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Suliman Olayan, 83; Financier and Self-Made Billionaire Businessman


Suliman Olayan, a wealthy Saudi financier who rose from his middle-class beginnings to become one of the world's wealthiest people and one of the architects of modern Saudi Arabia, has died. He was 83.

Olayan, whose $8-billion fortune put him at No. 38 on the Forbes magazine list of the richest people in the world last year, died July 4 at his home in Manhattan. The cause of death was not announced.

As the founder and chairman of the Olayan Group, an international network of more than 50 companies, Olayan made his fortune in energy, insurance, consumer goods ventures and investments.

And, as has often been pointed out in the media, he did it without having any blood connections to the Saudi royal family. As Olayan once told the Financial Times of London: "I made it on my own and as a commoner."

He began amassing his wealth in 1947 after taking out an $8,000 loan on his house and starting a small trucking company.

His General Contracting Co. soon won a large subcontract from Bechtel Corp. to help build the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, which linked oilfields in eastern Saudi Arabia to terminals in Lebanon.

Olayan eventually set up a joint venture with Bechtel, one of his many businesses in Saudi Arabia, which include a large food and consumer distribution company with exclusive licenses from General Foods, Pillsbury, Kimberly-Clark and Burger King, and other multinational corporations.

Olayan also helped his country's development by founding its first insurance company, its first public utility and numerous joint ventures. His company also helped build a Saudi airport.

His becoming a financier, according to a 1998 profile in the Financial Times of London, was born of necessity: His contracting company was importing everything from the United States, and Saudi banks would not extend credit. At the same time, U.S. banks would not accept his Saudi assets as security, so he began buying blue chip shares on the U.S. market.

Considered a powerful participant in global equity and financial markets, the Olayan Group has minority holdings in numerous public companies in the United States, such as J.P. Morgan Chase, Occidental Petroleum, MetLife and Coca-Cola. In 1981, Forbes magazine called Olayan "perhaps the most important private Saudi investor in the U.S."

Born in a small town about 150 miles northeast of the capital city of Riyadh, Olayan was the son of a merchant who imported spices from Africa. Olayan's mother died shortly after he was born, and his father died when he was 6.

He was later sent to school in Bahrain. Although he excelled academically, Olayan did not attend college. He instead landed a job as an oil gauger, testing petroleum samples for sediment and contaminants.

After returning to Saudi Arabia in 1937, he found work as a truck dispatcher for what became Arabian American Oil Co., or Aramco. He worked his way up to head of warehousing and also served as Aramco's government liaison officer.

To encourage Saudi entrepreneurs, Aramco offered its best employees a yearlong sabbatical to start their own businesses. Although he could have returned to his old job at the end of his 1947 sabbatical, Olayan started his small trucking company and never looked back.

He had homes in New York, London and Lucerne, Switzerland, but lived primarily in Riyadh.

The Olayan Group has announced that Olayan's son, Khaled, chairman of Olayan Financing Co., will succeed his father as chairman of the Olayan Group. Olayan's three daughters--Hayat, Lubna and Hutham--are also executives with the Olayan Group.

In addition to his children, Olayan is survived by his wife, Mary.

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