Isam Khairi Kabbani is a remarkable man successfully managing a diverse business empire whilst traveling the world to pursue a passion for sailing. In 2001, his seamanship and navigational skills were put to the ultimate test as he raced 811 nautical miles over four exhausting days from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida through the Bahamas and the Windward Passage to Montego Bay in Jamaica.

Fiercely competitive Kabbani skippered the 60-foot Rima as it battled against other leading sailing boats over one of the world’s greatest ocean courses, finishing a close second.

As well as pursuing his passion for sailing, Kabbani has also single-mindedly built a business empire now ranked among the top 50 of Saudi Arabia’s private companies with affiliates spanning the Middle East.

A supremely gifted blue-water sailor, Kabbani competes not only against the world’s best seamen but also against the oceans and has achieved what few dare dream of, sailing across the world’s oceans an incredible ten times.

“In my business I have endeavored to find a means to living well but have always wanted an honest and respected business built up carefully by hard work and certainly not at any expense. Thus, in the same way that the sailor depends upon self reliance and everyone working together at a basic human level, one discovers that the value of friendship, patience and mutual support has parallels in both business and at sea.”

“Sailing has certainly helped my business teaching me to be a better organizer, manager, and to delegate properly. One of my mottos in life has been to choose well, teach well, pay well and treat well. My business is so structured that people are empowered and paid to manage properly but within an instant I can have a full report on what is precisely happening in any sector,” he says.
Kabbani says that by being a sailor, he has learned it is better to have a gradual and “steady as she goes” approach taking the long view with no need for quick profit but to always be on the safe side.

“A sailor has to think strategically like a businessman. Thus an inexperienced sailor may try to go fast by traveling west to cross the Atlantic when the fastest way is to go south in winter to catch the trade winds to reach the same destination. But you can go too fast and soon lose control. Circling Cape Horn where the world’s two greatest oceans and bodies of water meet at different levels is exhilarating and frightening,” he says.

“At one moment it is as calm as a lake in bright sunshine and in minutes there can be storms and 70-knot gusts of wind. Our sailing boat lost its masts becoming something more like a submarine as it forced itself through the elements.”

“Like the seafarers of old, we soon ventured to Pacific Islands and French Polynesia but I learned a long time ago that you must respect the sea for the sea to respect you.”

One route sailed by Kabbani traced Christopher Columbus’ voyage of more than 500 years ago from the Canary Islands to the Caribbean before making landfall in Barbados.

Kabbani is modest about his achievements but as he navigates a sailing boat in Obhur Creek his physique and natural athleticism are clearly visible. A strong swimmer, he windsurfs, plays tennis and keeps in shape to maintain fitness and stamina.


Born in Makkah in 1934, the youngest of six children, Kabbani attended primary school in Taif where his father was a renowned general practitioner. Actively acquiring new skills throughout life to deal with day-to-day medical needs, epidemics, ophthalmic problems and various surgeries, his father was so devoted he even traveled to France to enhance his knowledge.

A gifted child, Kabbani was awarded a scholarship to the American University of Beirut and could have become a doctor despite being warned off by his father. However after two years of medical studies he switched to economics and then attended the exclusive Swarthmore College near Philadelphia, which is renowned for its rigorous academic instruction and located in vast woodland slightly reminiscent of Abha.

Consistently ranked as one of the top American colleges, Swarthmore alumni include three Noble Prize laureates, 36 members of the National Academy of Sciences and several senators.

Kabbani who since childhood has been fascinated by nature and with a scientific temperament knew of the effects of wind excelled at his studies. Meanwhile away from the lecture halls he took advantage of the location and began crewing on Olympic-class sailing boats racing 100-mile courses on Lake Champlain in Vermont. After graduating in economics and international relations, he took his Masters at Columbia, New York and appeared destined for high office in government or a life in academia.

Opting for public service in 1959 he joined the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By 1962, he was the Assistant Chief Economist of OPEC and in 1967, he was appointed as Head of the Economic Department at the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources.

