WRITER: Nicolas Shammas PHOTOGRAPHER: Cedric Ghoussoub
Fact: there is no Arab in the world today who carries the international clout of HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud. As the world’s 19th richest man and highest placed Middle Easterner on the Forbes rich list, he is still only 55-years-old. Yet who is Prince Alwaleed?
As a Saudi who embraces American ideals, a Bedouin, a Phoenician, a Prince and a businessman there are many faces to this complex man. What few people know is how despite being a Saudi royal, Alwaleed grew up very modestly. His father is Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the 21st son of the founder of Saudi Arabia. His mother is Mona El Solh, the daughter of Lebanon’s first Prime Minister, Riad El Solh. They separated when Alwaleed was just five-years-old, eventually divorcing eight years after that. From the initial separation young Alwaleed lived with his mother, while his younger brother and sister lived with their father in Riyadh. Even at that young age Prince Alwaleed stayed very close and protective of his siblings; years later he would name his two children after them. But the early years for Alwaleed were not particularly happy ones and his relatively basic upbringing was not at all like that of many of his royal cousins in Saudi Arabia.
Prince Alwaleed the businessman may have began his career in 1979 upon graduating from Menlo College but his activities as an investor only came to prominence at the beginning of the 1990s, with his 590 million USD bailout of Citicorp. At the time the company was close to collapse and unable to attract significant investors willing to take on the bank’s substantial risks. In spite of overwhelming advice to the contrary, Prince Alwaleed took the chance, well aware of how potentially ruinous such a venture could be. His investment was announced in 1991, and the company’s success (first as Citicorp and then Citigroup) in the ensuing years became the cornerstone of the young Prince’s fortune.
Ever since Prince Alwaleed has continued to invest internationally, diversifying his interests into numerous fields with two-thirds of his fortune being held in his 95 per cent stake of Saudi-listed investment vehicle, Kingdom Holding Company. But in late 2007, with the world reeling from the subprime mortgage disaster, Alwaleed’s prize asset, Citi, reported massive billion dollar losses. In January 2008, the Prince participated, along with Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, ADIA of Abu Dhabi and KIA of Kuwait, in a 12.5 billion USD capital raise, in an unsuccessful effort to shore up Citi’s capital position, but the value of the shares continued to plunge. He held fast and finally in 2010, things are starting to look rosier with stability returning to Citi.
In other developments, just a couple of months ago, Rupert Murdoch’s media company, News Corp. purchased a 9 per cent stake in Alwaleed’s Arab media and entertainment company Rotana, valuing the company at 770 million USD. This was something that the Prince was obviously very proud of and he had much to say about this transaction during the course of our interview.
The interview itself was done in two parts over the same day. The first component lasted for an hour starting at 2:30pm in the Prince’s personal office on the 66th floor of the distinctive Kingdom Tower, one of only two skyscrapers in the whole Kingdom. Here we witnessed the Prince multi-task phone calls, CNBC bulletins, sms’s and phone calls while answering my questions with eloquence and self-assuredness. The second part was held out from about 8:30pm until 1am at the Prince’s desert camp about half an hour from the centre of Riyadh.
The Prince is a firm believer in strict rituals and every Wednesday night he goes out to his desert camp and holds a public mejlis with thousands of Saudis coming to visit him. We started the evening off with an hour’s cycle along an unlit desert road. It was the Prince, the Bespoke team and perhaps ten others from his entourage. With a car to our front, one to each side and one behind us, the security detail made sure we cyclists had the usage of the road; any other car that came along ceded priority to this merry band of cyclists. After exactly an hour’s exercise, the Prince was ready to greet the tribal leaders who had made the journey out to visit him. Once the formalities were completed, we all sat on the ground cross-legged and ate together in one of the tents before we were then led to the outdoor bonfire area. This is when the petitions started. Thousands of needy Saudis come every week to request donations from the Prince and he gives unfailingly.
