The Prince and the Theme Park - an epic: Annika Savill looks behind the scenes to see why a Saudi investor chose to sink his wealth into an ailing European leisure complex

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The Independent Online
PRINCE al-Waleed bin Talal's admission to the wonderful world of Euro Disney came at 4.30am last Tuesday in a Paris hotel suite, with 20 negotiators present and His Royal Highness connected by telephone from a tent in the Saudi desert.

The fact that the prince chose to lead the entire negotiation by telephone was symptomatic of his very private personality. And it had been a near-epic negotiation.

'I came to Paris expecting three days of talks and ended up staying 30,' one of his top negotiators told the Independent. 'It was the most complex negotiation anybody had ever come across, involving 61 banks, Euro Disney, Walt Disney, a co-investor we transformed into an adviser, you name it. It was the first time Prince al-Waleed's group was able to prove to the world that we can do an investment banker's job - we didn't enlist an outside investment bank.'

Prince al-Waleed's low personal profile is in marked contrast to his highly public bid to rescue Euro Disney by buying up to 24 per cent of the ailing theme park for a possible dollars 1bn. At 37, he is one of those Saudis who really does not drink or smoke. If you believe his friends, he has no vices. He follows his daily prayer routine with precision, takes two hours of exercise - fast walking or tennis - every day. He spends the summer off the south of France on the yacht he bought from Donald Trump, which he has named, like one his companies, Kingdom.

He decided to invest in Euro Disney, although it was in a 'very distressed' state, because its management had convinced him that the restructuring between the banks and Walt Disney would work.

One of his negotiators explained: 'We assumed the worst was over. We met the management and they assured us they were taking cost-controlling measures, special package tours in the off-season. The company after restructuring will be in a sound financial position.'

The prince is also financing a dollars 100m convention centre in the Euro Disneyland complex to help to fill the park's hotels in the low season. It is hoped that the deal will open the gates to, for instance, Disneyworld in Florida, and, it is murmured, MGM.

At the same time, said one of the prince's aides, 'we are very sure other Saudi and Middle Eastern investors will now be encouraged to invest in Euro Disney'.

Another of Prince al-Waleed's grand international schemes is for control of the Meridien hotel chain owned by Air France. He has formed a joint-venture company with a French group for control of the Sofitel chain. The idea is to merge the two and to convert all Sofitels to Meridiens in those cities where one does not exist, and thereby 'cover the whole globe'. The bid is under review by the French privatisation commission.

''We have 20 projects of this size going at all times,' said one of the prince's top aides. 'At all times. It's only when they succeed, of course, that we let them become public.'

(Photograph omitted)

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