Profile: A royal white knight for Mickey Mouse: Prince Al-Waleed: Larry Black in New York on the rich Saudi prince who has bailed out Euro Disney and is keen to be a corporate raider
Sunday 05 June 1994
The nephew of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, the prince, aged 39, lives in a 130-room palace in Riyadh attended by 90 servants, travels on his bank's buff-and-green Boeing 727 jet, owns a piece of the department store chain Saks Fifth Avenue, and spends lavishly from his dollars 4bn ( pounds 2.6bn) fortune.
One oft-repeated story is of a visit to a South Carolina resort, where he spent thousands of dollars to have lights rigged around the hotel pool and volleyball courts so his 20-member party could frolic on Riyadh time. When he visited Disney World in Florida and Euro Disney - the prince has been a Disney fan since his American college days - it was with an entourage requiring an entire floor of a hotel.
Beyond that, however, Prince Al-Waleed defies the stereotype of the free-spending Arab playboy. Colleagues describe the slim, moustachioed prince as a detail- minded workaholic and a news junkie, who watches Cable News Network and reads half-a-dozen western newpapers in his car each day as he races among his various businesses in Riyadh. The few journalists who have interviewed him say he answers questions with a bluntness refreshing in a society given to ambiguity and generalities. People who knew him during his college days in the US remember a hard-working and gifted student who was reserved, well- mannered and 'not a flashy Adnan Khashoggi type'.
In his business dealings, he also has a decidedly unprincely reputation for hustling for business and for shrewd deal-making. 'I went out and knocked on doors,' he told Forbes magazine in 1988, explaining how he amassed his then billion-dollar fortune in construction, travel and property. 'People were astonished to see a prince pitching for business.'
Being a member of the Saudi royal family is a tremendous advantage when it comes to doing business in a country rife with nepotism and coercive 'commissions' on foreign contracts. One vocal critic of the House of Saud, Said Aburish, claims in a recent book that Prince Al-Waleed distributed Diners Club cards to members of his family in 1992 after becoming the card's agent in Saudi Arabia, then refused to honour the dollars 30m worth of charges they had rung up. But the prince's Western bankers dispute that tale, and say his fortune has been arrived at honestly. For one thing, his father, Prince Talal Bin Abdulaziz, was for many years out of favour with his half-brother, King Fahd, and spent much of the 1970s and 1980s living in Egypt. Prince Al-Waleed was able to secure a loan from Citibank to help finance the Kingdom Establishment for Trading & Contracting, the company he created after graduating from California's Menlo College in business administration in 1979, but he had to offer his dollars 15m palace as collateral.
Kingdom earned no money on its first construction contract, a dollars 16m joint venture with a South Korean contractor to build a military academy. 'I needed to establish myself, to become known as a player, so we put in a bid with no profit for ourselves,' the prince told one reporter. Only with his second contract, a dollars 70m project at a new airport, did he make a profit, he says, and that was a normal 15 per cent.
By 1981, Kingdom Establishment's revenues were dollars 1.5bn, and it had set up a travel agency to serve the thousands of Pakistani and Korean workers flying in to work on his projects. Realising the Saudi construction boom would not last, he moved into building maintenance. He set up a business converting Mercedes-Benz trucks into dollars 1m recreational vehicles for rich Saudis. And when falling oil prices threw the country into recession in the mid-1980s, he began buying up Riyadh property.
Soon afterwards, with cash assets of some dollars 500m, the prince began to dabble in Islamic banking, providing 'letters of guarantee' to other contractors unable to secure bank financing in a difficult climate. He says his knowledge of the personalities involved meant he never suffered a default. In April 1988, he and a group of investors took control of one of the Kingdom's weakest banks, the five- year-old United Saudi Commercial Bank, hiring a former Citibank executive as general manager and cutting its staff almost in half. He is now chairman of the bank, which is solidly profitable after having lost 20 per cent of its capital in the years before he took over.
The prince's banking profile - and the fact he kept most of his money with Citibank - made it a little difficult to accept the Citibank chief John Reed's version of how he came to be the largest shareholder in America's largest bank in 1991. Soon after Prince Al- Waleed stunned the international banking community by bailing out its troubled parent, Citicorp, the bank's chairman told an interviewer that he had 'first stumbled' upon the prince a few months before when he started buying Citicorp shares.
The controversial investment, which saw the prince buy dollars 590m worth of convertible preferred shares, was announced at the height of the Gulf war and in the midst of a secret rescue of Citibank by American bank regulators. Stricken with bad commercial property loans, the bank desperately needed to raise dollars 1.5bn in new capital, half of which the prince ultimately supplied in exchange for a 14.8 per cent stake.
Although he later profited handsomely from his investment and now owns less than 10 percent of Citicorp, some banking executives continue to contend the deal was orchestrated by the US Federal Reserve and was a token of official Saudi gratitude.
The prince, for his part, insisted the money was all his own, and made some disparaging comments about the way the bank was being run. His investment allowed him to keep an eye on the whole thing without being inside, he said at the time. 'John Reed may have stumbled upon me, but I didn't stumble upon Citicorp.'
Any doubts about Prince Al- Waleed's independence, however, would seem to be put to rest by his subsequent deal-making - his dollars 100m investment in Saks, his Fr1.6bn ( pounds 188m) bid with Accor for Air France's Meridien hotels chain, and now, his bold fishing in the Euro Disney rights issue.
The prince himself is reputedly uncomfortable in the role of passive investor. Although he normally avoids publicity, he contacted Forbes in 1988 when it inadvertently left him off its annual list of international billionaires. He gave an interview in which he promised to have a net worth of dollars 5bn in 10 years and said he 'would love to be a corporate raider'.
After the Citicorp deal, bank officials went out of their way to say the comment was 'a joke' - particularly after the BCCI scandal broke that summer, with its revelation that three US banks had fallen under foreign control without the Fed's knowledge.
But in a subsequent interview, Prince Al-Waleed said he was serious about being a corporate raider. 'I want my voice to be heard.'
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