In fact this is probably the most remarkable aspect about Prince Alwaleed. He is one of the world’s most philanthropic individuals and he gives to charity every year, even when his chips are (relatively) down. His contributions to humanitarian, charitable, and educational causes are as admirable as his legendary work ethic, his incredible multi-tasking abilities and his propensity for hard bargaining.
KINGDOM TOWER, office, 66th Floor, 2:30pm
From a modest start you became the richest businessman in the Middle East. Good fortune or destiny?
Bismillah al rahman al raheem. I am a religious person and I believe in destiny for sure. But no person can say this is my destiny and then apply the rule “Que Sera, Sera”. You have to work hard and perform your duties, so it’s a bit of both.
Your most prevalent criticism – one that is also levelled at Warren Buffet – is that you are a ‘buy and hold’ investor that doesn’t always know when to sell. How do you respond to this?
I reject this criticism. You know people talk about ‘Exit Strategy’, meaning you exit the company completely. What I believe in is a ‘Monetisation Strategy’ in which you IPO a certain percentage of the company, may be 10 or 20 per cent, you keep the balance and then you go mark to market. However some companies that we are involved in - for example News Corporation, Citigroup, Hotel George V, Plaza in New York - are irreplaceable assets. You can never have another George V, you can never have another Savoy in London, you can never have another Plaza in New York, you can never have another News Corp. These are all unique blue chip assets and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. So yes, we’ll buy them, stick with them and not expose them at all. It’s very important to separate between exit and monetisation.
But your prize investment is undoubtedly Citigroup and that has had a roller coaster of a ride recently hasn’t it?
Sure, Citigroup has had a very rough ride over the last two years, you bet. Sometimes we have to face that. The question we must ask ourselves is ‘how resilient are we in facing such shocks’? What Citigroup faced over the last two years was unheard of and unexpected, the price crashed from the high 50s to around 1 USD, although now it’s above 4 USD. So we see stability again and we must just live with it.
You are said to be analytical, yet willing to take a gamble and go against consensus. Would you say this is perhaps the secret of your success?
In business you have to take risks and you have to make bets, no doubt about that. I don’t use the word gamble because it’s un-Islamic and uncharacteristic of me but what I think you’re eluding to is that sometimes you have to be a contrarian? Sure. When everyone’s selling, that’s when I should think of buying. When there’s euphoria in the market and everyone’s buying, that’s when I will think of selling at least part of my trading portfolio, never part of my strategic portfolio. You have to be a contrarian because if you go with the masses then you’ll never make money. You have to take a separate view based on analysis and homework. I read a lot and I analyse a lot before taking a decision.
Though you started in contracting, you were the architect of Saudi Arabia’s first hostile takeover when you bought into the United Saudi Commercial bank in the 1980s. What made you do this?
I correct you. I personally, along with Kingdom Establishment at the time (as it was not Kingdom Holding yet) had the first and only four hostile takeovers in Saudi history, and this was twenty years ago. We took over the United Saudi Commercial Bank, Azizia, Panda and NIC. We then orchestrated the merger of USCB with Saudi Cairo Bank, which eventually became Samba. So actually we had the first five mergers and acquisitions in Saudi Arabia.
So why did you choose to go down the path of a hostile takeover?
Hostile takeovers are not the norm in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world. Things are done amicably, with a chat and a cup of coffee. But because those companies were owned and managed by people with an old mentality who did not at all understand or appreciate having a friendly takeover, we were forced to go down the hostile route. We set up a new board of directors and established myself as chairman of those companies. Clearly, I did not take them over to be chairman, rather my chairmanship was on a temporary basis just to get them on track and that’s exactly what happened.
What did you know of the banking sector before you got into it?
