The Bedouin billionaire

Born in the desert in Syria and destined to be a shepherd, here’s how Mohed Altrad overcame a tragic beginning to become a superstar businessman.

Born in a Bedouin tent in the middle of the Syrian desert as a result of his mother being raped, Mohed Altrad’s beginning could not have been more tragic. Yet rather than living the tribal life destined for him at the hands of a violent father, he escaped and built a billion-dollar business empire, which has even won him a World Entrepreneur of the Year award last year.

Abu Dhabi played a part in Altrad’s meteoric rise. He worked for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company before setting up the Altrad Group on the back of a scaffolding empire that forms his core business. Although Altrad’s passport says he is French and 65 years old, the billionaire is not quite sure. “I don’t know my date of birth because when you are born in the desert in a Bedouin tribe moving all the time, there is no register,” he says. “My mother was abused from the age of 12 and raped twice by the head of the tribe. The first time, she gave birth to my brother, who was killed [within the tribe]. The second time was for me to be born into this world.”

Altrad puts his good fortune down to a lucky streak from an early age. He was spared the fate of his brother because he was sent to live with his grandmother. “She did not want me to go to school because shepherds don’t need school.” But her eager grandson insisted. Altrad later went to live with another relative near Raqqa, now the violent capital of the Islamic State (Isis). He earned a baccalaureate, graduated first in the region and earned a scholarship from the Syrian government to study in France.

“I did not speak any French,” he says. “Being raised in the desert without electricity, the only thing I had when I arrived in France were pictures in my mind of a beautiful country of freedom, liberty and solidarity.” When Altrad arrived in Montpellier in November 1969, aged about 17, he found the people to be as cold as the weather. “I was really disappointed. It was raining and cold and because I did not speak French, people seemed very unfriendly. I decided France would never change for me. I had to change for this country. I felt I had no choice.”

He earned a doctorate in computer science in the early 1970s and married a Frenchwoman. He and three friends then founded and quickly sold a startup that made portable computers, netting Altrad nearly $600,000. In 1980, he answered an ad in Le Monde newspaper to work for Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. He spent nearly four years in Abu Dhabi with his wife and two young children designing a telecommunications network to communicate with people on the offshore oil platforms.

But it was the building work in the rapidly evolving city that really caught his eye. “There was so much construction going on without any safety procedures for these Pakistani, Indian and Filipino workers,” he says. “They were just climbing on top of scaffolding, which was hastily built without regard for safety. I saw a guy falling to his death.”

Back in France in 1985, Altrad
was asked if he would be interested
in acquiring a failing scaffolding
manufacturer. Altrad decided to buy
the company with Richard Alcock, a
British friend from Abu Dhabi. They paid one French franc, with Altrad owning 90 per cent of the company. It was a wise move. The Altrad group now employs 17,000 people in 100 countries around the world, having acquired a Dutch competitor, Hertel, in March. It enabled them to double in size to become a company with 170 affiliates around the world in countries including the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia, as well as annual profits of $200 million.

Altrad claims his business model is based on humanistic principles. He wrote a charter over 30 years that he calls “pathways to the possible”. He says: “Initially it was just notes for discussion. Then it became a small poetic book. Every now and then we update it. It explains the humanistic concepts of the enterprise, which are actually applied.”

The group makes more than $220 million before tax and at least 15 per cent is given back to employees in accordance with certain criteria. “I am not trying to tell you things are perfect – but the intention is there,” he says. “I am working every day to make things a little bit better.”

After 30 years away, Altrad returned to Abu Dhabi in September 2014. He was disappointed not to be able to recognise anything from his time here, although, he says, “What has been built and done in Abu Dhabi is beautiful.” The entrepreneur took his youngest two sons and daughter on a trip to the UAE’s desert. “We ate and rested under the open desert sky. It was not something new for me but it was fascinating for the children and for my wife. We really enjoyed it.”

Altrad says he could still live as a desert Bedouin, even today. “Having the title of billionaire does not impress me. I live simply. Yes, in a good house – a small chateau – and there is a lot of comfort. But if you take me from that place and send me to the desert, I can live as I lived when I was a child with no problem.”

He has written a book called Bedouin, an autobiography chosen by French education officials to be read in schools. “In France, I am very well known as an Arab. But my story is not used as [an example of] ‘look, Arabs can succeed and become French’. It is looked at as being a one-off.” He is concerned about the tide of anti-Arab sentiment in France. “France is a country with a very old culture,” he says. “There is a sense as an immigrant that whatever you do, you will never be French. Even now, in me, I feel this oriental culture because I am Bedouin, Syrian and Arab and at the same time, I went through this exercise to really become totally French, to master the language in becoming an acclaimed novelist. In me, there are two people. This is very difficult. Can we be double?”

Having been through such tragedy as a child, Altrad acknowledges that his life could have turned out very differently. “I am lucky not to have become like my father. I have no enemies and I hate conflicts.
“But I know I will never be totally happy in life because what happened to my mother will always be in my blood. She witnessed her son being killed and then me being brought to life and she very quickly died after I was born. Through my humanistic endeavours, perhaps I am still trying to revive my mother.”