Saudi Arabia’s Investing Prince

Late last week, officials in New York City turned down a $10 million contribution toward post-Sept. 11 relief efforts from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. This was because the prince also released a statement suggesting a fresh look at “some of the issues that led to” the attack, as well as “a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause.” New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani countered that this attitude is “part of the problem”; the prince has reportedly counter-countered that his gift was refused “because there are Jewish pressures and they were afraid of them.”

Most Americans, I suspect, had never heard of this guy and might wonder why anybody is surprised a Saudi prince feels compelled to put in a word for the Palestinian cause. But Prince Alwaleed is an interesting case. To the extent that he’s enjoyed attention in the United States before now, that attention has been almost entirely in the financial press, on the strength of an investing record that has prompted some to refer to him as a “the Warren Buffet of Saudi Arabia.”

Over the summer, Forbes estimated that at 44 the prince had a net worth of $20 billion (putting him at No. 6 on the magazine’s list of the world’s richest). Alwaleed’s uncle is King Fahd, and his fortune began, of course, with an inheritance. But he seems to have put that to shrewd use as an investor, notably in the American markets. His most celebrated decision was buying a ton of Citicorp shares in the early 1990s when that firm seemed to be on the ropes. He’s also made large investments in Apple (in 1997), Motorola, AOL, and other technology and media companies. His real estate holdings include large stakes in the Four Seasons chain and the Plaza Hotel in New York.

It’s an understatement to say that Saudi elites are not generally admired for any kind of capitalistic prowess, but Alwaleed has been an exception. As the Economist put it a couple of years ago, “Of the grandchildren of Ibn Saud, the warrior who united the Arabian peninsula in the early years of this century, none enjoys greater prestige.”

In late 1999, Fortune writer Andy Serwer (a former colleague of mine) did a lengthy piece on Alwaleed, hanging out in the prince’s highly wired “weekend desert camp,” where multiple TV sets were tuned to financial news channels (he’s a big CNBC fan) and everybody carried a StarTAC. Serwer also toured the prince’s $130 million palace in Riyadh:

Inside, a 75-foot-high foyer is framed by dual winding staircases. There is ballroom after dining room after living room after bedroom wing after gymnasium. In all, 317 rooms, 400,000 square feet. At one point several of us actually got lost in the prince’s closets. The palace has 520 TVs (somewhere Elvis is smiling), 400 phones, and eight elevators. And of course swimming pools (indoor and out), a screening room that beats David Geffen’s hands-down, a bowling alley, tennis courts (indoor and out), and an Astroturf soccer field (that’s outdoors). The staff, all 180 of them, carry walkie-talkies.

In May of this year, Wall Street Journal reporter Steve Frank interviewed Alwaleed for a multipart piece on CNBC TV. Here we learned that the prince’s favorite drink is Diet Pepsi and that he claims to give away more than $100 million a year. That Economist piece questioned whether Alwaleed’s reputation for investing acumen quite adds up, but for the most part his press in the West has been consistent with a goal Alwaleed described to CNBC:

I believe that we have a mission to tell the Western world, headed by America for sure, that Arabs are good businessmen, and good, honorable people, and when they communicate, and when they do deals and business with the biggest companies in America, they’re welcomed. And they do it very honorably. And if I can contribute in having the image being better and enhanced towards being more positive in America, I’ll be more than happy to do it.

It certainly seems reasonable to say that among members of the Saudi royal family, few have bought into America—literally—the way Alwaleed has. “You can quote me,” Alwaleed says in a recent Newsweek interview responding to the returned-donation flap, “I—am—an—ally—of—America.” This is why it really was rather surprising to find him tacking onto his $10 million gift rhetoric that he must have known might spark a controversy.

Alwaleed is said to have favored loosening things up a bit in his home country’s famously closed and strict society, but at the moment he doesn’t seem to be putting much emphasis on that as one of the “issues” in need of renewed scrutiny. It will be interesting to see how he proceeds from here. What Alwaleed has so far managed is the rare trick of being revered both as a prince of global investing and as an actual prince in the ruling Saudi family. If that was hard before, it looks like one royal challenge now.