Emile Bustani died in a tragic plane crash when he was only 56 years old, yet his life was packed with work, travel, and action beyond that of people almost twice his age.Assessments of his life abound in superlatives: “One of the most influential businessmen and philanthropists in the Middle East,” “head of the largest industrialist enterprise in the Arab world,” “by any standard one of the world’s outstanding figures,” one of the “shrewdest commercial brains,” “an incredible man,” “one in a million.”
Bustani devoted much of his life to education, particularly to the American University of Beirut (AUB). When he lost his father at age six, Bustani attended an orphanage school in Sidon. Bustani later received help from a wealthy Lebanese businessman to study engineering at AUB, from where he received a BS in 1929 and an MS in astro-physics in 1932. He briefly taught physics at AUB and gave private English lessons.
Then, in 1933 he earned a second bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Always devoted to AUB, he helped countless students with direct aid and scholarships and funded a women’s dormitory he named after his wife, the Laura Bustani Hall. He later served as the first Arab member of the Board of Trustees and as a three-time president of the Alumni Association.
Back in Beirut after MIT, Bustani worked for a time with the Iraq Petroleum Company, but soon founded his own Contracting and Trading Company, CAT. This is company, involved in laying and constructing oil pipelines, building roads and constructing cities throughout the Middle East, provided employment for numerous Arabs, many of them Palestinians, and AUB graduates, as Bustani trained local technicians and laborers.
Time Magazine reported in 1963 that CAT crews were “literally rebuilding the Arab word.” Constructing not only pipelines, but many schools, hospitals, hotels, airfields, factories, and roads, Bustani created “the biggest of all Arab-owned enterprises,” and by the end of World War II was a wealthy man.
Bustani’s dynamic, charismatic personality facilitated entry into the politics of Lebanon. He was deputy from the Chouf from 1951 until his death, and as Minister of Public Works he headed the reconstruction of villages following the 1956 earthquake. During the crisis of 1958, which brought US marines to the country, Bustani’s negotiating skills were paramount in resolving the problem. It is generally believed that had he lived, he would most probably have been a candidate for the presidency of Lebanon in 1964.
Bustani knew personally not only many Arab leaders, but also Western businessmen and statesmen. Through his extensive foreign business contacts he sought to bring together the Arab world and the West. He was believed to be personally responsible for a growing understanding of the Arab world in the West and was also “a significant influence within the Arab world itself.”
His charm, honesty, good nature, and gift for friendship made him an irresistible negotiator. In fact, had he lived, many believe he would have become President of Lebanon.
At memorial services in London, Bustani was described as a “nationalist and internationalist, an Arab and a Christian who loved his work, loved his country, and loved his fellow men.”