Pat Lancaster, who has interviewed Prince Alwaleed Alsaud on many occasions over the years, poses the question on everyone’s lips: What is the rationale behind the arrest – along with other princes, several former government ministers and various leading Saudi figures – of the kingdom’s best known businessman, entrepreneur and philanthropist?
The news that billionaire businessman and philanthropist Alwaleed Alsaud was among a selection of Saudis interned on the orders of the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh this weekend, sent shockwaves through the international community.
Prince Alwaleed has over recent years become the “acceptable” face of Saudi Arabia. Even when some of the Riyadh regime’s actions have been difficult to comprehend, the familiar face of the suave billionaire businessman, regularly seen in company of friends including the heir to the British throne Prince Charles, American entrepreneur Bill Gates and billionaire Warren Buffet, among others no less influential, was sufficient to convince the West that there was more, much more, to Saudi Arabia than the stonings and beheadings that regularly claim the headlines.
In his own inimitable way Alwaleed was an indicator that the Kingdom has come a long, long way in a comparatively short time and, more importantly, that things within his homeland were moving in the right direction.
Through his Kingdom Holding Company, Alwaleed holds shares in some of the best known brands in the world and numbers among his friends and associates some of the international community’s best known and most influential people, yet he told me in an exclusive interview for The Middle East Online that his true inspiration was drawn from his grandfathers.
His maternal grandfather was Lebanon’s Riad Solh, one of the major figures responsible for his country achieving independence from France. His paternal grandfather was King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia, a man more familiar with tents woven from camel hair, and the lure of the desert sands, than with the boardrooms of high-rise towers of glass and concrete in cities around the globe, in which his grandson has made his indelible mark.
The move to confine Prince Alwaleed, along with a number of other princes, former government officers and ministers, has been described as being part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to push through a series of sweeping reforms aimed at bringing Saudi Arabia rapidly into the 21st century. Some of the Crown Prince’s moves in this direction – such as lifting the ban on women drivers – have been warmly received both at home and abroad.
However, if reform is the name of the game, it is difficult to see where in the world the Crown Prince could find a more obvious and committed ally than Alwaleed. He has been outspoken on the need for Saudi Arabia to move forward, in both thought and deed, into the modern world and has been a committed champion of women’s right in the country for many years.
With more than 60% of employees at his own Kingdom Holding group being women, he has certainly been prepared to “put his money where his mouth is” and with no Islamic dress code imposed upon women employees, his offices can confidently be said to be the most modern operating within the kingdom.
All of which begs the question “why”?
When I asked Prince Alwaleed recently whether he felt things in Saudi Arabia were moving quickly enough towards reform, he told me: “I am definitely a reformer with a strong desire to advance the causes I regard as important as rapidly as possible . . .
“Clearly, every reformer would like things to move ahead at a faster pace, but there are others who, for perhaps more traditionally conservative reasons, would like to see things move a little more slowly . . . it is only the speed at which reforms will take effect that is, for the moment, uncertain. . .
“If you ask me, are we moving in the right direction, then my answer would be ‘yes’. If you ask me if 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.”
With all due respect to the regime in Riyadh, these words sound very much like those of a man I would prefer to number inside the tent, rather than outside it. . .