Very good question. Not much! When I took over USCB there were many doubts and rumours about me. One was very funny, “The Prince will take all the deposits and run away.” I particularly liked that rumour because nothing of the sort happened, obviously. But I learned a lot. I was chairman there for eight years. After we merged with Samba I gave in my chairmanship but under my management USCB became the number one bank in terms of return on assets (ROA) and the number two bank in terms of return on equity (ROE). I remember these facts very vividly. We weren’t the biggest bank but we went from number ten to number six, and then after the merger with Saudi Cairo Bank we became number four and then after the merger with Samba we became the second or even the largest bank in Saudi Arabia depending on whether we’re speaking of assets or deposits.
Is that what gave you the confidence to then go after a US bank of the scale of Citi?
Sure banks are banks. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Saudi Arabia, Europe or the US. Clearly one bank has more zeros, but the basics of banking are the same. Of course sophistication is a two-sided sword because it was the over-sophistication of the banking industry in the United States that caused us to be in the doldrums. As a result banking is now going back to basics. And we encourage that for sure. Take risks by all means but not risks that go beyond your understanding.
Can you tell us a bit about how you came to own such a large share of Citigroup?
Yes, I used to own 4.9 per cent of Citi. But then we saved them in 1991, and I use the word ‘save’ quite deliberately. The day we saved them was the same day as the American troops went into Iraq for the first Gulf War. On such a day when no one wanted to touch not only Citigroup but any company in the United States, I invested in ten per cent of Citi with the understanding that we would negotiate and find a deal with the Federal Reserve. Two years later we had still not gotten a response so as I respect the United States and their rules I surrendered 5 per cent from my preferred stock share. I converted those to common stocks and added them to my 4.9 per cent of common stocks so I had a total of 9.9 per cent of common stocks.
Have there ever been any other instances of difficulties of investing in the States as a foreigner?
Your implications are wrong. Here was a foreigner coming to buy 15 per cent of an American bank and at that time it must have seemed scary, as they really did not know me very well. So I succumbed to reality, we went down to 9.9 per cent and put my money somewhere else. Also you should be aware that by that time I had doubled my money anyway so it was very amicable.
Your strategy is to invest in household names. But what exactly is your selection process for buying into a company?
Well we always try to be diversified both in geography and industry. If you look at real estate for example we are very strong in Jeddah, Riyadh and Canary Wharf particularly. In terms of hotels we’re all over the globe with the Four Seasons, Fairmonts, Raffles hotels, Swissotels and the Mövenpicks. That is just the management part we also have the real estate part, which is the Savoy, the Plaza, the George V, the Raffles in Singapore and a few others scattered across the United States. In media we have News Corp., in entertainment we have Disney and in banking we have Citigroup. We do not over concentrate in any one area, we are well diversified and that’s why when Citi faced some difficulties, we were able to withstand it. In the US they have a saying ‘too big too fail’, well we are ‘too diversified to fail’. Perhaps fail is a bad word, ‘too diversified to be hurt’. Our portfolio will never fail.
So despite Citigroup you are doing fine?
Were we impacted? You bet. Hurt? No. Citigroup is in a resurgence mode now and Kingdom Holdings was in a resurgence even before Citi. So although we are a big Citi investor and even despite the collapse of Citi we were able to withstand it. So if we were able to cope with that much heat, you can imagine that any other heat would be a lot less than what we have been through.
But what about Kingdom’s performance?
We had a big loss in 2008. This loss was cleaned up in 2009; we took it out of our books completely. When we restructured I injected 180 million Citi shares in the company, that are worth today more than 700 million USD. The Kingdom share price jumped from 4.5 to almost 10 SR, we did the split and it went up to 13. So we came through the difficulties, it wasn’t easy but we are like the whole world. We’re not immune to what happens around us. We restructured and we will resurge again. We are now witnessing a new era of Kingdom Holding in 2010.
So the major stimulus was the donation of 700 million USD you made following a reverse split and reduction of capital?
