Sheikh Salem: The man who founded NCB
A boy in Hadhramaut — then a poor British protectorate — decided to undertake a tedious journey stretching over land and sea to join some relatives and neighbors in a country that later became Saudi Arabia.
Hadhramaut, currently in Yemen, was a poor neighborhood then from where hundreds of thousands migrated to find better living opportunities in Saudi Arabia, India and Indonesia. Saudi Arabia was particularly attractive because of its proximity and Arabic language. It also looked quite promising in the thirties before the start of the oil boom. Salem arrived in the country hoping to find a menial job in order to survive and maybe save a couple of riyals to send back home to his indigent family.
He suffered like others due to poverty and illiteracy but managed to cope with all sorts of obstacles until he grew up and managed to land a job. He then established his own small business as a moneychanger and married into a relatively wealthy family in Makkah. He subsequently became close enough with the family and became a partner in their business.
By the time I had the first opportunity to see him in public — not for an interview because he seldom gave one — he had become the top banker of the Kingdom, one of the richest men not only in the Kingdom but in the entire Middle East.
Meanwhile, I was fortunate enough to be acquainted with his sons — Mohammed the eldest and Khaled, a bright banker. Sadly both of them died in the last few years or shortly after the death of their father Sheikh Salem bin Mahfouz founder and owner of the National Commercial Bank, the largest bank in the Middle East. As the sole owner and with no debts at all he was perhaps one of the richest bankers in the world.
Still until then he was illiterate. He had a brilliant mind and according to those who worked with him and those who were close to him he was the brightest man they knew as he continued to work ceaselessly until the last day of his life. Only when he was very sick and bed-ridden did he stop his involvement in the business.
Fortunately, Salem had the opportunity to work for the wealthy Kaaki family of Makkah who were engaged in money exchange business. Salem married into the family and eventually became a partner in a new company on a 50-50 basis. It was named Saleh and Abdul Aziz Alkaaki and Salem bin Mahfooz Company. The company was primarily engaged in foreign exchange and rudiments of banking since there were no modern banks then. Salem decided to meet King Abdul Aziz. A meeting for him was arranged by then Finance Minister Sheikh Abdullah Al Sulaiman. Salem requested the king to give chance to the nationals to open banks. He said the country’s finance was run by foreigners and suggested that nationals should be allowed to establish a bank like those operating in the country and elsewhere. King Abdul Aziz agreed and the National Commercial Bank came into being and flourished almost immediately. When Sheikh Salem died, his son Khaled sold a 20 percent stake in NCB to a group of private investors in order to facilitate the transition of the bank in July l997 from private partnership to a joint stock company. In l999, a further 50 percent of the family’s holding was sold to the Saudi Public Ownership Fund. Two years later the remaining part was also sold to the same entity.
During the course of my career as a journalist, I met all his sons who were educated and well-mannered despite their enormous wealth. However, of particular interest to me were his sons Mohammed and Khaled, whom I met in the bank and at their homes. Mohammed was, for some years, in charge of the bank and spent some of his weekends at Obhor Beach near Jeddah in his small bungalow where he enjoyed sitting and receiving his guests. There I had a lunch with him in the presence of a foreign adviser.
Mohammed spoke Arabic and English exceedingly well and given his baritone voice he reminded me of some famous speakers. He gave me a lot of background information about his father and family roots in Hadhramaut, which only enhanced my respect and admiration for the founder and his achievements. I asked him if it was true that his father was illiterate and he affirmed that he was but was so talented that he actually managed his business and interacted with his audience through sheer knowledge.
Sheikh Salem’s another son, Khaled, was a banker par excellence. He was soft spoken, famous for his philanthropy and generous patronage of his staff scores of whom received Saudi nationality through his efforts. He also guided them in their jobs.
His brothers Saleh and Abdul Elah were businessmen of the first order and are now owners of a large company called SEDCO, which is engaged in various pursuits including real estate.
Sheikh Salem was one of the most successful Hadhrami settlers in the Kingdom famous for the establishment and running of the largest bank here. Thanks to his willingness to help others in their businesses, he contributed to the creation of many companies. In the case of some businessmen I knew, he helped them tide over their financial problems and provided them with money. He agreed to help them saying his success depended on their success.
This resulted in many businessmen whether Saudis or Hadhramis sticking to the NCB even during serious crises.
Sons of Sheikh Salem and SEDCO Holding Company provided a corporate donation to King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST) to support a research awards program and a teacher outreach training program. The programs aim to help further the university’s mission of advancing science and technology and addressing the global challenges of our times: energy, water, food and environment.
SEDCO’s gift exemplifies the company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility.
SEDCO has been actively involved in developing the education sector in Jeddah and Makkah region, in particular, through initiatives such as providing grants to the Saudi Institute for Health Services and Dar Al Hikma College, including through the development of an annual scholarship program. The company also works with the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and the Ministry of Education to enhance the skills of teachers and administrators in the Makkah region.
• Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.

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