Shari Arison: The Wealthiest Woman In The Middle East

ANALYSIS

on August 29 2012 6:22 AM

Coming in at number 288 on Forbes' list of billionaires and number 64 on the list of "100 Power Women," Shari Arison might look like just another female CEO to click over and ignore when perusing the Forbes lists.

But in a world of oil barons and real estate sultans (not to mention actual sultans), the 54-year-old Arison holds her own as the richest and most powerful woman in the Middle East.

She owns Carnival Cruise Lines with her brother, Micky (who, incidentally, also owns the NBA champion Miami Heat), as well as Bank Hapoalim, Israel's largest bank.

Born in 1957 in New York, Arison is the daughter of Ted Arison, the founder of Carnival Cruise Lines and co-founder of Norwegian Cruise Lines. When her parents divorced in 1966, Arison moved to Israel with her mother. At the age of 17, she enlisted in the Israeli Defense Force. She later attended Miami Dade University in Florida, but never graduated.

When Ted Arison died in 1999, he was dubbed the "world's wealthiest Jew," and he left Shari 35 percent of his fortune and holdings, including an estimated 94 million shares of Carnival Cruises, as well as the ownership of Bank Hapoalim and the real estate firm Skikun & Binui.

Today, Bank Hapoalim has grown to around 14,000 employees worldwide, Carnival Cruises generates an annual revenue of close to $16 billion, and Shari is worth upwards of $3.9 billion herself.

Shari Arison's mantra, as articulated in a recent Forbes interview, is that "doing good is good business."

"I think it's really important to do good," Arison told Forbes' Jenna Goudreau. "I think it's really important to do good. If we want to see positive change in the world, then we need to connect to goodness. I try in everything I do, both in business and philanthropy, to make a positive change."

Outwardly, Arison appears to be sticking to her mantra.

In 2006 she invested $100 million in Miya, a water-efficiency research company that focuses on water desalination and distribution, and in Salit, Israel's largest salt company,

According to a former employee, she is "a huge believer that sustainability and profitability go hand in hand."

In 2001, she started a series of workshops called "Essence of Life," which espoused her own brand of spirituality, and was "aimed at arousing awareness of the ability of each of us to create inner peace by looking inward and listening to ourselves."

Arison started the non-profit, she says, after she went into therapy and confronted the phobias that she grew up with.

"I spent my entire life being afraid," Arison told the Israeli outlet YNetNews in 2005.

"I was afraid of everything, height, flights, I had no idea why. [Therapy] changed my life. I was rife with phobias."

In an interview with the Washington Post, Arison said she was aware of the perception that "her spiritual claims and her identity as a businesswoman are eye-rollingly opposite."

"It is a shame because it should be quite the opposite," Arison told the Post. "They were not scared [about] all the mortgage investments [in 2008] ... and those were very rational business people, who all they cared about was profit, and look what happened. And here comes someone who says they want things to be vision-based, with values, with caring, with a sense of humanity, and people are scared."

In 2007 she started up Good Deeds Day, which began in Israel as a day of projects and community-building activities, with 7,000 volunteers. In 2012, Good Deeds Day was picked up by MTV as a partner, and now has spread to 50 countries

For her philanthropic and environmental work, in 2010 Forbes named Arison one of the "greenest" billionaires in the world, and in the same year she was the recipient of the America-Israel Friendship League's Partners for Democracy Award. At the award ceremony, former U.S. President Bill Clinton praised Arison, saying "Your works has impacted the world in a profoundly positive way."

Israeli President Shimon Peres called her "a great contributor to Israel."

But Arison's businesses are not all about happy inner selves, saving water, and doing good for the sake of doing good. In 2002, she fired 900 of her employees from Bank Hapoalim (whose name means The Laborer's Bank), including much of the old guard of the management, who had been there since her father's days.

Arison defended the decision to lay off what amounted to 10 percent of her workforce, saying, "I will not tolerate slander and sedition," adding that the bank had "no choice" but to make the cuts.

"If we hadn't cut back now, we would have faced a far more serious problem in two to three years."

The shakeup left Arison as the controlling shareholder of the bank, and with a new public profile -- one of dominance and assertiveness, rather than as the spiritual heiress who was publicly finding herself. The makeover prompted Israeli comedian and talk show host Lior Shlein to joke that "[Arison] believes in good vibes, she believes in the slogan 'Peace begins within me,' and she believes in high interest fees and low credit limits."

That's not to mention the fallout from the sinking of the Costa Concordia, one of Carnival's cruise ships, off the coast of Italy in January. Both Micky and Shari Arison lost half a billion dollars total in that debacle, and Micky reportedly had to sell all of his shares of Arison Holdings, which owns Carnival Cruises. Neither sibling provided a comment to the media on the tragedy that killed 11 people.

More recently, Arison has come under fire in the Israeli media for bowing to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish lobby by removing the image of a modestly-clad woman from the packaging of Salit products.

On the other hand, the right-wing commentator Mati Shemoelof praised Arison's decision, and asked: "Why didn't Salit remove the female logo from its products earlier? Why didn't Arison ever wonder, as a thinking woman, why the company she owned relegated the woman to the kitchen?"

Whatever her opinion on the salt debate, Arison is definitely not a woman one would find in the kitchen.

"I don't think of myself as a powerful person," Arison told Forbes. "But I do use the platforms I have to make a difference in the world. Anyone who has a position where they can make a difference should use it."

More News from IBT MEDIA