Look, Kingdom was on the right track even before the downturn of the world’s economy. We had plans and strategies on how to tackle all scenarios. As we flipped the page on 2009 and opened the page on 2010 we had a major restructuring over here whereby we reduced our capital but our share price was not where it should be in 2009. And I thought as a goodwill gesture to the shareholders who own 5 per cent of the company, I own 95 per cent alone, I granted these Citi shares at zero cost. Now with Citi at above 4 USD, that equates to more than 700 million USD. If Citi goes to 5.5 USD then this unprecedented donation will be worth a billion USD. In any case the market reacted very positively.
It must have been an easier decision knowing that you still own 95 per cent of the company but did you really believe this would be the right stimulus?
There’s never an easy or difficult decision. I calculate my decisions. If you do your homework, and have studied it well then you can just commit. We’re very decisive and can manoeuvre easily. We have a very good board of directors, executives mobilised 24/7, and we’re always on the move. We are a small organisation; we are only 20 people and no other offices than these in Saudi Arabia. This is our only headquarters, 2,000-square-metres and just 20 people. We will stay mean and lean.
Is there a certain responsibility in being an Arab and the largest individual investor in America?
Sure, I take this responsibility very seriously. Everybody looks at me as being a Muslim first, then an Arab and then a Saudi and all three are under the microscope in the United States. I understand this very well and that’s why I treat this very responsibly, delicately and I behave accordingly not just on the economical, financial and business fronts but also on the political, socio-economical, social and charitable fronts. That is why we have a lot of agendas that all go together and stream into the same lake.
Kingdom Holding’s Executive Manager of Corporate Communications:
And if I could add Your Highness, the added value is mutual. They use His Highness as a reference point and an ally. When they want to know anything about the Middle East and Saudi Arabia he is the first point of contact from the business world.
We try to reflect the good image of Islamism, Arabism and Saudism. For example when you sign a deal with News Corp. and Mr. Rupert Murdoch comes to the Arab world through the door of Rotana - my fully-owned company - or when the Four Seasons comes and opens all these hotels in the Arab world, or when Bill Gates comes and enters into a joint venture with a Saudi company in downtown Riyadh, all these things are indications of how we put Saudi Arabia on their radar screen. We put Arabs on their screen, and we showed them the other side, the real side of being a Saudi or a Muslim, not the side that of those that are depicted in the West. We are the only ones who are hyper-dynamically active on all the fronts: nationally, regionally and internationally. I take it very seriously because if I make a mistake I will stigmatise Muslims, Arabs and Saudis so you bet I take this seriously. You asked a very good question here.
Do you get any support from other Arabs, whether businessmen or politicians. Or do you feel you’re a renegade in this regard?
I’m no renegade at all. I know all the leaders of the Arab world from the Kings to the Presidents. I know all the Prime Ministers and the seniors in every country and they like that and encourage it for sure. They like someone to be the vanguard. My agenda is not just business deals, we build bridges. For example on the philanthropy front, we have the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation that has established either Islamic or Islamo-Christian centres in: Georgetown and Harvard Universities in the United States as well as Cambridge, Edinburgh and Exeter Universities in the UK. These are the blue chip of the world’s academia. And guess what? We have established an Islamic centre in the Louvre in Paris. Name me one person in the world that has all these in one portfolio? Not to mention we have two American centres in Egypt and Lebanon that are teaching the Arab and Islamic world about the American system - they are in AUB and AUC. All these are linked together. This shows you the depth and strength and responsibility that we take on our shoulders to narrow the gap and build bridges with the West and in more specific terms, Europe, America and of course Christianity.
What do you hope to achieve in narrowing this gap? Do you have an achievable goal?
To prove Samuel P. Huntington wrong when he says that the gap between religions is unbridgeable. There is no Clash of Civilisation; I’m against that completely. I believe that civilisations compliment each other, especially these days and with globalisation, we’re a small world now.
Kingdom Holding’s Executive Manager of Corporate Communications adds:
We always give simple messages. Take for example a George V room, open the bedside drawer and you’ll find a Bible, a Koran and a Torah all together in one drawer. No other hotel in the world does that and it sends a strong message.
