In 2009, he invited a Forbes reporter to a week-long visit of his 420-room palace in Riyadh and to accompany him and his then wife, Princess Ameera, on a flight to Cairo on board his personal Boeing 747 to make sure the magazine realised the scale of his wealth when compiling the list of the richest people on the planet.
That plan did not go well. In 2013, he launched a libel action against Forbes for underestimating his fortune. The magazine said he was worth $20bn, the 26th most wealthy billionaire in the world, but he claimed his fortune was much larger. After all, the 60-year-old member of the Saudi royal family and self-proclaimed Arabian Warren Buffett, is the wealthiest man in the Middle East, holding stakes in the likes of Apple, Twitter, Citigroup, Canary Wharf, Time Warner and Paris’s George V and London’s Savoy hotels.
This week, the prince, who has a penchant for texting influential people and has James Murdoch on speed-dial, announced he will donate all his wealth to charity, including empowering women through his own Alwaleed Philanthropies organisation, modelled on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As he invited the world media for a briefing in Riyadh, he also used the opportunity to push his version of the size of his fortune, which he says is $32bn (£20bn). That is still at odds with Forbes’s 2015 estimate of $22.6bn, which puts him 34th on its list.
Alwaleed, a nephew of King Salman and a grandson of Saudi Arabia’s founder, Abdulaziz, is unlike other big Saudi princes. He often appears in public with his tinted glasses and wearing suits instead of the usual ankle-length thawb. The prince, who is obsessive about calorie counting and usually has no more than 1,100 a day, has progressive views on women, music and cinema and has called for the Arab world, Saudi monarchy included, to implement reform.
He married the glamorous and unveiled Ameera years after she interviewed him for a school paper when she was 18. In a society where women are kept away from the limelight, he appeared with her in public – including at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011 – and insisted on Saudi newspapers publishing her photos despite the usual restrictions on using Saudi women’s images in print. The prince divorced Ameera in 2013 although they remain friends.
He is happy to boast that his Saudi-based headquarters employ more women than men and that they don’t have to wear veils at work. Not everyone believes that the prince’s focus on women is solely aimed at empowering them; some critics say it is also a way for him to gain more influence, especially in the west.
But there are limits to what money can buy, even if you are Alwaleed. In the 2000s, he famously financed a woman from Mecca, Hanadi Zakaria al-Hindi, to become his country’s first female pilot. She was certified to fly in Saudi Arabia in 2014 and may be able to fly the prince’s private jet (though it isn’t clear if she does that in Saudi Arabian skies), but she surely won’t be able to drive on Saudi streets. Women are still banned from doing so in the the world’s most theocratic kingdom. Alwaleed and Ameera support the campaign to change that.
Alwaleed was born in Jeddah, on the coast of the Red Sea, in March 1955. His father is Prince Talal, a senior member of the royal family who was sidelined – and even exiled – because he was seen as a black sheep for wanting a constitutional monarchy.
Talal has recently been critical of the king empowering his son and centralising power around his son’s house. Alwaleed’s mother was Mona Al Solh, the daughter of Lebanon’s first prime minister Riad Al Solh. He studied at Menlo college in California and later received an off-campus master’s degree from Syracuse University.
The prince says he is a self-made billionaire, claiming that his father only gave him a $30,000 endowment and a $300,000 loan and a house. It remains unclear how he was subsequently able to amass such a huge amount of money in a short time.
His first investments were in construction and it was not until 1991, when he rescued the then fragile Citicorp, that the west came to know of his financial firepower. He has since come to the rescue of many other big companies and his wealth has grown at a startling rate, now stretching to a super yacht (which became the setting for a James Bond film and was once owned by Donald Trump), private jets (an A380 he later sold), countless acres of lands, and hotel giants Four Seasons and Mövenpick.
His Rotana group is the Arab world’s largest entertainment company. His Kingdom resort outside Riyadh has a private zoo and an underground cavern, according to Vanity Fair. He is the chairman of Kingdom Holding, which controls many of his assets.
Alwaleed’s contact book bursts with A-listers, his diary is punctuated by meetings with the world’s powerbrokers. He texted Carla Bruni when Nicolas Sarkozy lost the French presidential election in 2012. He is active on Twitter, where he has 3.35 million followers. His timeline is full of his pictures with the world’s biggest names.
The Murdoch clan are important associates. Alwaleed has a stake in Murdoch’s News Corp and Rupert Murdoch has shares in the prince’s Rotana Group. But in 2015, it emerged that Alwaleed was reducing his holdings from 6.6% to about 1%.
During the phone-hacking scandal, Alwaleed stood by Murdoch’s family but called for Rebekah Brooks to resign. She stepped down a day after the prince’s intervention. “James [Murdoch] is not my partner only in News Corp,” Alwaleed told Vanity Fair’s William Cohan in 2013. “He’s also my partner in the Rotana … He’s a highly ethical, professional, decent man. I think of his honesty. I’m thinking of him. I know him very well.”
Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, said it is not unknown for billionaires to give vast amounts of their money away, but she underlined the political and social prominence of Alwaleed in Saudi Arabia.
“He is a very interesting figure politically and socially in the Saudi royal family,” she said. “One of his media companies financed the film Wadjda, which is the first feature film directed by a Saudi woman shown at Cannes, so he has a history of making high-profile gestures which are surprising and which make him popular, at least with a liberal constituency.”
Alwaleed has been indirectly criticised by a number of conservative Saudi clerics for his satellite channels, for example.
“He’s quite a young man to be making such a [philanthropic] move, it’s not as if he’s coming to the end of his career or that he needed to look at his legacy,” she added.
“Some people speculate that maybe he is someone with political ambition in Saudi Arabia. That’s probably unlikely because he’s so liberal, relative to that society. But having amassed so much wealth, he may well be interested in his reputation.” Bill Gates, who has worked with the prince for charity, praised him for his latest move this week.
Alwaleed, who likes watching CNBC and has given money to many universities – including Harvard, Cambridge and Edinburgh – has not been immune to controversies. Perhaps the most curious is his alleged retention of a group of dwarves as an act of charity. The prince has described reports of dwarf-tossing as lies. His supporters say he has shown a favour to the dwarves by giving them shelter and money. The prince, who frequently invited journalists to his palaces before, has since become somewhat press shy – at least to western media.
Another big controversy was his plan to offer 100 Bentleys to 100 Saudi pilots involved in the military campaign against Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebel forces there has killed hundreds of civilians, among them children. Alwaleed is also believed to hold hostile views about Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival in the region. Other Saudi figures to benefit from his generous gifts include footballers. Not all his donations are gratefully received, though; his $10m cheque to New York after the 9/11 attacks was rejected by the city’s mayor.
Dean Mousavi, a human rights activist based in Iraq, said Alwaleed enjoys a surprising degree of respect in the region, even among Shia Muslims, because of his inclusive views of the Shia sect of Islam.
But Mousavi is unsure what result giving such a large amount of money away will bring. “It gives him some publicity, which he wants to have in the west such as in the US and France,” Mousavi said. “It’s all about presenting a good image of himself in the world, but I’m not sure where the money will go.”
This article was written by Saeed Kamali Dehghan, for theguardian.com on Friday 3rd July 2015 19.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010