Our investment in youth will ultimately determine the future of the region . . .
Questions put to HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, who topped the list of the world’s most influential Arabs in our annual readership survey, by Pat Lancaster of The Middle East magazine, London:
A long-term advocate of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, last year you made a compelling economic case for the removal of the ban on women driving in the Kingdom. In 2015, Alwaleed Philanthropies (AP) launched the Legal Rights Initiative that aims to raise awareness of Saudi women’s legal rights and sponsor both female law students and lawyers. This March, AP announced it had entered into a partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, focused on empowering female journalists. While these actions were well received by women’s groups inside the Kingdom and beyond, domestically they were not unanimously applauded. Has the time come for Saudi Arabia to move forward more fearlessly – in terms of gender issues – to shrug off some of the old traditions and beliefs, even at the risk of offending the more conservative elements of its society?
“Yes, it is about time for Saudi Arabia to take the measured decision to have full and complete equality between men and women in all things, in concurrence and compliance with the teachings of Islam. But you are correct that everybody does not applaud this point of view; it does not have the full consensus of Saudi Arabian society.
“However, in any society there is rarely full consensus. For example, when you have elections in the West, not everybody is of the same mind.
“Look at what happened in Turkey in April: President Erdogan won the referendum by just 2.6 per cent. He did not have full consensus but, by a majority decision, he retained the position of leader.
“But yes, I believe it is time for Saudi Arabia to incorporate itself into the 21st century, in terms of men and women enjoying equal status. Women have to be treated equally, as Islam – the real Islam – emphasises. The Koran is very specific on this.”
Saudi Arabia is working strenuously to implement its economic restructuring plan, Vision 2030, which will ultimately make it a more attractive investment prospect to international organisations. Citigroup, the top-flight U.S. Banking group, of which you are a major shareholder, is currently in advanced discussion to secure a banking license in the Kingdom, after an absence of more than 12 years. This must represent an important milestone for you, both personally and professionally. Could you please outline its significance?
At the macro-level this proves conclusively that Saudi Arabia’s economic Vision 2030, which envisages the economic transformation of the country, is moving ahead full blast. We welcome the decision to expedite the process of western companies and banks being accepted as economic investors into the country.
Meanwhile, at the micro-level, I believe Citibank and all such reputable international companies and banks that want to contribute to developing our economy should be warmly received. We (KHC) have been investors in Citibank since 1991 – more than a quarter of a century – so we strongly welcome the move.
As the 21st century unfolds we are seeing the emergence of a new order of dynamic young Arabs, bringing an exciting new skill-set to the table. How can these youthful abilities best be developed?
With the number of young people we have in Saudi Arabia – and across much of the Gulf region, where the majority of the population is below 35 years old – it is clear that in the future they will be the people driving momentum in most public and private sector decisions. In the long term their judgements will be the ones that affect the rest of us. In Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf region, there are real concerns about the issue of unemployment. Huge investments are currently being made to ensure opportunities are continually being created for all young men and women to be incorporated into the workforce and to play their part in society. Our investment in youth will ultimately determine the future of the Middle East region. Inevitably, the fact we have a majority of young people in our country and our region is a driving force in most government strategies.
Earlier this year came the sad news that your Al Arab TV channel had ceased operations. It is clear that much time and effort went into creating Al Arab. Can you please explain why you decided to pull the plug?
This is a highly confidential situation that I am not in a position to speak about right now. Perhaps one day, at the right time, I will give you the full story on Al Arab but that time is not now. I was the one who took the decision to shut the channel down completely. No doubt you will have heard the rumours – there are many of them circulating – but none that I have heard so far is accurate. The whole story has not yet been told.
You are highly respected for your astute investments in international hotels, with KHC owning some of the finest and most celebrated establishments in the world. Last year, you were involved in a number of notable deals, including the merger of some exceptional KHC properties with the AccorHotels Group. Can you tell us the thinking behind the move?
