Our Top 50 most influential Arabs
With a business empire that has at one time or another involved banking, finance, real estate, the world’s most exclusive hotels, construction, technology, retail, aviation and media, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz AlSaud is the world’s best known and most widely recognized Arab. But there is much more to this complex, royal, billionaire businessman than can be measured purely in terms of the bottom line, writes Pat Lancaster.
The Middle East has witnessed dramatic change over the last decade or so, political and business powerhouses have come and gone. A raft of Arab personalities from all walks of life – people we once considered to be part of the very fabric of the region – are today no more than a distant memory. Yet Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz AlSaud has remained a constant feature – not only at the forefront of international business, but also as a champion of Saudi Arabia: for his ongoing attempts to nurture a broader understanding of Islam and a tolerance between all world religions, and his efforts to support the plight of the underdog, whether it be in trying to further the cause of gender equality at home, or bringing much needed warmth and comfort to dispossessed Syrian refugees.
Alwaleed is not publicity shy but he protects his privacy, preferring to conduct his life out of the direct glare of the media spotlight. However, while we may not always be aware of his latest venture, he is never far from the action, at the hub of what is going on.
In a 2016 poll, readers of The Middle East said they admired HRH for a wide variety of attributes, including: “his ambition and achievements”; “his humanity”; “his vision of a future that could be” and “being an Arab and a Muslim in a way that demonstrates to the rest of the world that there is no intrinsic difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’.”
Alwaleed lives a life of huge privilege yet, it is clear that he is an inspired human being who works extremely hard to stay at the top of his game. This man may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth but, at an early age, he set his sights on turning it into a jewel-encrusted, golden one, and his efforts paid off.
Although he is used to success and to getting things done, he admits to having made blunders but he forges ahead and, as he has observed: “I always learn from my mistakes”.
Like most of the world’s mega-wealthy, Prince Alwaleed remains something of an enigma. For the most part, we know only what we read of him in the press and even then with varying degrees of accuracy.
From his conversations with The Middle East, it is clear that in addition to his success as a businessman, an innovator and a philanthropist, he is also a proud and loving father and grandfather. His faith is important to him, as is spreading a positive message of Islam. To these ends he founded and supports various institutes, including centres in Cambridge and Edinburgh in the UK, Georgetown and Harvard in the US, the American University of Beirut (AUB), and the American University of Cairo, all working to educate on the importance of religious tolerance between all the world’s major religions. The Prince was also the largest single donor to the Islamic department at the Louvre Museum in Paris, which opened in 2013.
He is a humanitarian in every sense of the world, with a strong desire for social equality and a better, more equitable society, not only at home but across the globe. Frequently he has chosen not only to send much needed cash to disaster zones – such as the beleaguered Syrian refugee camps currently stretching through Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – but to personally visit the people living in them, speaking with them and finally, make his own assessment of how he can best offer them comfort and hope.
He is by instinct a reformer; one almost feels he goes through his own busy life always with an eye to adjusting and improving.
The turn of events that brought about the Arab Spring were, according to HRH, entirely predictable in a situation where most people felt they had no voice or, worse, that their opinions were of no consequence. He explained: “The revolutions that took place in countries around the Middle East sent out the clear message that people want to have a say and to be able to participate in running their countries and, equally clearly, they will no longer accept not being given the chance to talk publicly and speak their minds on matters that influence their own lives and the public policy of their own nation.”
It is clear that Alwaleed is a source of inspiration to many people. He is, as one London-based Arab political commentator told The Middle East: “Exactly the kind of person we need to demonstrate to the West and the rest of the world that, despite the media hype, the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims are not deranged extremists with hate in their hearts, but hard-working, sophisticated, rational, cultured men and women with a great deal to offer to society.”
The Prince’s own inspirations he told this magazine, were his paternal and maternal grandfathers, both of them legends in their own lifetime:
“For true inspiration I would look to my grandfathers, Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia and Riad Solh, who was one of the founders of Lebanon and a major figure in guiding the country to achieve its independence from France. Both of these men I consider to have been visionary heads of state. Both had great leadership qualities and shared other attributes in terms of being fearless fighters, great motivators and inspired nationalists, willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their respective countries.”
Although a member of the Saudi Arabian Royal Family, Prince Alwaleed’s fortune is largely self-made. His investments have – for the most part – paid off and he has built his own towering empire.
HRH claims not to be troubled by competition,believing it keeps him on his mettle.
It is well known that, wherever he can, he drives a hard bargain and is committed to a policy of buying cheap and selling expensive.
The diversity of Prince Alwaleed’s investments make him something of a phenomena in the international arena. There are many successful businessmen but exceedingly few with fingers in so many pies. “There is an edge to his investments”, commented one City analyst. “They involve media, including social media, hotels, aviation, telecommunications, retail – he didn’t just get into one area and stay there, he likes to spread his wings, and let’s face it, his investments have soared.”
Prince Alwaleed is a forward thinker who many believe would be the best asset the Saudi government could ever employ to hasten the pace of reform at home as well as to boost its standing on the international stage but the Prince shows no inclination to become a political figure. As things stand, he can cross all divides without courting fear or favour and he is certainly not afraid to be critical of the government in Riyadh or elsewhere in the Arab world if he believes the occasion warrants it.
“In general there has been an improvement; in Saudi Arabia specifically there has been a big improvement in the situation compared to how it was several years ago. Yet we are not where I personally would like us to be and I would like to see things moving more rapidly in that direction.”
He is outspoken on the situation of Saudi women who, he believes should contribute fully in the country’s society. It is well known that in his Kingdom Holding headquarters in Saudi Arabia, the majority of his workforce is made up of women. “It is important to build on the achievements made but we must also apply the rule of “take & demand”; take what you are given and demand more of it. Reformers, like me, should not and will not accept anything but full equality between men and women and we will work together until that has been established.”
A man of many parts, it is unlikely that Prince Alwaleed will rest unless and until his mission is successful.