HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Al Saud talked to Pat Lancaster about the initiatives of new Saudi monarch, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman, ongoing regional conflicts, the media and moving the Arab world forward towards peace and prosperity.
TME: We were hopeful that your long-planned Bahrain-based television channel Al Arab would become an important and objective player in the regional media. Yet, after only one day, the channel went off air in February. There has been much speculation as to what was behind this move, can you please explain what happened?
HRH Prince Alwaleed: The real story of what took place will be told but not yet. This is not the right time. However, I can assure you that we will be making an announcement about the new location of the Al Arab station very soon. The project will bring the voice of truth, freedom, honesty and integrity to the region’s media.
Then your experience with Al Arab has not jaundiced your ambitions for further investment in the media or – considering that last year you sold shares in the News Corporation – made you think twice about media investment in the present climate?
No, not at all, if anything that experience is a vindication of what we are now planning and gives us even more momentum to proceed with our plan.
The sale of shares in News Corp was part of a wider financial adjustment of our international portfolio. But as you know we still retain our interest in Fox – where we are the second largest shareholder – and all our other media holdings. The sale of News Corp shares was simply part of an economic adjustment of our business portfolio. By the way Kingdom Holding still retains a minority stake in News Corp.
Can you tell me what you personally feel the role of an effective media should be and do?
The media in Europe, the United States, Japan and all the civilized countries is an integral part of society. Media acts as a balance, an anchor. It is often referred to as “the fourth estate”, after those of the judicial, legislative and executive bodies. Media is, therefore, a very important component of any functioning nation. However, despite the huge number of media outlets in the Arab region, I do not believe there is a single one that is truly independent and free or is able to report on what takes place in the Arab world without political bias. All the channels we have right now, without exception, are government financed. We all know their names, each government finances its own media entity.
This will not be the way Al Arab operates, not at all.
So Al Arab, when it is launched, will be the first politically independent television channel in the region?
The first one and the only one.
In addition to your success in business you are well known for your philanthropic work. Recent years have seen an explosion in refugee populations and those desperately needing help to survive. How have your organisations been able to rise to the monumental challenges faced by the dispossessed?
The Alwaleed Philanthropies are at the vanguard of refugee efforts in various parts of the world, most recently in Syria, Nepal and Vanuatu, and helping those also in desperate need like in Somalia and Kenya. Helping refugees – wherever they are – is high on our philanthropic agenda. We have no gender, racial or religious bias. We aim to help wherever there is need. Humanity has no religion; our support is based purely on humanitarian principles.
You are a keen advocate of building bridges between people of different religions. Your Centres across the world are testament to these efforts. We have seen an escalation of violence across the Middle East in the past few months. Much of the western world is bewildered by what is going on and ignorance has provoked a spread of what is often described as “Islamophobia”. As a Muslim this must cause you concern; how can we deal with this phenomena?
We have to work on several fronts. First and foremost, we as Muslims and as Arabs have to look inwards. There is a verse in the Koran, which says that it is not possible to for God to change you, until you decide that you will change yourself (Sura 13 Verse 11). So, firstly, I think we must look inward to identify exactly the problems we have.
For each one are successive [angels] before and behind him who protect him by the decree of Allah . Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron
Unfortunately, we are witnessing the proliferation of terrorist acts all across the world and the majority of these seem to be orchestrated by people who claim to be Muslims. We definitely have a problem here that needs to be looked at very seriously. However, having said that, the West should not stigmatise all Arabs and Muslims as being terrorists because of the actions of a tiny minority of deviant extremists, who have undoubtedly lost their direction and need to be put back on track.
It is important to remember that this situation is not something unique to Muslims, or the Arab world. Back in the Middle Ages, Europe experienced similar religious upheavals within the Roman Catholic Church. There were battles and massacres that raged for many years before eventually being brought under control by the Reform Movement.
I think we can compare what is happening now in the Arab world, with what happened in Europe in the 16th century.
We need a concerted effort by Arabs, Muslims and the world community to work together to bring an end to conflict that is going on. Meanwhile, it is crucial that the West stops the rise of this wave of “Islamophobia”. The world’s 1.4 billion Muslims should not be stigmatised for the corrosive actions of a tiny minority. At Alwaleed Philanthropies we work towards helping bridge the gap to bring all sections of society and communities closer to each other. In addition, our educational centres in Beirut, Cairo, Cambridge and Edinburgh in Britain and Harvard and Georgetown in the United States, are all working towards these ends.
Certain sections of the international media are presenting the problem of the spreading regional conflict in the Middle East as being sectarian in origin, others say that is too simplistic. Could you tell us your own thoughts on how we have come to the present sorry situation, which impacts on so many countries and so many lives in the region?
Without hesitation, I can say I believe this problem is political. We have Shi’ites, we have Sunnis, we have other sects that are part of Islam that have all been living together harmoniously since the dawn of Islam more than 1400 years ago but unfortunately politics has become deeply immersed in religion and in sectarianism. This is what has caused the divisions between the various sects of Islam. Unscrupulous politicians are mobilising people for their own ends. These politicians are working to cause discontent, to throw them off balance and disturb the harmony of their lives.
How do you believe the governments of the region can best get back on track to achieve some sort of workable unity?