“In 2016 and early 2017 KHC experienced a great deal of activity, including the signing of the $8.6 billion deal between flynas airlines – of which KHC owns over 34% – and Airbus, for the acquisition of more than 60 jets.
“Another of KHC’s key projects has been to help establish the Jeddah Economic Company (JEC) in response to the expanding economic needs of city of Jeddah City JEC is building the highest rise tower in the world, over 1000 meters.
“There was also the merger between the AccorHotels group and our three-hotel groups: Raffles, Swissotel and Fairmont.
Right now we are in the arena of having multiple acquisitions; we went from around 300 hotels to around 4,000 hotels, including more than half a million rooms in the Accor Group, and other 4 and 5 star hotels, right across the board to those operated by Sofitel, Novotel and the Ibis group. This merger allows KHC much greater economies of scale, which is the way the hospitality sector is moving at present. The Accor group, by the way, is now the 4th largest hotel group in the world. As you know, we also hold a 47.5% stake in Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts which is co-owned by Bill Gates’ Cascade.”
Your clean energy initiative, launched with a group of like-minded billionaire investors at the end of 2016, is seen by many as an important beacon in a world that too frequently choses to remain ignorant of the devastating effects of climate change. Can you explain how the Breakthrough Energy Coalition will operate and if there are any specific projects outlined within the MENA region?
“The Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) initiative is a private initiative that will run parallel to the public sector initiative, which followed the signing of the Paris Accord on the environment by former US President Obama and former French President François Hollande, which was also ratified by President Xi Jinping of China and other world leaders The Accord imposed some pretty clear restrictions on various countries; clearly China is one of the main offenders that needs to change its ways, but there are others worthy of attention.
“We are involved in the private sector initiative, along with Bill Gates, helping to establish the BEV with an investment of $1bn. My arrangement with Bill Gates is for KHC to be the eyes and ears of the initiative in Saudi Arabia and the wider region. We need to create more opportunities for investment in this sector and BEV is looking forward to working with private and public organisations towards achieving these aims.
“The environment is owned by the whole world. If we abuse it, it is going to backfire on us, maybe not in the next two or three decades but sometime. In between five and ten decades from now, the temperature may well increase between 1 and 2 degrees, which will inevitably cause huge problems – wreaking havoc in many countries of the world. I believe we have a moral, ethical and even a religious duty not to shirk our responsibilities towards the planet that sustains us.”
The Middle East region is experiencing its biggest ever refugee problem. You have stepped up the extent of your philanthropic work to help refugees through Alwaleed Philanthropies and have been recognised for your work in this area by the United Nations. How do you believe the rest of us can best help improve the lives of these dispossessed people?
“These refugees are the victims of the various crises across the world. But if we concentrate on the situation in Iraq, Syria and the Middle East vicinity, the ultimate solution must be to stop the crisis in Syria and Iraq and to create a situation whereby refugees from those countries can return home, or at least to establish conditions which will prevent more refugees being forced into exile. ISIS has to be demolished … but that’s long term. In the meantime, we have to take care of and support these refugees and remember that they are victims of the situation.
“I have personally visited the refugee camps and we have supported many initiatives to help them. We are doing what we can, as is our moral and ethical duty.
Of course AP is one of the biggest philanthropic entities in the world so our duty is clear and we are happy to take responsibility. When we see such levels of human suffering, irrespective of nationality or religion, we are compelled to support the issue without bias of any kind. Each of us should work within our own capacity to help where we can.”
This year, AP announced a multi-million dollar cooperation with the END Fund to help tackle the problem of neglected tropical diseases and ensure that people can live healthy and prosperous lives free of the risk of NTDs. Can you tell us more about the aims of the program please?
“AP is involved in more than a hundred projects and this scheme is just one of them. The prevention/ eradication of diseases such as measles and polio are projects running parallel with other initiatives as part of a cohesive, coherent, comprehensive vision tackling problems all over the globe, in Europe, Africa, America etc. This is just one area in which we are involved – and proudly involved – in our philanthropic works. We aim to improve the lives of people all over the world, but this is just one project amongst others.”
