The here, the now, and what comes next?
Focus on HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
By Pat Lancaster
There is much we will never know about the period HRH Prince Alwaleed was detained at the opulent Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.
Doubtless, people will be fascinated by the topic for a long time to come, but it is clear from everything we have seen, and heard, from the Prince since his release, that his intention now is to draw a line under those events and move on.
Alwaleed didn’t get to the position he holds today as one of the world’s most successful and highly regarded businessmen by looking over his shoulder. He has, as he once told this magazine, made mistakes in his life but he refuses to dwell on them, preferring to move on with optimism to the next challenge. Clearly, he has employed the same criteria in moving forward with his many and varied global business interests, as well as his international philanthropic endeavours, post the Ritz Carlton.
In a television interview with Bloomberg shortly after he left the five star Riyadh hotel, he confirmed emphatically: “It’s back to business as usual.”
Inside Saudi Arabia and far beyond, Alwaleed’s integrity and keen work ethic have found favour with people of all social echelons.
It is a measure of the high regard in which Alwaleed is held globally that, when news emerged he was among those detained, it was met by widespread incredulity. Over his many years in business, the 63-year-old billionaire entrepreneur has laid down solid foundations in the international community and forged strong bonds with powerful and influential people; such individuals do not bestow their trust easily or lightly.
True, there has been dissatisfaction with the behaviour of certain members of the Saudi Arabian royal family and, in recent years, a number of government ministers have been widely criticised for alleged corrupt dealings, but Prince Alwaleed was never among those under the microscope.
On the contrary, both inside Saudi Arabia and far beyond, his integrity and keen work ethic have found favour with people of all social echelons.
He was undoubtedly born with a silver spoon in his mouth but, the fact his spoon became first, golden and then platinum, is attributable to Alwaleed and to Alwaleed alone. According to legend, HRH started his multi-billion-dollar empire with a gift of $30,000 from his father, Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, in the 1970s. He lost it all but, in the process, learned some important and valuable lessons that would stand him in good stead the next time around. Decades later, despite his massive wealth, he continues to take business very seriously, he works hard at what he does and no decision or investment made by him is taken lightly.
In keeping with his progressive outlook, Prince Alwaleed has long been an outspoken supporter of reform, not only in the Kingdom but across the Middle East
The Prince is greatly inspired by his two grandfathers, Abdulaziz Al Saud the founding king of Saudi Arabia and, on his mother’s side, the first Prime Minister of modern day Lebanon, Riad Al Solh; both men of intelligence and wisdom who played a leading role in shaping the Middle East region we know today.
But while looking to the past for inspiration, HRH is very much a 21st century man, an innovator with an eye on both “the here”, “the now” and “the what comes next”.
Through his company, Kingdom Holding (KHC), Alwaleed controls an impressive and diverse investment portfolio, including energy, financial services, healthcare, manufacturing, media, education, private equity, hospitality, aviation, real estate and technology.
He also has many personal investments, among them Twitter, JD.com, Careem and Lyft; recently, adding Deezer and Snapchat to his personal portfolio. These latter two deals are seen in financial circles as underwriting the fact that Alwaleed is very much back in the game.
It is no coincidence that during the almost three months he was detained, shares in KHC saw a dramatic fall but have been on the up since he returned to his post.
The $267 million deal with Deezer provides the exclusive rights to distribute content from Rotana, which is wholly owned by HRH, in the Middle East and North Africa. Rotana has a large catalogue of Arabic music, TV and films.
Deezer, which launched in Paris in 2007, has 14 million active users and a playlist of 53 million tracks.
“The distribution agreement covers markets in which the entertainment sector is growing, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates,” Deezer said in a statement.
The Prince is a confirmed supporter of equal rights for women in Saudi Arabia, where progress has traditionally been slow, although recently appear to be on a positive curve.
Meanwhile, the $250 million deal with Snapchat positions HRH as a significant individual shareholder in this social media company. Alwaleed acquired 2.3% of “Class A” shares in Snapchat through his Private Office, as part of his strategy to invest in new technologies.