Throughout this time, Kabbani’s passion for sailing went unabated with him starting to sail regularly around Obhur Creek in a sailing boat he finished building after it had started by someone else.

He also bought a Flying Dutchman and sailed this at Half Moon Bay when based in Dhahran while on moving to land-locked Switzerland with OPEC his passion was undiminished with him finding time to sail a small boat on Lake Geneva.
In 1970 Kabbani resigned from OPEC in order to build his own business empire. This was despite the advice of colleagues to take leave of absence as he had a family of two young boys Hassan and Wael to support.

His eldest brother had started a small uPVC pipe factory in Jeddah and Kabbani wanted to help market and sell production to make it succeed. It was a time of recession shortly before the 1974 oil boom but Kabbani felt by having no way back into OPEC his personal commitment to the success of the business would be total.

Through hard work, drive and persistence plus a cautious approach a platform for sustained growth was built with Kabbani recognizing from his earlier OPEC travels to the Far East with the importance of Japanese trading houses as an economic model for companies to import raw materials and export finished products.

With the Kingdom embarking on a rapid development course, this concept had added potency and from modest beginnings in the uPVC factory he created a multifaceted family run business.

The Isam Khairi Kabbani Group of Companies (IKK) now acts primarily as a holding company for totally owned affiliates, joint ventures and associated firms created to participate in the continuing commercial and industrial development of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East covering trading, manufacturing, construction and services.

Kabbani is also on the board of several international companies including Textainer, the world’s largest container company based in Bermuda and San Francisco.

“Opportunities come in life but it is how to grasp them and see the potential. I think I have made the best of my good luck and managed to focus on my family, business and sailing hobby,” says Kabbani, who never thought the business would develop so successfully.

When in the Kingdom, Kabbani spends weekends sailing with his family on Obhur Creek close to where he now lives in a fine beach home. But he never loses respect for the ever-present dangers.

“The sea is always dangerous and must be respected,” Kabbani concludes


As well as seeing Kabbani sail from his home on Obhur Creek near Jeddah, one would equally expect to find him within the yachting fraternity of the elite clubs of Florida, New York, Newport, Rhode Island and England during the racing season.

Kabbani is modest about his rare feat of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean seven times, the Indian Ocean twice and the Pacific Ocean twice. He has also crossed Cape Horn once, the notoriously stormy southern tip of South America, where the two great oceans collide.

Sailing across distances sometimes totaling more than 4,000 nautical miles and undertaking voyages lasting several weeks, Kabbani is a master of the elements. He eagerly prepares for such epic voyages of endurance that pit both him and his crew against the physical elements of nature and an ever-changing pattern of weather including calm, winds, storms, hurricanes and sunshine.

He has won numerous sailing races including the prestigious Queen’s Cup off Newport, Rhode Island both in 1998 and 1999. He regularly competes in many of the leading racing events around the world during the annual yachting calendar sailing against stiff international opposition including sailors from North America, Europe and New Zealand. Next year, he is scheduled to participate in the race for Mega Yachts of over 90 feet where he will compete with his other yacht Sariyah, at 130 feet, sailing across the Atlantic from New York to England.

“Sailing is truly exciting but there are also grave dangers for the inexperienced,” says Kabbani.

“A gradual and steady approach must always be taken with a long perspective. 

A navigational error of three degrees on a journey of 3,000 nautical miles might seem a small deviation but can translate into being hundreds of miles off course. Constantly, one must review the actual position of the boat and take a directional heading and calculate the speed and direction of the wind. There are constant checks on the barometric pressure and cloud formations always looking ahead to assess the situation and avoid taking unnecessary risks,” he says.

“You cannot fight nature but must be well prepared. I remember leaving Gibraltar one November en route to the Canary Islands and meeting sailing boat that had literally traveled 300 miles backwards by the effects of the wind and current. You cannot fight such elemental forces but must know what to do in such a situation and learn the lesson of doing what is possible whilst not imposing one’s will against nature and the unpredictable,” he says.

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