 1996 out of more than 5,000 applicants. During his time at Oxford, Mr Atwan travelled the world to conduct his research on the origins of Arab nationalism in Egypt, among other topics. "When Ahmad was at Oxford, he was interested in helping low-income Palestinians gain access to educational opportunities, so he raised money for Palestinian education through the Arab Cultural Society," recalls Mr Ayoub, who first met the Millennium financier more than a decade ago at an Arab students group meeting. "[He] took groups of Rhodes scholars on tours of the poorest areas of the West Bank in order to convince them to contribute to the effort." In fact, although Mr Atwan has never lived there, when asked where he is from the response is Palestine. He has kept abreast of political issues of the region, travelled throughout the Middle East and speaks Arabic fluently. His Palestinian heritage, he adds, forms the skeleton of his identity. "If an opportunity arises, I would definitely do business in Palestine." Millennium is pushing forward with raising money for other projects, despite what Mr Atwan concedes is a difficult environment due to the global economic slowdown. One project, a fund focusing on "green and clean" energy, will need about US$150m (Dh550.9m) by June. Originally, Millennium hoped to have the money raised by next month. Mr Atwan's interest in green energy goes back to a trip to Miami in the US, according to his friend. "Ahmad can make friends anywhere he goes," Mr Ayoub says. "On a trip to Miami, he befriended a Brazilian of Lebanese origin who is a sugar cane plantation owner in Brazil. They soon hit it off and Ahmad visited his new friend in Brazil." That trip led to the men deciding in 2005 to start Green Star Energy, a Brazilian ethanol company that produces renewable energy in that country's frontier states. Mr Atwan put a professional chief executive in place to run Green Star when he moved to New York City to join Wolfensohn Capital Partners. Wolfensohn, a US-based private equity firm, brought him to Dubai when the company was looking to buy stakes in companies in the region. At first, Mr Atwan looked to Millennium as a possible investment, but it was not for sale. "At the time, I said that if I can't buy them, I can join them," he says. A year later, Mr Atwan says he saw the signs pointing to recession but acknowledges that he, like other analysts, underestimated the severity of the crisis. "We all thought Wall Street would be able to withstand it." Still, he remains relatively optimistic about Dubai Inc. While some companies are struggling, those with healthy balance sheets still want to grow, and can do so through acquisitions. "If you are a value-based player, this is a buyer's market," he says. Plans are still in place for Millennium to go public by 2011. "We're all owners of the firm [the management], so we want to build as much value as possible before taking it public," he says. Meanwhile, it is probable Mr Atwan will rely on his adventurous nature to help him navigate today's difficult financial climate. "I'll try anything," he says. Recalling a trip to south east Asia years ago, he added: "I've tried grilled cockroaches. Tastes like chicken." firstname.lastname@example.org