Companies

'Uncertainty is our middle name': Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris isn't worried about trade war

Key Points
  • The trade war is "manageable", Egyptian billionaire and CEO of OCI N.V, Nassef Sawiris, told CNBC on Monday.
  • OCI N.V produces and exports natural gas-based fertilizers and industrial chemicals to customers across agriculture and industry sectors.
  • President Donald Trump has now said he's ready to hit the remaining $300 billion of Chinese imports with tariffs if a trade deal isn't reached.
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Expecting a slowdown in the US is more realistic: OCI CEO

Billionaire business tycoon Nassef Sawiris heads a company that serves, among others, agricultural clients all over the world. But despite the U.S.-China trade war and all the uncertainty it's wreaked on his customers, the OCI N.V CEO says he's not deterred from investing.

"Trade is not helpful, but at the same time it's manageable. I think people worry too much about the trade wars, I think the world can live with some trade friction, it's not the end of the world," Sawiris, who is ranked by Forbes as the world's fourth-richest African, told CNBC's Hadley Gamble in Abu Dhabi.

The Egyptian CEO's company, OCI, produces and exports natural gas-based fertilizers and industrial chemicals to customers across agriculture and industry sectors.

"It creates some uncertainty for our customers, our farmers in North America had a tough time deciding what to plant, corn or soybeans — it had a lot to do with weather but more so with whether they can sell soybeans to China or they will be handicapped by some tariffs," Sawiris described, referencing the mounting tit-for-tat tariff battle being waged between the world's two largest economies.

"That created some added complexity in the minds of our customers and our farmers in the U.S."

Early last month, President Donald Trump unexpectedly accused China of reneging on a deal and announced that tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods would increase to 25% from 10% on May 10. Beijing retaliated, raising levies on $60 billion worth of U.S. products. Trump has now said he's ready to hit the remaining $300 billion of Chinese imports with tariffs if a trade deal isn't reached.

OCI N.V Chief Executive Officer Nassef Sawiris at a plenary session of the 9th VTB Capital Russia Calling! annual investment forum.
Mikhail Metzel | TASS via Getty Images

The developments have hit the American agriculture sector particularly hard, and the Trump administration had to introduce a $16 billion aid package for farmers hurt by reduced sales to China.

"Trade creates challenges and opportunities. Vietnam for example is benefiting from the trade war with China, the uncertainty is not welcome by the customers or the investment decision makers," Sawiris said. "At the same time, I think it's manageable."

Asked if the uncertainty — from either the trade war or regional tensions in the Middle East — would ever stop him from investing in a given region, he replied with a laugh, "Uncertainty is our middle name, so we've gotten used to that."

On Monday, the company announced a joint venture with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, ADNOC, to create the world's largest exporter of nitrogen-based fertilizer and expand market access.

Sawiris' net worth is estimated at more than $7.5 billion. He also serves as executive chairman of British football club Aston Villa FC.

A U.S. recession on the horizon?

Looking at markets, the CEO sees Europe as potentially undervalued, but is not holding out hope for a major uptick in growth from developed markets anytime soon.

"From a valuation perspective, you could argue that Europe continues to be discounted vis-a-vis North America," he said. "But the whole market looks to be running out of steam, not just in terms of trade issues, but the growth in the U.S. has been going on for 11 years and all good things have to come to some slowdown at one point."

Asked if he predicted a U.S. recession, he replied, "Not necessarily, but a slowdown I think is more realistic to be expected than continuous growth for another ten years."

Sawiris was one of the biggest shareholders of LafargeHolcim, the world's largest cement maker, before selling most of his shares — worth $67.5 million — at the start of this year. He announced he would not run for re-election to the company's board in May.

OCI N.V.'s predecessor Orascom Construction Industries was the parent company of Orascom Cement, previously the Middle East's largest cement maker, and was bought by Lafarge for $10 billion in 2007.

Nassef Sawiris is the youngest of the three Sawiris brothers, all billionaire business heavyweights who as a family own the Orascom conglomerate, which spans construction, telecommunications, tourism, industry and technology. Forbes in 2008 estimated the family's collective wealth at $42 billion.