Prince Alwaleed: The World Is Not Enough

Exclusive: The founder of Kingdom Holding Company on plans, power and profits.

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud is a man who holds the world in his hands. Creator of the globe’s tallest tower and owner of numerous global assets, Prince Alwaleed is arguably the shrewdest businessman in the region with a net worth of around $20 billion. The nephew of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, he is the chairman and founder of Kingdom Holding Company, a diversified company with famous investments in Citigroup, News Corp and Apple.

Idle hands are the devil’s work for this robust but cautious investor. The Arab business icon recently pumped $300 million into Twitter, while also masterminding his own Arabic news channel, Alarab.

But while Alwaleed is more than happy to count his coins, the Prince reveals that ramping up his heavy-duty philanthropic activities is one of his most desired goals for 2012. The Prince may be the world’s most powerful living Arab but he has no intention of stopping there.

POLITICS

The Arab Spring has been a turning point for the region. Do you think all this change has been for the best?

First of all, it’s too early to judge because those countries whose regimes were toppled in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen are still in turmoil. We can’t say at this stage that they have arrived at a stable order because things are still in a state of flux.We hope that stability will soon be achieved.

Now there are early indications that in Tunisia, things are beginning to go back to normal. They had free elections, and the winning party, the Ennahda party, formed a government. They also now have a new president, a new prime minister and a new Speaker in the House. And we have seen early indications of stability. But the rest of the countries are still in turmoil and we just have to keep on praying and seeing if they are really going back to stability or not.

Although Saudi Arabia has been in the midst of countries facing turmoil, it has remained stable. Why?

The king is loved by his people, so you don’t really expect a revolt. Secondly, although we are not a constitutional monarchy, we are a very legitimate monarchy dating back more than 250 years. Our country has not had a history of revolutions, such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.

The current economic situation in Saudi Arabia is also quite solid, and we have some sweeping social and economic and financial reforms being undertaken by the government.

People in the country are hopeful that the social and economic reforms will be translated into political reforms. The first change in the political agenda began with the king’s announcement that we will have ladies in the Majlis ash-Shura (Consultative Assembly in the Kingdom).

Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Alsaud has been appointed as the heir to the throne. What are your thoughts on this?

According to the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia, it is the King’s prerogative to appoint the Crown Prince. It is the king’s decision. The Crown Prince will follow the policies set by the King, just as the vice president of the US follows the policies of the president.

SOCIETY

You have taken a personal interest in women’s reforms in the Kingdom. But are adequate measures being taken to improve the situation?

We are at the vanguard of having women incorporated in Saudi society. For example, Kingdom Holding, Alwaleed Foundation, and all my affiliates and associated entities – all have either a majority or a large number of women participating in the process. While this is happening within Kingdom Holding, the Saudi government is also pushing to have this replicated within the wider sectors of society.

The Kingdom has also faced a long-standing problem with unemployment. How can the issue be resolved?

The Saudi government has implemented certain measures to change the situation.

Firstly, they have established a minimum wage at SAR 3,000. The consequence of this is that Saudi nationals will now be tempted to get into the employment structure. Secondly, they have fixed unemployment benefits at SAR 2,000. The implicit benefit of this is that Saudi Arabia will now have a database with the names of all those unemployed, so that they can begin matching those who want and should get to work, with the positions of those expatriates who are exiting the country.

Certainly, there is an urgency regarding this issue in Saudi Arabia. We know that this time bomb needs to be diffused. And all those so-called revolutions that took place around us, all of that has had a silver lining for us. It served as a wake-up call, a very urgent wake-up call, to eliminate this problem. Bare in mind that 60 per cent of the Saudi population is below the age of 30.

BUSINESS

Moving from politics to business, your company, Kingdom Holding, recently bought a $300 million stake in Twitter. Why Twitter?

We believe that social media has reached a certain stage of growth, and Twitter is still at the early stage of expansion. Clearly, there are many companies ahead of it like Google and Facebook, but right now, the new kid on the block is Twitter. It has 100 million registered members and around 250 million tweets everyday. And this is only the beginning.

You can imagine what will happen when the 100 million users reach half a billion users, and the 250 million daily tweets reach a billion. You can also appreciate what will happen when Twitter finalizes its business model that will translate all of that into revenues and profits.

Twitter is still in the process of finding the right business model. So we came at the right time – not very early, of course, but definitely not at a very late stage. We are at the stage where the company has already proven itself as a force to be reckoned with, and we are in touch with its management to expedite the process of having a business model chosen so that revenues and profits will flow in.

Any plans to open your own Twitter account?

My wife Princess Ameerah Al Taweel has a Twitter account. I will open my own account at the right time.

In 2011, your company made a lot of investments in Africa. Do you have further expansion plans in that continent?

