Alwaleed: Businessman, Billionaire, Prince (Book Review)

Any time one reads something on Saudi Arabia there is looming curiousity about the life and person of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, the world’s fifth-richest man. There are few individuals as unique, enigmatic, and colorful as this member of the Saudi Royal Family. His life is a revealing portrait of a unique person whose presence and impact on the global economy is unmatched.

Like investment guru Warren Buffett, Alwaleed has became hugely successful through a number of strategic high-profile investments. He makes his international investments through Kingdom Holding Company and Time magazine has nicknamed him the Arabian Warren Buffett.

In a fascinating and characteristically insightful biography, international journalist and broadcaster Riz Khan, formerly of CNN, offers a revealing insider’s view of this business genius who is estimated to be worth approximately $24 billion. He based his writing on in-depth interviews with the Prince’s family, entourage, and closest business associates which includes top names such as Sandy Weill, Rupert Murdoch, and Jimmy Carter.

The book deals with Alwaleed’s family history, the origins of his powerful drive to succeed, his phenomenal achievements in rescuing beleaguered companies, his investments in top brands, his unique approach to investing and some of his most lucrative strategies.

From Humble Beginnings

Alwaleed began his business career in 1979 after graduating from Menlo College in California. Funded by a $30,000 loan from his father and a $300,000 mortgage on his house, he initially brokered deals with foreign firms wishing to do business in Saudi Arabia. This was followed by land deals in the 1980s along with major investments in the Saudi banking industry. After these initial successes, there was no looking back for this Saudi prince who has carved out a deep niche as an entrepreneur and international investor.

Alwaleed is the largest single foreign investor in the U.S. economy, with interests in almost everything that touches the American lifestyle. This billionaire prince’s story unfolds in gripping detail, with a relatively modest bank loan to build an empire that embraces some of the world’s best-known brands from Citigroup and Disney to Apple Computers and the Four Seasons Hotels.

Alwaleed’s activities as an investor came to prominence when he bought a substantial tranche of shares in Citicorp in the 1990s when that firm was in difficulties. His holdings in Citigroup now comprise half of his wealth worth approximately US $ 10 billion.

He also currently holds a 17% stake in Euro Disney SCA, the organization which manages and maintains the Disneyland Resort Paris in Marne-la-Vallee, France. He has also made large investments in AOL, Apple Inc, Worldcom, Motorola, News Corporation Ltd and other technology and media companies.

His real estate holdings have included large stakes in the Four Seasons hotel chain and the Plaza Hotel in New York. He has also made investments in London’s Savoy Hotel and Monaco’s Monte Carlo Grand Hotel. Alwaleed purchased the Savoy Hotel in London for an estimated GBP £250 million in which he owns an estimated 16% stake. His company, Kingdom Holdings acquired Toronto, Canada-based Fairmont Hotels for an estimated US $3.9 billion in partnership with the U.S. real estate firm Colony Capital.

Charitable contributions

Prince Alwaleed is heavily involved in charitable activities across the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and is estimated to donate more than $100 million annually to charity.

In America his charity includes a donation of $ 10 million to New York City towards relief efforts after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Alwaleed also donated $500,000 to the George Herbert Walker Bush Scholarship Fund in 2002. In December 2005, he donated $20 million each to Harvard University and Georgetown University to finance new initiatives aimed at enhancing the study of Islam in the Western academy and to foster understanding between Muslims and Christians. The Weill Medical College of Cornell University also received a donation $10 million in 2006 to establish the Institute for Computational Biomedicine in his name. Finally, Alwaleed donated $1.48 million to the Islamic Society of North America in 2007.

In France his charity includes a donation of $20 million to the Louvre Museum, the largest gift ever to the world’s largest museum.

Alwaleed donated $8.3 million in the form of goods and cash to support relief and reconstruction efforts in wake of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. He also gave $2 million dollars for the development of the remote regions of Pakistan that include Kahuta, Jhelum valley, and the mountainside region of the Swat River valley.

Alwaleed financed the building of the headquarters of the Fondation Pour l’Enfance, an organization dedicated to improving the living conditions of Malian and African children in Mali.

A balanced identity

The billionaire prince has a colorful life style true to his name and status. He owns a Boeing 747 jet that is converted for his private use. He has also ordered the world’s largest passenger aircraft Airbus A380, for private use. The aircraft will be delivered to him in 2010. He owns the yacht Kingdom 5KR, which was seen in James Bond movie Never say Never Again.

The jet set billionaire’s life on one hand revolves around the world of Wall Street, with limousines and designer labels and on the other he has a close and emotional relationship with the desert and its people. His identity sits on the fence separating the Arab world on one side, with tents, camels, and rifle-toting Bedouins and neon lights and the skyscrapers of the West.

Alwaleed is a 21st century ambassador acting as a bridge to connect the Middle East and the West. He has taken a notable pro-American stance and has been diligently working to erase the enemy image of the Arab in America. He has done so by financing a $10 million American studies program at the American University in Cairo. Similarly, his deep involvement in America, where he spends consider time, is to build the image of Arabs, particularly Saudis as friends of America and not their enemy.

The 53 year old Prince is married to Princess Ameera. He had been divorced three times and has two children – Prince Khaled and Princess Reem – from his first wife, his cousin Princess Dalal.

Alwaleed, despite being the nephew of King Abdullah,has stayed outside of the core of political power in Saudi Arabia. He is known for his liberal views and is vocal about women’s rights. He has hired the first female airline pilot in Saudi Arabia, to be part of his staff.

The book – Alwaleed the billionaire Prince – is a scintillating account that successfully reveals a portrait of a remarkable individual whose presence in the global economy is unmatched. Riz Khan has done a commendable job in bringing out the details how this extraordinarily hardworking character has achieved this iconic status.

Brilliantly written, racy in style, the book quotes Alwaleed saying; ‘I see myself as a businessman who is a member of the Saudi royal family. God has blessed me with great wealth, but this comes with obligations. Those who build bridges must be capable of seeing the big picture.’ This is the sum and substance of this fascinating book.