Certain global hedge fund operators have said the de-pegging of the Saudi riyal from the US dollar may be imminent. Towards the end of last year you commented that for the time being at least, the status quo should be maintained. Following the fall-out resulting from the unexpected decision of Britain to leave the EU (Brexit), are you of a similar opinion? Should de-pegging take place how might this affect KH’s standing in the international markets?
” My view is that at the current time the status quo should be maintained. I have said this before and I still believe it to be the case. This is not the time for devaluing or making any change to our currency. Perhaps a few years down the line, depending upon the success of our 2030 Vision and also how the final stages of the 2020 Vision go, we may have to reconsider. However, if both go well, I think we may not need to look at any devaluation, although it is worth remembering that any such a move would bring with it advantages as well as disadvantages; it is not a one-way street. We have to keep in mind that a big percentage of Saudi Arabia’s budget and its GDP are still dependent on the export of oil. However, in the next three or four years things may change to a point where we look at the issue again. I don’t call for it right now but in the future it is a possibility.”
It would seem that to be a successful businessman, one must always keep a keen eye on the sort of enterprises the rest of the world has not yet seen the potential of. With this in mind, could you advise our readers of which areas you are looking to branch out into next?
“Each investor has a different risk appetite.
“You have to decide whether your investment will be long term or short term; whether you want to take big risks or small risks; whether you want to invest your money at home or abroad. First, recognise your objectives and then when you have established what these objectives are, you are ready to proceed. My vision in business is the 3 + 3+ 1 formula: the macro is vision, strategy and plan, plus the micro which is initiative, ambition and risk taken, and they are all under the umbrella of ethics.We are involved in investments, direct or indirect, in over 140 countries and keep our finger on the pulse of global investment opportunities wherever they emerge. One thing I will say is that we are confident there will be positive economic growth around the world in the next few years.”
You announced a 1 billion EGP Housing project in Egypt (Sotra) in partnership with the Misr El Kheir Foundation (MEK). This is AP’s second housing project after the Saudi Housing and Cars Grants project. Why do housing projects interest YRH?
“These days, a house, and a car – or some means of getting around – represent crucial elements in everyone’s life. Frequently, between them, a house and transport costs account for a big share of the income of any family. For most people in Saudi Arabia, in Egypt – and most other places, for that matter – housing and transportation will account for between 20% and 40% of personal income. So if we can alleviate this financial pressure, we can increase the disposable income of a family by annually in a substantial way, which improves their lifestyle by giving them the opportunity to spend on other things such as healthcare and education.”
Alwaleed Philanthropies and Turquoise Mountain (TM) are working towards reviving threatened traditions by training a new generation of artisans. What drives your passion for preserving traditional arts?
“The Turquoise Mountain project is one between the Alwaleed Philanthropies and the heir to the British throne, HRH Prince Charles.
We put our efforts together to come up with something that would really support Afghanistan back in 2006. I have lately visited the project personally and, along with AP and Prince Charles remain among the biggest champions of the idea.
“We are very proud to help the Afghani people and the country’s government. Whereas Afghanistan needs the help of Turquoise Mountain, Saudi Arabia already has its traditions preserved by a number of special government departments, so our involvement is not needed here.”
Alwaleed Philanthropies is known to be one of the first responding NGO’s when disasters strike. How do you manage to achieve this level of preparedness?
“Remember that Alwaleed Philanthropies, with all its strength and resources is operated by only 10 Saudi ladies. Our objective has always been to be mean and lean. As such, we are able to function and operate swiftly in alliance with established regional entities when disaster strikes. We use the network, infrastructure and knowledge of these entities, such as Save the Children and others, already engaged in the region and work closely with them to act as swiftly and effectively as possible.”