Saviours of the Planet
Last week the hamburger chain was saved from bankruptcy by two investors with a glittering array of assets. Hilary Clarke and Dan Gledhill chart the careers of Ong Beng Seng and Prince Al Waleed
Sunday 22 August 1999
Al Waleed certainly has the wealth and lifestyle worthy of his pedigree. He is passing the week on Kingdom, the boat he bought from Donald Trump, which is moored off Cannes. Accommodation is never a problem for Al Waleed. As well as his 25 per cent stake in the Four Seasons hotel group, he owns the luxurious Hotel George V in Paris. His transport interests include 5 per cent of Trans World Airlines, a Norwegian cruise line company, and stakes in motor manufacturers Daewoo and Hyundai. For entertainment, see his 24 per cent holding in EuroDisney, for clothing, a chunk of Donna Karan. His 9.9 per cent of Citigroup ought to be enough to keep his bank manager quiet.
All pretty run-of-the-mill stuff for an Arab prince, you might say. But it would be wrong to stereotype the 42-year-old as the kind of flash Saudi aristocrat whose profligacy has helped squander the billion-dollar legacy bestowed on the Gulf state by its vast oil reserves. Born in Riyadh, where he still has a palatial home, he was raised in Beirut, home of his mother, who happened to be the daughter of Lebanon's first prime minister. Next came California, where he graduated magna cum laude from Menlo College with a degree in business administration. A dollar billionaire by the age of 31, he has continued to dedicate his time to an investment portfolio whose success has made him the world's eighth richest man with a fortune estimated at $15bn (pounds 9bn).
His regime is exacting. He survives on five hours' sleep a night, sustaining himself with a diet of vegetables and fish and an hour's daily exercise. Smoking and drinking are out and, unlike many of his peers, Al Waleed is a stranger to London's casino tables. Instead, he devotes at least four hours a day to devouring the world's media and always has his cell phone to hand even when allowing himself the luxury of a skiing holiday in St Moritz.
He is backed by an elaborate entourage. How else could he ensure that, wherever he may be, he has a private phone network to keep in touch with Riyadh and his more far-flung holdings? He has travelled and invested in the Far East, counting Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as a friend. A recent fishing trip to Asia was interrupted by a confab with the Sultan of Brunei.
Africa was earmarked as a growth area, although the Middle East remains his priority - last year he pumped $80m into the Palestinian-ruled parts of Gaza and the West Bank.
If there is any pattern to Al Waleed's investment, it is his timing. The Prince likes to make his move when a venture is on its knees, hence last week's bail-out of Planet Hollywood. Robert Earl is understandably grateful. "He is very knowledgeable, a workaholic," says Earl. "He is loyal to companies he puts money into. He hasn't done well out of Planet but has remained very loyal."
His business acumen was recognised last month when Syracuse University, where he gained his Masters, awarded him an honorary degree. "We honour you for your contributions to global economic leadership," gushed the university's citation, which went on to laud him for having "carried forward Islam's revered tradition of charity and philanthropy".
Other awards include the Star Decoration of the First Order, given by the late King Hussein of Jordan, and the title "Man of the Year", bestowed in January by Arab Ad magazine.
Of course, it is not unreasonable to be suspicious of accolades showered on a man of such extravagant wealth. And it is hardly cynical to speculate whether Al Waleed's wealth owes as much to his background as his brains. There are those who dismiss him as nothing more than an accumulator of trophy assets. Maybe, but his eye for a bargain is undeniable. After all, this is the man who teamed up with Paul Reichmann, the Canadian entrepreneur, in an pounds 800m bail-out of a notorious white elephant. The half-empty skyscraper they acquired, Canary Wharf, is now worth pounds 2.9bn. Perhaps there is hope for Planet Hollywood yet.
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