Newsmaker: Prince Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud

Forbes places the Saudi Royal 26th among the wealthiest in the world, which puts the spotlight on his business and humanitarian accomplishments.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud Illustration by Kagan Mcleod
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If you are an ordinary, salaried mortal, probably the first thing that struck you about Forbes magazine's latest list of the world's billionaires is how many people there are that you've never heard of who have more money than you ever dreamt of.
For the record, there are 1,426 of them worth a total of US$5.4 trillion (Dh19.83 trillion). If they got together and formed a country, says Forbes, it would be the fourth wealthiest in the world.
Sure, you have the usual suspects - Warren Buffett, Liliane Bettencourt of L'Oreal and Michael Bloomberg, and the digital gang's all there - Microsoft's Bill Gates, Oracle's Larry Ellison, Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin. But the Mexican telecom king Carlos Slim Helu and family - the world's richest for the fourth year running - with a net worth of $73 billion? Who knew?
But if you live in the Middle East, you might also be surprised to discover that the first Arab on the list is in 26th place - and, if you were the Arab billionaire in question, you might well have taken umbrage.
That, certainly, was the reaction of His Royal Highness Prince Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family and chairman of Kingdom Holding Company (KHC), "one of the world's largest and most diversified private investment companies".
On Monday, shortly after the list appeared, KHC issued a statement condemning the valuation process that estimated his net worth at a mere $20bn as "flawed and inaccurate", claiming it displayed "bias against Middle East investors and financial institutions" and declaring his office would no longer cooperate with the compilation of the list, where he first appeared in 1988, the year after it was first published.
Some reports suggest Prince Al Waleed's net worth is closer to $29.6bn, which ought to have seen him at 10th place on the list, elbowing out Bernard Arnault, the French chairman and chief executive of luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
Forbes responded on Tuesday with a spiteful, 3,000-word article by Kerry Dolan, editor of the list. It was a curiously vindictive piece of journalism, seeking to expose how the prince's PR machine works to keep his name and that of his investments in the public eye - a "secret" of success shared by most actively investing billionaires, for whom positive attention in the financial press is a boon.
Prince Al Waleed, who was born in Jeddah on March 7, 1955, celebrated his 58th birthday yesterday. He is one of nine sons of Prince Talal, the 20th son of King Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia - and his other grandfather was also involved with the foundation of a nation. His mother, Muana Al Solh, was the daughter of Riad Al Solh, the first prime minister of Lebanon following the country's independence in 1943.
In the 50s and 60s, Prince Al Waleed's father served as Saudi Arabia's minister of communications and minister of finance, but his progressive views increasingly distanced him from the rest of the royal family. Indeed, while Al Waleed was still a young boy, his father was briefly exiled from the Kingdom and the young prince, whose mother and father split up at the same time, spent much of his childhood in Lebanon.
After attending military academy in Saudi Arabia, Prince Al Waleed went to Menlo College, California, and upon graduating with a bachelor's of sciences in business administration with distinction, returned to Riyadh as "a fresh US-educated businessman" in 1979.
The following year he founded the Kingdom Establishment for Commerce and Trade, which would become his investment vehicle - KHC.Today, according to the company website, it is "the world's foremost value investor". Its investments include holdings in Disney, Apple, eBay, Four Seasons Hotels, Twitter, Motorola and Citigroup and it is the driving force behind Kingdom Tower - the proposed Jeddah super-scraper destined to replace Dubai's Burj Khalifa as the world's tallest building.
Drill down into KHC's hotel interests alone and the ubiquity of its portfolio becomes apparent: its investments in luxury hotels include the George V in Paris, Fairmont's The Plaza in New York, The Savoy in London, Raffles in Singapore and Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts.
