Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sadruddin Hashwani:

Owner vows Pakistan's Marriott will rise from ashes

ISLAMABAD (AFP) — Sitting next to a half-empty swimming pool dotted with chunks of burnt debris, the owner of the Islamabad Marriott pledges that the devastated hotel will reopen by the end of the year.

Tycoon Sadruddin Hashwani, 68, one of Pakistan's richest men, is overseeing a team of engineers and hotel officials who have spread huge architectural drawings on poolside tables.

The plans show the luxury hotel in its former glory -- before a suicide truck bomber rammed 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of high explosives into the outer gates on Saturday night and killed at least 60 people.

"God willing, I will reopen this hotel for the New Year party on December 31," Hashwani told AFP, dressed in traditional Pakistani tunic and baggy trousers and sporting a distinctive mane of silvery hair.

But bringing the Marriott back to life will not be easy.

From the outside, the formerly white, 1970s-style building is little more than a charred shell. Every single room has been incinerated by the fireball that engulfed the hotel.

Walking into the main lobby where Western diplomats once mingled with the Pakistani elite, Hashwani steps around the puddles on the marble floors and points out the broken chandeliers and smashed grand piano.

The choking smell of smoke still clings to the main restaurant where hundreds of people were breaking their daily fast for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan when the bomber struck.

Some guests and workers were returning to the hotel to reclaim whatever they can from the devastation.

"This is all I could find," said Horst August, a German non-governmental organisation worker, showing a melted lump of plastic that appeared to have been a laptop. He suffered burns to his arms in the blast.

But walking up the steps to the rooms on the darkened first-floor hallway, hotel owner Hashwani, a member of the minority Ismaili Muslim sect, pledges that the new Marriott will be even better.

"I have firm faith in Allah and I know that I will be able to give a better look to this hotel," he said, adding that he even planned to start outdoor catering within 15 days.

"The material loss is big but for me the real loss is the human loss. All those employees who were killed in the attack were just like my own family members and I will now take care of their kids and families."

The blast killed two US military personnel, the Czech ambassador to Pakistan and a Vietnamese woman, but most of the victims were the Marriott's workers and security guards.

The gigantic bombing, which officials suspect was carried out by Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, vaporised the hotel's glass outer lobby area where guests were made to pass through X-ray machines.

The security gates that the bomber ploughed his truck into, the outer wall and the drop-off area no longer exist -- all replaced by a huge six-metre-deep (20-foot) crater and an expanse of mud.

Across the road, workers pile up rubble and start to move the dozen or so cars mangled by the force of the blast. A car alarm in one vehicle keeps going off as they clear away trees and concrete blocks.

Some work on the hotel has begun, however. Two workers could be seen daubing one of the soot-stained window frames with white paint.

"I am ready to spend one billion rupees (13 million dollars) to reconstruct the hotel. But I need the government's support to ensure that this can never happen again," Hashwani said.


Credit must go where its due. The commitment displayed by Sadru Hashwani is commendable. He could have just taken the insurance money, abandoned Marriott Islamabad, and concentrated on his existing hotel properties in Karachi, Lahore, Dubai, Canada, and Africa - and building more outside the hot zones. Instead, he wants to stick it out and rebuild the Islamabad Marriott.

Having said that, Sadru Hashwani has been no saint in the past in matters of business. His first property, the Pearl Continental Hotel Karachi, was wrested from the Intercontinental Hotel chain courtesy Zia-ul-Haq's arm-twisting via sheer blackmail. Next was Hilton Karachi, which is now Marriott Karachi. The same story again.

When the original Hotel king of Pakistan, Byram Avari's businesses were targeted by ZA Bhutto for political opposition, Sadru Hashwani emerged through patronizing and funding Zia after Bhutto's overthrow.

Not too long ago, his son, Arif Hashwani, was involved in a shooting in an Islamabad disco alongwith a group of friends, in which one of the other group was killed. There was a minor piece of news, and that was that. No arrests made or charges brought.

Sadru Hashwani is a man of the world, knows his way around, but beyond doubt a patriot.