Yes it’s very important. The George V in Paris is the number one hotel in the world. Paris is a Christian city. Who owns the hotel? Saudi-Islamic money. And guess who manages it? A North American Jewish company. This hotel unites North America, Europe and the Middle East, in addition to the big three religions. And the combination results in the best hotel on the globe. That says it all. I was with Sarkozy having lunch at the George V in Paris and I gave him the same example and he immediately took a pen and paper and wrote it down. If you noticed, I didn’t go into how the George V is the number one hotel in the world and its value is over a billion USD after I bought it for 120 million USD. I don’t brag about that, I brag about other things that are ancillary but very important also. But still we take our returns on our money for sure [laughs].
You have achieved unbelievable success in the business field so where do you hope to go from here?
I think that any entity, person, company or even country has to keep performing. When you have success you say your thanks to God and you ask for more successes, more achievements. The moment you say I’ve reached a plateau and no more, then the story ends and you go downhill. That can’t happen with me. You should keep going as far as you are able and capable to go and I hope I will keep working until the last day in my life. We are achieving results on the business, economical and financial, charitable and philanthropic fronts so this gives us a drive. I always say my companies are only as good as the members - I never use the word employee by the way - that join me. I cannot do it alone. One hand cannot clap alone.
What challenges are you expecting to face over the next few years?
There are always challenges. If you are working, performing and transforming then you will have challenges. When you make a decision you cannot take it for granted it will be successful. You need to follow up, you have to keep demanding, you have to ask the president of that company what he is doing to follow up, and keep performing. What I mean by transforming for example is how I advocate the incorporation of ladies into Saudi society and I have them work hand-in-hand next to men here. This is one of the main things I am really pushing for and we are seeing a lot of success. Look at Kingdom Holdings, we are very modern and 65 per cent of its members are ladies, all in senior positions. I do this because I want to be a role model; a benchmark and I want other entities in Saudi Arabia to follow. Some people will say “Oh that’s against Islam”. I reply that no, this is Islamic. The incorporation of women into society and Islam are not mutually exclusive, they go together in parallel and I say that very bluntly and very openly.
So have other followed suit?
Many, not society as a whole, but this is changing for sure. I use my high profile platform, which I am aware of and thank God for, to advance the cause. If I only advance the cause in my own office then that’s not very helpful. It needs to go beyond here; it needs to be positively contagious. And it’s happening, slowly but very surely.
Have you been curtailed in this pursuit?
Those who try to curtail me, I curtail them! The silent majority is with us. The fact that the minority is getting more vocal shows we are gaining ground and exasperating them. The number of letters, sms’s, messages and emails I get indicate a resounding yes to what I am doing. I am not saying don’t be Islamic, quite the contrary! Our Islamic credentials are unmatched: we are the number one contributor to charity in Saudi Arabia, we are the number one builder of mosques in Saudi Arabia, we are the only one besides the government that builds houses for the poor. We are at the vanguard of giving charity to all Saudis, so no one can touch our credentials. This is our insurance policy. No one can say we are not good Muslims, because if they say that they will be a laughing stock. Of course I don’t do it for insurance sake, rather I believe in it and de facto it became an insurance policy. Everything we do is well synchronised and moving in the same direction.
In these tough times that you, and everyone, has faced over the last few years, has it been harder to synchronise such an effort?
I’ll tell you a secret, I enjoy it! The more challenges we face, the more I thrive. Honestly, a life without challenges is no life at all. I did not inherit what I have. Proudly I say that my father Prince Talal gave me 30,000 USD and I went bankrupt. After that he gave me a million Riyals [300,000 USD], but then I went bankrupt again. And then he gave me a house. I went and mortgaged that house. He saved me twice but the third time I finally took off. I was not a Prince born with a silver spoon in his mouth. I did not even have a spoon! I used to drive a little Fiat and when I’d get a flat tyre I’d have to change it myself, I had no driver. I even went to a military school for a year, I had a tough life.