I have always said this, and I will keep saying it until it is no longer applicable, that Africa is still a somewhat forgotten and overlooked continent. In 2007 and 2008, some companies and hedge funds began taking a closer look at Africa. But when the financial crisis struck in 2008, and now with a new crisis brewing in the European countries, Africa is not being looked at as much.

But I believe that Africa as a continent is still very promising. Nevertheless, you have to be selective and careful about which country you go to and which industry you choose.

For instance, our latest investment in Africa was in Nigeria, in a carbohydrate project. It is an indigenous project that the government is supporting, because they are trying to pull out from the big international companies and move towards engaging companies that are indigenous to Nigeria, as well as towards companies like us that are partnering with such new and upcoming local entities.

What is the progress on Kingdom Tower, the world’s tallest building?

The details and the plans have been completed, and the construction contract has also been awarded. Work will begin imminently.

MEDIA

Another new project for you this year is the Alarab channel, which you are launching in association with Bloomberg. Can you explain more about the venture and what you plan to achieve through it?

This channel will hopefully go live
sometime in the latter part of 2012. And we believe that this channel will be somewhere between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. Al Jazeera is considered as the channel of the Arab masses and Al Arabiya is thought to be the channel of the governments. I don’t believe that it is the right choice, or the only choice that the Arab people should have. The Arab world consists of 22 countries with around 380 million inhabitants living in an area stretching from Morocco to Bahrain. Now I’m not saying that the other choices are not good, but they are the only ones that people have right now, and I believe that the Arab world deserves a third option.

I’m trying to bring a choice whereby we are neither the channel of the government nor the channel only of the people.

If you were to ask me if the channel would have any particular advocacy, I would have to say that it will espouse an evolutionary approach. A great many changes are needed in the Arab world, and these can be achieved by orderly means and not necessarily by violence. Revolutions are not only disruptive and exact a heavy toll in lives and material, but they also often have unknown and unpredictable consequences. We are still not sure when Egypt, Syria and Yemen will have safety and stability. So it’s better to have a steady and peaceful evolutionary process from within a country, rather than have a heavy loss of life and property, with also the possibility of outside intervention, as has happened in Libya.

You supported Rupert Murdoch and his son James during the News of the World scandal in 2011. As a part of the global media industry, you have always stressed that you stand by ethics. Do you think that it is difficult to remain ethical in media these days because of increasing competition and excessive political and economic pressures?

Ethics is paramount, whether in the media, in banking or in personal life. It is non-negotiable. And I went public by saying that Rebecca Brooks [ex-editor of News of The World] has to leave, and she left. Obviously, the question now is who knew what. Just because you had an incident in News Of The World, that belonged to News Corp, it doesn’t mean that everybody in that organisation was involved. Rupert Murdoch didn’t know anything about that. The investigation is still going on, and we have to see and evaluate how high up the ladder accountability went.

For me, personally, ethics applies across the board. It is not only needed, it’s required, and it’s a condition. It’s a part of my life.

But do you find a similar passion for adhering to ethics among the other companies and individuals that you interact with?

Of course. I always like to deal and interact with companies that have high ethical standards. Sometimes a few individuals, not companies, behave unethically and tarnish the image of the firm. But I have to say that most of the companies in the world are ethical in their dealings

PERSONAL LIFE AND PHILANTROPHY

You have been featured in several powerful and rich lists across the world. Personally, what do power and wealth mean to you?

Wealth, power, and money – they are all only blessings from God. And we all have to be careful not to abuse what we have from God. I am a very ethical and very religious man. Actually my ethics come from my religion.

You are well known across the world for your philanthropy. What makes you give so easily?

In my case, philanthropy is not a choice; it’s a pillar of Islam. Zakat [giving charity] is a part of my religion. So it’s not debatable or negotiable. And I always say that Islam is part socialism and part capitalism. There is one verse in the Quran that says that if you perform well and gain, then so be it, gain more. But there is also another verse in the Quran that says that one should pay the zakat. It is a social formula of sorts that mandates giving to charity annually. My charitable and philanthropic activities derive from my faith, which is an integral part of me.

As a philanthropist, what has been your most memorable moment?

When you give and see the smiles on people’s faces. For instance, Princess Ameerah and I went to Somalia in the midst of the turmoil there and we gave contributions to support the local people. Helping people in need, and having them smile, even temporarily, is a most exhilarating reward. It is exciting. I don’t use that word in business, but I use it when it comes to my charity work, because making people happy and having them feel appreciated – that is very important to me.

And finally, what are your plans for 2012?

My plan, like that of any other businessman, is to be involved, do my job everyday, perform my duties, and contribute to society, my region and the world. It’s also to remain positive and do my best to alleviate pressures and poverty, and do all the things integral to me – business, charity and philanthropy.