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By Archie D'Cruz

Ambition, it is said, is the driving force behind every human endeavour but success is reserved for those who try with determination, diligence and devotion.

And they don't come any more determined than Jamil Amin Wafa, chairman and chief executive of the Unitag Group which celebrates its silver jubilee this year.

Wafa has been the architect of one of Bahrain's big success stories and continues to display the same enthusiasm and dedication today at 66 as he did when he launched the group in 1974.

Unitag is involved in businesses as varied as travel, insurance, currency exchange, advertising and public relations, industrial catering, engineering and trading - and that's not an exhaustive list!

Wafa was not born with the proverbial silver spoon; instead his formative years were characterised by poverty and adversity.

"As a child, I did not have even the basic necessities. The dream of a prosperous life was a luxury, for survival was the immediate purpose," says Wafa.

But I never allowed despair to override my hopes. If anything, the harsh realities of life strengthened my determination to try and succeed."

Growing up as an orphan, he was forced to flee his native Palestine. He moved to Kuwait where he joined the travel division of the Al Ghanim Group, general sales agent for BOAC (now British Airways) in 1950. His post of junior clerk earned him the princely salary of 300 rupees a month (about US$8 at today's rates), but it got him started in a career he loved.

"Civil aviation always held my interest and the opportunity unfolded in Kuwait," recalls Wafa.

He subsequently managed Al Ghanim Travel Agency in Kuwait and established its operations in London in 1960, reportedly becoming the first travel agency from the Middle East with a presence in the UK.

Two years later, Wafa was appointed BOAC's district sales manager in Lebanon - the first non-British national to hold the post.

Wafa didn't have the financial resources during his early years to pursue formal education but his urge to learn never died. BOAC offered him the chance to update his skills and he seized the opportunity to complete a series of business and management courses in Britain and the US.

Although he didn't realise it then, his transfer to Bahrain in 1971 as BOAC's marketing development manager for the Gulf Area was to change his life.

In 1974, after a brief stint with Gulf Air, he launched what was then called United International Agencies. He poured most of his savings into the group's travel division whose name betrayed its ambitions: World Travel Service (WTS). The 'group' was essentially a one-man operation, but WTS still earned the general sales agency for the then UTA French Airlines.

Less than a year later, disaster struck. Wafa was on tour in Austria when he was informed that Al Hilal Building, which housed the newly-inaugurated WTS had been destroyed in a fire.

Others might have given up, seeing their dreams in ashes, but not Wafa. He set up a temporary office at the airport and shortly thereafter, the agency moved into the Bab Al Bahrain building in Manama, adjacent to the current site of Unitag House.

"There was no time for despair," recalls Wafa. "The burnt out office was a heart-rending sight but I was determined none of my customers would be inconvenienced."

It was to prove the turning point in his life and career.

WTS rose from the ashes, so to speak, gaining customers and credibility, and is today one of the largest travel agencies in Bahrain. It has the general sales agency for some of the finest carriers in the world, including Ansett Australia, Canadian Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Delta and Air Portugal. Its holiday division Sunshine Tours provides several packages and represents Eurail, Britrail, several resorts and car rental companies worldwide.

Even as the travel agency was beginning to make its mark, Wafa turned his attention to other fields he was interested in - most notably insurance and hotels.

In 1975, he began representing Sedgwick Forbes, a leading British brokerage company. The venture has come a long way since then, transforming first into National Insurance Services, then the publicly-listed NIC and currently into the Bahrain National Insurance Company following a merger with another major insurance firm. The recent merger, which was actively pursued by Wafa, has created the largest insurance company in Bahrain.

But while Wafa has earned a name for his travel and insurance activities, he is arguably best-known for his involvement with the Regency Inter-Continental.

Considered to be an epitome of quality service in Bahrain, the five-star hotel near Bab Al Bahrain is owned by the United Hotel Company, of which Wafa was chairman and chief executive from its formation in 1976 until 1997.

Wafa was involved in every stage of the project, from land reclamation (the site was then under water), design and construction to furniture and fittings. It is no secret that all aspects of the hotel - its tastefully decorated lobby and service areas, the banqueting and conference facilities, guest rooms and suites, restaurants, lounges and shopping arcade - have had the benefit of Wafa's vision, planning and expertise.

Says a member of the Regency staff, "Nothing escaped his attention or memory. With him, there was only one way to do the job - the right way."

Such an approach to detail has also paid rich dividends in other activities of the Unitag Group, which now includes Bahrain Markets, engineering division Transitec Gulf, trading and contracting unit Anaiza, the Arab Exchange Company, United Caterers and Contractors and, until recently, Fortune Promoseven, the largest privately-owned advertising agency in the Middle East.

"It has been said that quality is a state of mind and I am privileged to have the reputation of being a perfectionist," says Wafa.

He has come a long way, but for those with similar ambitions of making it to the top, Wafa has some simple advice: "There is no magic formula for success. If you are on the right track, you can never go wrong."

Wafa warns that rising literacy levels mean greater competition in the job market and good work ethics and professionalism will prove critical in the years ahead.

As for his vision of Bahrain in the 21st century, he sees the country pushing strongly ahead with plans to develop tourist attractions such as amusement and theme parks and beach resorts.

"Bahrain," he predicts, "will grow into a major destination for leisure and business travellers."

Published in the Visitor's Complete Guide to Bahrain 1999


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