Today we are seeing two distinct sides of the Middle East. One of these – including, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen – is in turmoil but, at the same time, the other 18 Arab countries are enjoying relative stability and tranquility. We must not let these four Arab countries that are in complete turmoil cloud the reality of that situation.
We have seen how the countries of the GCC – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman – are trying to resolve the turmoil in Yemen with the carrot and stick approach. The carrot is the meeting that was held in Riyadh to try to resolve the situation and the help Saudi Arabia is giving on the ground to bring some stability for the Yemeni people, while the stick is the bombardment of those extremists who want to cause chaos and to topple the existing regime in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and its GCC neighbours have taken a very pro-active role in trying to resolve the turmoil in Yemen but clearly cannot be the guardians of the whole area, reaching as far afield as Iraq, Syria and Libya. However, in addition to supporting the country in the near vicinity – which is Yemen – the GCC states are also taking a pro-active role in resolving the issue in Iraq by supporting the United Nations in all its resolutions to bring an end to the conflict there.
Since Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman, ascended to power in Saudi Arabia, the ministerial cabinet has seen something of a revamp. International observers have noted the way the King’s new initiatives are tilted towards achieving efficiency and getting away from the patriarchal past. You have always been seen as a reformer, do you think the moves go far enough?
Well, there is no doubt that Well, there is no doubt that King Salman’s ascension to the throne of Saudi Arabia has rejuvenated, reinvigorated and rehabilitated the Saudi system. We can see that on all fronts, political, economic, financial and social. We have also seen it in the Kingdom’s external policy. It has been only four months since King Salman came to power and the early indications are positive.
However, we still have to give him some time, maybe one or two years, before it will be possible to make an informed judgment.
I am constantly monitoring the western media and before King Salman ascended the throne they were calling for a “new Saudi Arabia” and the injection of “new blood” into the government of the Kingdom. Well, they got what they wished for. The third generation of the Saudi Royal Family is now at the vanguard of leadership of the nation.
I believe the appointment of King Salman fulfilled the wishes and expectations of the Saudi people the Saudi media and even the western media, as well, of course, the appointment of two other very able members of the Royal Family in the number two and three positions in government, with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, currently the interior minister, as Crown Prince and the King’s own son, 30 year old defense minister, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as Deputy Crown Prince.
How, in your opinion, could these steps be taken further to achieve more, without upsetting the delicate balance that exists within Saudi society?
In two or three years we will be judging the performance of the new King on the political front, by looking at how much liberalisation in the system has taken place, how much more of a voice has been given to the people of Saudi Arabia, how much more authority has been given to the Shura Council and what checks and balances were established and implemented on the political front. We will also examine what the government has done to improve the economy, curtail expenses and to minimise the budget deficit.
In the social front, we will look at how much gender equality has moved forward and at the new opportunities that have been made available to the Saudi people.
In two or three years we will be able to look at all these criteria and assess the situation more accurately. Clearly, four months does not give us a full indication of what may happen but it does give us an idea of where we are heading and I believe that the early indications are positive.
However, rest assured that while I am an integral part of the system, I will always speak my mind for the sake of my nation. I liken my situation to that of a government back-bencher in a political system, for example, like that of the UK. Back-benchers might not always agree with those on the front benches, although they are part of the same political grouping. However, the back-benchers are an essential part of the system; they keep the front- benchers on their toes, by constantly asking questions and querying decisions.
I feel my role is similar to that of a UK back- bencher. Saudi Arabia has the front-benchers – who are the government – but then there is myself, and others like me, who play the role of ‘back-benchers’. We are very much part of the system, very much part of Saudi society, very much part of the Royal Family and we jealously guard the political status quo, obviously with the hope of some adjustments and reforms are made on a continuous basis. But we are not afraid to question decisions and make suggestions about how the situation of the Kingdom and its people can be improved.
Where Kingdom Holding leads, other investors tend to follow. You have been at the cutting edge of a variety of entrepreneurial ventures, including banking, media, top-flight hospitality, and social networking, to name but a few. Can you give us any pointers as to future plans?
Kingdom Holding is involved in 13 distinct and different industries locally, regionally and internationally. We are located in Saudi Arabia but our presence and impact is felt regionally and internationally. With a presence in more than 140 countries, we are very mobile but very conservative at the same time. We are continuously talking to a range of companies about investing in the future. However, our priority at the present time is to monetise all the private assets that we have. I am on record in stating that Kingdom Holding has incredible jewels that are currently in private ownership.
Almost 60% of our assets are currently privately owned.
These include The Four Seasons Company and other hotel groups including The Fairmont and Movenpick, The Plaza in New York, The Savoy in London,the George V in Paris, as well as NAS, the second largest airline in Saudi Arabia, the huge real estate projects in Jeddah and Riyadh, and many other assets. The priority now is to get those monetised through IPOs (initial public offerings), mergers, or even selling a stake in the company.
Further involvement in the transport sector has been mooted as a possible area for KH’s involvement, in addition to your association with NAS, more specifically space travel. Is there any truth in these rumours?
No, no, no, Kingdom Holding does not get involved in these ‘mystique’ projects or anything that might be described as “out of this world”. We are not involved in that at all. We are not looking to outer space; there is enough on earth to keep us busy.