So you learnt from your mistakes?
You know I was once asked by an aggressive reporter, who was not humble and nice like you, “Prince do you make mistakes?” I took off my glasses, I stared at him straight in the eyes and said, “You want me to make mistakes? A Saudi Prince make mistakes?” The guy was really scared. And I held the silence for may be 30 seconds. Then I said, “I don’t make mistakes! I make blunders.” [laughs] The reporter then relaxed, I put my glasses back on and we had a good interview. You know, a mistake is losing 50,000, 100,000 or even a million USD. But to lose 100 million USD or a half-a-billion USD that is not a mistake, it’s a blunder. I would love to make mistakes, but mine are too big a scale to be mistakes, they’re blunders.
There is much talk of how you are selling off certain assets at the moment such as the Four Seasons in Geneva amongst others. Why is that?
It’s recycling. I used to own the Four Seasons in London, Sharm El Sheikh, Geneva and many in the United States, but by selling them we go and start another Four Season somewhere else. At the end of the day how does the management company make its money? It has no real estate. It makes its money by signing contracts with hotels and getting fees, so the more hotels I add the better it does. But the strategic assets will never be sold.
Yes, but by selling off high profile assets fuels speculation that you are hurting financially. Are you in trouble?
I don’t do work for everyone to understand what I am doing. I do what serves my shareholders’ interests. The results are what speak. There have been a lot of rumours about me over the last two years, I know that. But at the end of the day those rumours have disappeared and look where we are right now. Look at Rotana. How many rumours have there been about Rotana? Just because one or two artists were eliminated people started to say that the company’s bankrupt. I just went to the press conference, I raised my press release and now no one talks about it anymore. Finished. Do you really think that News Corp. would invest in a company that was on the verge of bankruptcy? Give me a break! They spent two years studying it, analysing it and evaluating it and then they said ok it’s worth 800 million USD and they bought into 9 per cent of the company with an option for a further 9 per cent. Listen, many high profile personalities are being attacked these days, especially in the Arab world but results have to speak for themselves, Alhamdulillah.
So for the record you’re here, you’re financially fine and you’re not going anywhere?
I am not going anywhere!
To go back to your Rotana deal with News Corp. You famously bailed Rupert Murdoch out of a couple of tight situations could it not be said that he is perhaps returning the favour?
I would not say this at all. In fact I reject this and resent it. The fact that I have a decade long strategic alliance with News Corp. was actually an obstacle because they had to strip Rotana naked, evaluate it, analyse it, and really get into the nitty-gritties. This was not quid pro quo, it was a deal that was two years in the making. Mr. Murdoch was over-cautious and over-conservative just because of the potential of this sort of criticism. But in the end, after having analysed Rotana and other companies besides us, he determined that we are the only media company in the Middle East that he can go with.
What are the challenges of doing business in the Middle East for those that may wish to emulate Mr. Murdoch?
Clearly, doing business in the Middle East is not like doing business in the United States and Europe but the recession was felt a lot less here. The earthquake did not take place here; there were some aftershocks but nothing like in the West. Essentially our economy is still showing between 2 and 6 per cent growth. Of course, the price of oil is helping this nation and the Gulf in general. But I would say the Arab world is facing a renaissance in its politics, economics, finance and social fronts.
HRH PRINCE ALWALEED’s DESERT CAMP, 11:45pm
In what way do you find that coming out to the desert gives you peace of mind?
It’s the most important thing to me - every weekend I come out here. I shall sleep here tonight; tomorrow my wife and my family will join me. I still work and operate, I have my Internet, my telecom people are here, faxes come and everything is very much wired up as you can see. I sit on the floor, once everyone goes I will sit alone and read by the fire for three or four hours. The desert is very important to me.
And all your biggest decisions are taken in the desert?