“Snapchat is one of the most innovative social media platforms in the world and we believe it has only just begun to scratch the surface of its true potential and we are blessed to be part of it,” noted Prince Alwaleed.
In keeping with his progressive outlook, Prince Alwaleed has long been an outspoken supporter of reform, not only in the Kingdom but across the Middle East. When the region was beset by revolutionary fervour several years ago, HRH urged those in power to take note. “It is very clear the Arab world is changing fast . . . people want to have a say and to be able to participate in the running of their countries. They will no longer accept not being given the chance to talk publicly and to speak their minds on matters that influence their own lives and the public policy of their nation,” he told The Middle East magazine, at the time.
“The introduction of good policies, political changes and structural reforms are a valuable tool in preempting problems. I believe this is the most valuable solution. All countries can learn from the clear message that the people require increased transparency and openness, more political freedom, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. These are not western traits but human traits without regard to religion, geography or gender.”
The Prince is a confirmed supporter of equal rights for women in Saudi Arabia, where progress has traditionally been slow, although recently appear to be on a positive curve. He famously released a video of his daughter driving a car for the first time in her homeland, after the ban on women drivers was lifted in 2017 and Saudi women first took to the road legally in June 2018.
HRH told Pat Lancaster: “At KHC we employ more than 80% Saudis, 50% of whom are women. Ladies are getting increasingly involved in all areas of commerce and society and new reforms will encourage this further by allowing them to take their destinies into their own hands.
“But, are we there? For sure, we are not there. We are far from being there, and unless and until ladies in Saudi Arabia are recognised as being equal to men – no better, but not worse – as should be the case in any civilised society, we will not be able to say we are there.”
“If you ask me whether we have achieved all we are capable of, I would have to say ‘far from it’. My job now, and the job of all those people who really want reform, is to keep pushing determinedly forward until we have full equality for all members of our society. It is happening, but unless we remove this obstacle – this hindrance – from our path, we will not get to where I would very much like us to be.”
Committed to fostering a deeper understanding across cultures, promoting dialogue, and building stronger bridges among religions, Alwaleed Philanthropies has established a number of prestigious academic centres around the world.
In addition to running his business empire, Alwaleed is a celebrated philanthropist who, through his foundation, Alwaleed Philanthropies, supports and initiates projects around the world, regardless of gender, race or religion. The Foundation collaborates with a range of philanthropic, governmental and educational organisations to combat poverty, empower women and the young, develop communities, provide disaster relief and create cultural understanding through education.
Committed to fostering a deeper understanding across cultures, promoting dialogue, and building stronger bridges among religions, the charity has established a number of prestigious academic centres around the world.
Between 2003 and 2008, Alwaleed Philanthropies partnered with leading global universities, including Georgetown and Harvard in the US; Edinburgh and Cambridge in the UK; AUB in Lebanon and the American University in Cairo, to launch six academic centres that effectively help bridge the gap between the Islamic world and the West. In the US and Europe, the centres focus on Islamic civilisation studies, while those in the Arab world focus on American Studies.
The simple fact that KHC shares began to increase in value immediately after Alwaleed returned to his office is a strong indication that he has the trust of investors around the world. Where he leads, others follow. Is that not, I asked him, a huge responsibility?
“Yes”, he responded decisively, “and I take the responsibility very seriously. When people are looking to you as an example, you must be exceedingly careful. It is like walking on eggshells. If you tumble just once, it will have a reverberating effect on those who have looked to you to serve as an example. I do take all my duties and responsibilities very seriously and will continue to carry them out to the best of my ability.”
On a personal level, I wondered, is there anything left that you would really like to achieve but have not yet done?
“Oh, for sure. Any person who believes that he has reached a plateau and achieved all that he can, then, practically speaking, his life has ended. I believe all I have achieved on a professional level and on a personal level has really still only scratched the surface. Every human being has a great deal of potential to help himself, his family, his religion, his society, his country and the world as a whole.
I thank God for all that He gave me, for all the blessings He has bestowed on me – the wealth, power and friends. With these and the knowledge and experience I have gained, I think I can do a lot more. Mine is very much an unfinished mission.” actually, you could say it has only just begun.”