The Rotana Group, 80 per cent of which is owned by the prince - and a little over 18 per cent by News Corp - is his private, media-investment arm. He also owns the Alarab News Channel. This, says his CV, in a note that brings to mind the reforming zeal of his father, "will highlight political, social and economic issues in the Arab world and in Saudi Arabia". And the prince undoubtedly has a progressive agenda. In 2012 he was named by the Christian Science Monitor as "one of the ten Saudi voices calling for change and reform".
According to his biography, quoted by Forbes, he got started in business with a $30,000 gift from his father and a $300,000 loan and "by the time he was 36, in 1991, he was positioned to make the high-stakes business decision that would define him".
That decision was a $590m investment in Citicorp - a shareholding that grew to be worth $10 billion by 2005 and made him, back then, one of the 10 richest people in the world.
The investment, says his official Kingdom Holdings biography, was "a bold move that surprised many. That surprise rapidly turned into admiration as the prince's guidance helped restore the banking giant to full health."
It was also good for the prince, for whom the investment "has since delivered an extraordinary level of return, and represents the largest proportion of HRH's [His Royal Highness] personal wealth".
That wealth, says Forbes, manifests itself in many of the standard-issue trappings of the extremely rich.
There are the obligatory range of palaces, the super yachts (his latest, being built in Germany and due to be launched this year, is said to be the world's largest), his regular appearances at international society events such as the wedding in London in 2011 of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and the largest of his private jets, an opulently equipped Boeing 747.
Away from his investments, the prince styles himself as "an avid supporter of peace all over the world" through his Alwaleed Foundations, which over the past three decades have given grants worth more than $3bn to causes in more than 70 countries.
His Saudi-born wife, the 29-year-old Her Highness Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel, serves as the vice-chairwoman of the foundations' board of trustees, supporting "a wide range of humanitarian interests in both Saudi Arabia and around the world".
She also shares his passion for reform and has become increasingly associated with campaigns for women's rights in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world.
"I think every Saudi woman is trying her best to be treated equally and to acquire her own rights in the country," she said during an interview on the US's National Public Radio in 2011 about her support for the campaign to allow women to drive in the Kingdom.
On his personal website, Prince Al Waleed defines himself as a "visionary investor" and a "leading philanthropist who has made a difference in the lives of thousands of people in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and around the world, particularly in some of the most impoverished countries in Africa and Asia".
As a boy he "used his privileged upbringing to share his pocket money as well as food with the less privileged". Later, "when he started making his billions from shrewd and sometimes lucky investments around the world", he came to believe that "giving and sharing is his obligation to God ... as important as daily prayers."
He has certainly earned many admirers. His CV is an impressive, 17-page document, recording 23 honorary doctorates he has been granted by universities in 13 countries, including the US and the UK. The citations accompanying them "point to his financial contributions to education, international understanding [and] coexistence and to the provision of assistance to the victims of natural disasters, as well as to the poor and needy, irrespective of nationality, race or creed".
The CV also lists the 66 medals he has received from various countries and organisations, and his honorary citizenship of 20 cities - though not all honours have been bestowed as a result of his philanthropy.
His generosity has not always been appreciated.
In a visit to New York a month after 9/11, the prince condemned the attacks as a "tremendous crime" and handed the mayor, Rudy Giuliani, a $10m donation towards relief.
"We are here to tell New York that Saudi Arabia is with the United States wholeheartedly," he added. But he also issued a statement in which he said "the government of the United States should re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause".
As a result, Giuliani rejected the donation, saying "the people who did it lost any right to ask for justification for it when they slaughtered four or five thousand innocent people".
Nevertheless, one of the prince's lifetime aims, according to his statement of personal philosophy, remains "to initiate meaningful dialogue and discussion between Islam and other world cultures to diffuse unnecessary tensions and set a path towards openness, understanding and peace".
The prince "has been outraged by the violent actions of an extreme minority that have so hatefully obscured the dignity and peaceful teachings of Islam, and is determined to use his high profile to support peace and initiate positive change for every citizen of the world".
Except, perhaps, for now at least, with Forbes.