Absolutely I take no decision till I defer it to Wednesday or Thursday. Any big decision, an acquisition, whatever it is, I sit alone and meditate upon it out here in the desert.
You’re obviously a man of many faces: who is the real Alwaleed?
I am what you have seen. I shall let you make that conclusion. We are involved in so many things that there are many angles but I am what I am. I am a Muslim, I am an Arab and, of course, I am a Saudi.
Is being a self-made man and a Prince not a paradox?
Yes, but as I said this morning I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I made it on the third attempt and on my own thanks to the mortgage on my house.
Is this what perhaps drove you to make it?
Yes sure. It was a positive thing.
You have said in the past that your two grandfathers - King Abdulaziz Al Saud and Riad El Solh - are the people whom you admire the most. Specifically what is it about these men that you find so interesting?
Abdulaziz liberated and established Saudi Arabia; Riad El Solh liberated and caused Lebanon to have its independence. They are two big political leaders in the Arab world that you have to reckon with. I admire what they have done and I respect how they did it as they fought with almost nothing. King Abdulaziz united Saudi Arabia by riding to Riyadh with just 40 men on horses and camels. He opened Riyadh and thereafter united a 2.1-million-square-metre country. The same thing with my other grandfather, without any firearms and only 20 or 30 people also, he was able to liberate Lebanon from the French.
But both were political leaders. You are a business leader. How do they influence you?
Yes, they had nothing to do with business for they were political leaders. But I tell you there’s nothing called business only. Everything is politicised. You have to be immersed in politics in order to be strong in finance and business, especially if you’re from the Middle East.
I see now how long your hours are, and how business never stops. What is your daily routine?
Business never stops. I begin at 10am and I finish between 5 and 6am. After this interview I will read from about 1am to about 5am. At 5am we will pray and then we will have breakfast and go bicycling again. Perhaps I will sleep by 6 or 7am today.
Were you always like this, or did it develop over time?
For the last 30 years it has been like this. Typically, I have 19 or 20-hour days.
You invest in your hobbies as wisely as you invest in your businesses. You famously bought your boat for 20 million USD from the creditors of Donald Trump; today it’s worth 4 times that. Are you always looking for deals?
Oh yes. Actually I bought it for 19 million and today it’s worth 120 million USD. All the things I buy privately are bought at dirt-cheap prices. Take my Boeing 747 too, you probably won’t believe this but three years ago when the markets were very volatile, we made a lot of money and I bought it from a trading portfolio for one third the price.
Even the Kingdom Centre, right?
Yes. I bought the land during the Iraqi war. It had been valued at around 6,000 Riyals per square metre. I bought it for 2,000 Riyals and immediately after the war it shot up to 8,000. Today it is valued at around 20,000 Riyals per square metre.
Well you famously are the only individual to put in an order for the Airbus A380. Is that still on the cards?
Oh yes, we bought it a long time ago. It was not just a good deal; it was a spectacular deal. I can’t tell you the exact price as it is confidential but they offered it to me. I will take delivery of the plane at the end of 2012.
Are you not also commissioning a larger private yacht, supposedly the largest in the world?
I will be building one eventually but it is still being studied. Nothing is finalised yet.
What is luxury to you?
Luxury is living happily. Maybe each person lives happily in a different way. To me, I live and let live. Some people may believe that the way I live is beyond their limits but it is not beyond mine. It is well within my limits to have all these planes, the helicopters, the yacht and so on. I do not go beyond my limits for sure but you only live once so you might as well live it well.
Yet you own no homes outside the Kingdom, why is that?
That’s right. I do own the yacht and that’s a house that can move anywhere in the world providing you have a sea or a river. But more importantly I assume I own almost 300 houses in the world - my hotels. The Four Season’s brand has 85 six- or seven-star hotels, the Fairmont and Raffles have around 67 five-star hotels, the Swissotel and Mövenpick have maybe 100 four-star hotels, so if you add them up I have almost 300 hotels across five continents. Anywhere I go I stay at these hotels. They’re fully staffed and fully serviced. So I don’t have houses per se but all these I consider my homes, regardless of whether I own them 100 per cent, partially or if I just manage them.
