Raymond Audi is chairman of the board and general manager at Bank Audi, Lebanon’s top bank. At 83 years of age he is at the bank everyday, while initiating and working on many other philanthropic projects
It might not seem unusual that the director of the top bank in Lebanon describes himself as “truly a banker,” but Raymond Wadih Audi’s interests extend far beyond economics.
It is true that he has been instrumental in the rise of Bank Audi. In fact, he was the engineer of the early development of the bank, establishing, in 1974, the first merchant bank in Lebanon. And he also overlooked the overall expansion of the bank to Paris, Geneva, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Monaco and Turkey.
But there are many more strings to Audi’s bow. As an avid art patron, he funded the newly constructed Audi Forum in Downtown Beirut, which showcases the work of hundreds of artists from Lebanon and abroad. He is the founder of the National Heritage Foundation and, in 2000, the Audi Foundation, which is dedicated to the promotion and revitalization of craftsmanship professions in Lebanon – particularly in the city of Sidon. It aims to breathe new life into the historical sites of the city and to preserve and enhance its social and cultural heritage. The Audi Foundation has overseen the opening of the Soap Museum in Sidon and is in the process of turning Villa Audi into a mosaic museum, in an attempt to preserve his country’s heritage.
He is a founding member of the 206 A Bone Trust, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Executive Committee of the Chronic Care Center, where he is often described as a pillar of the organization.
The winner of numerous banking accolades and the instigator of many philanthropic projects in Lebanon, Audi has lived, and is living, a full life.
Evidence of the extraordinary scope of Audi’s vision can be seen in the gated village of Faqra, high up on Mount Lebanon. Here Audi created a promising investment opportunity for Lebanon’s vital tourism industry, as well as the private sector. He began work on the village, “his baby,” in the ’80s and had to endure the hardships and challenges that came with the Civil War. It is beautifully located, close to the mountain summit and extending and neighboring Lebanon’s premiere ski slopes. Now, thanks to Faqra village, the area has blossomed, with development following the trend and turning the peak of Mount Lebanon into a must-see destination.
Amongst all of Audi’s interests and investments that lie beyond banking, it is perhaps his penchant for art that he is best known for. Audi admits that, in the beginning, he did not have much affinity with modern art. His family has collected traditional Dutch and Flemish art since the early 1950s as a tax-free way to invest their riches, but it was Audi’s son Paul, a philosopher living in Paris, who introduced him to modern art. “While I couldn’t understand it properly, I realized that it is a new trend,” the banker says. Now, years later, he sees himself as a kind of mentor to a new generation of Lebanese artists. “I want to help the Lebanese artists to be more traditional and not to be bossed around by the galleries” which prefer more modern styles, he says. “They come to me and ask for help.”
Indeed, the cavernous Audi Forum in Downtown Beirut, which serves as the headquarters of the bank in Lebanon and houses Audi’s personal office, showcases a wide variety of Lebanese and foreign art. Hallways and office units are adorned with old masters such as Joachim Patenier, alongside local upcoming artists to whom Audi has given his blessing. The eclectic collection is evidence of Beirut’s increasing prominence in the international art scene.
An affinity for the arts certainly runs in the family, and Audi credits his other son, Pierre, with making him aware of the importance of modern art. As passionate about arts and heritage as his father, Pierre founded the Almeida Theatre in London, where he has directed many productions. In 1988 he became the artistic director of the Dutch National Opera, where he worked on the first complete performance of the Ring Cycle in the Netherlands, the Lorenzo Da Ponte operas by Mozart, and Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, among many others. Appreciation for the arts is certainly not the only trait that can be found across the Audi family, and banking runs rich through their veins. His daughter, Sherine, is general manager of Bank Audi France.
Audi proudly hails from south Lebanese city Saida and has fond memories of his childhood there, recalling a time when Muslims and Christians lived alongside one another in harmony. He has undertaken a project there to restore his old family HOME and give something back to the town. The Audi Foundation bought the family HOME back from a school and began a slow renovation process. With the help of Leila Badr, a researcher for the American University of Beirut’s museum, they discovered some interesting things in the Audi house. “We found something quite extraordinary when we got around 7 meters down: there were pipes that had probably come from Turkey,” he explains, matter-of-factly. Audi bought up the surrounding buildings creating an Audi “quartier.” One of these buildings has been turned into the lauded Soap Museum, exhibiting old tools and methods of the soap trade that has existed in Saida for hundreds of years.
Audi has also been a member of the Lebanese government, serving as minister for the displaced in 2008. However, he has since shied away from politics, despite having been asked to return many times. “I am not a politician,” says the banker. “I hate politics especially in Lebanon. It is finished for me.”
As a fan of architecture, it saddens him to see many buildings in Beirut being torn down to make way for new multistory apartment complexes. Audi believes that every square meter in Lebanon has value, and so understands that developers want to profit from it.
“I was asked to explain Lebanon to a foreigner,” he recalls, “so I told them to bring a map. I put my thumb over Lebanon and it disappeared. It is so small, you see. It is a special type. Lebanon has been here for 6,000 years and it is going to continue.” Audi is not concerned with the wave of young people leaving Lebanon to find work abroad. “They should not forget about their HOME. It is important for them to come back and spend money in the economy,” he says, before drawing parallels between Lebanon and Miami or Phoenix in the United States –cities with aging populations where young people come to visit. He views the diaspora as very talented but disorganized, with similar problems as the Lebanese living in Lebanon, divided along religious lines and wanting to change the country in principle but doing little to act on it. “In Lebanon we have the mentality of a village not a country,” he says, before adding “le Libanais est un grand malin,” meaning that the Lebanese are witty by nature.
When asked for the key to his success, Audi responds that it is an obsession with quality that has got him to where he is today. “For me it is all about quality, it doesn’t matter at what cost you get it.” His message to the youth is that Lebanon is not going anywhere.
“For me it is all about quality, it does not matter at what cost you get it.”
Impressively for an individual that has lived through much of Lebanon’s turmoil, Audi is an eternal optimist, preferring to see the glass as half full. “I don’t want to talk about all of the negative things there are here in Lebanon. People always say, ‘it’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad.’ But you can say that about anywhere. Sometimes you have to talk about the positive.”
Here is a list of some of the artists exhibited in the Audi Forum:
Fatima El Hajj
Mohammad El Rawas
Samir El Sayegh
Marwan Kassab Bachi