You have two verses of the Koran inscribed in the lobby of the George V. What are they and how are they significant to you?
The first one is - [Qur’an, Surat Ibrahim, 14:7] La’in sakartum la’azidannakum - If you thank God, God will give you more. The second is - [Qur’an, Surat An-Naml 27:40] Hadha min fadle Rabbi – This is from the grace of my God. I chose them because I believe in them. I am very religious and in Islam we believe that our religion is partly capitalist, partly socialist. Socialist in the sense that it takes from you on a compulsory basis in the form of zakat. You have to give zakat, it’s not like taxes, it is compulsory – with a certain formula. On the other hand it says the sky’s the limit. You can make as much money as you like - no problem. I really like these two verses as I can live them every day. The first one says that you can work as much as you want, make as much as you want but make sure to thank God. The other verse says that basically all I have is thanks to God. My relationship with God is very strong.
Were you always a religious man?
More so after I went to the United States [to study at Menlo College in Atherton, California]. I became much more religious at that time. I went there alone with just 2,000 USD. Obviously I am not an extremist. I am very modern.
Yes you actively employ women in your businesses yet none of them wear the veil. Why is that?
I don’t believe in the veil. I think it’s just a myth. It is not Islamic; it is a social custom. Wearing a veil is up to their discretion, but they don’t have to wear it.
So do you consider yourself a reformer in that regard?
I am very moderate socially, yet very disciplined Islamically. I am very structured. I pray on time, I apply all five pillars of Islam very strictly. [1. Shahadah – believing in only one God. 2. Salat – praying five times a day. 3. Zakat – giving to charity. 4. Sawm – fasting for Ramadan. 5. Hajj – making a pilgrimage to Meccah at least once.]
So does being a vocal moderate get you into trouble?
I believe almost the whole population of Saudi Arabia is moderate. There are only a small number of people who are extremists but as they shout and scream very loudly they can give the impression that they are overwhelmingly in control. The reality is that the silent majority are not at all into extremism.
How would you like to be remembered?
Every one wants to be remembered positively and I am no different. I would like to be remembered as having done good things whether in society or the world at large. That’s why I am very much involved in charity and philanthropy. We are making records. We spent almost 2.5 billion USD on charity in the last period and we will continue to do so.
How do you determine who should receive your donations?
It depends. When the Tsunami hit, we were the single biggest contributor after certain countries. Whenever a catastrophe happens, like Tahiti for example, we contribute. We do not single anyone out. We give across the board.
What are you most proud of when it comes to your charitable work?
This I can answer immediately. It was Niger. I went there perhaps eight years ago. I was on a tour in which I was visiting eight African countries in three days. I met the President, who ironically has just been overthrown last month, and I asked him what investments he wished for me to make. He replied with tears in his eyes, “I don’t want investments. My people are dying. In fact, I have almost a million people that will die by next month unless I get contributions. Half are children. You, Prince, are a big billionaire and I seek your help.” I asked him, “Isn’t the world community helping?” He said, “The United States gave 150,000 USD, the European Union will give 100,000 USD, Japan pledged 200,000 USD.” I said, “How much do you need?” He replied that he needed 3 million USD to have those million people live at just a subsistence level. I gave him the money. And the next time I saw him, he told me how I had saved hundreds of thousands of lives, including women and children. I was shocked. He said he had nothing to give me but the country’s highest honour, The Order of Merit of Niger Medal This was a very touching moment and I gave him another 3 million USD. Obviously now the country has come out of drought and famine because the rains finally came. But I remember it so very clearly. It was mind-boggling how quite so many lives could be saved with just this amount of money.
That concludes our interview, thank you very much.