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NEW YORK — Riz Khan estimated he has interviewed about 10,000 people in his journalism career at the BBC and CNN — and that billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud is the most fascinating of them all.
Khan was so intrigued by the royal, whose $24 billion fortune qualifies him as the fifth richest man in the world, that he wrote a book about his life, “Alwaleed: Businessman, Billionaire, Prince” (William Morrow).
Khan broached the idea of doing a documentary on Alwaleed after meeting him at a conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, several years ago. But Alwaleed didn’t think celluloid could do his life justice. “‘My life is very multifaceted,”’ Khan recalls the prince saying. “‘How do you expect to know my whole life? You have to travel with me. Why don’t you write a book about me?'”
The journalist took the bait. While his book shows that Alwaleed has an eye for a bargain — especially when it comes to picking up distressed companies — he clearly prefers to surround himself with luxury, be it a brand or a Boeing 767. The prince is the single biggest foreign investor in the U.S. economy.
Alwaleed gets fashion guidance from his daughter, a recent graduate of the University of New Haven in Connecticut. At her urging, he bought shares of Donna Karan International several years ago, but sold his investment when Karan was acquired by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton because the company’s wines and spirits division is in conflict with his religious beliefs.
Through a $100 million investment, Alwaleed in 1993 bought about 10 percent of Saks Fifth Avenue. The retailer was subsequently purchased by Birmingham, Ala.-based Profitt’s and renamed Saks Inc.
“He’s very proud of Saks Fifth Avenue,” Khan said. “He brought it to Riyadh [to the Kingdom Center] and wants to open a store in Jeddah. He may expand it further in the Middle East.”
Khan, who will host an interview program on the new Al Jazeera International network launching next year, is clearly sympathetic toward his subject, whom he sees as a businessman first and foremost.
“The opulence is all relative,” he said. “He’s not wasteful. He says he uses money efficiently to have a good life.” That good life includes a 317-room palace, a desert camp outside Riyadh replete with elaborate tents and satellite TVs, and a 283-foot yacht once owned by Donald Trump.
Alwaleed, a nephew of Saudi King Fahd Bin Adbul-Aziz, makes a good case for the money-doesn’t-buy-happiness school of thought. Thrice divorced and living in a 400,000-square-foot home, the prince seems to be all work and no play. “He doesn’t have much time for a private life,” Khan said. “His lifestyle is very focused and regulated.”
On most of his business trips, Alwaleed stays up until 6 a.m. working. The prince thinks sleep is a waste of time and survives on about four hours daily.
Alwaleed has a down-to-earth side. “I’ve seen people at his table who aren’t famous,” Khan said. Of course, his royal highness is usually in the company of very rich and powerful men such as Sanford Weill, chairman of Citigroup Inc. — the prince bailed out the troubled Citibank in 1991 with a $590 million cash infusion and is its biggest investor — Richard Parsons, chief executive officer of Time Warner Inc. and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
“He’s connected,” Khan said in a bit of understatement, recalling the prince’s last U.S. visit, a whirlwind that included meetings with Bill Clinton in New York, Jimmy Carter in Atlanta, and lunch with George H.W. Bush and former secretary of state James Baker in Houston.
In Saudi Arabia, Khan said Alwaleed is different from other royals. His parents divorced when he was a child and he spent much of his life living with his Lebanese mother in Beirut. “At school, he was torn between two countries,” Khan said. “He’s different from the other Saudi princes because he has that Lebanese blood. As a youngster, he wasn’t connected to the wealth stream.”
Alwaleed made up for that through shrewd investing. “If a strong brand is down on its knees, he thinks that’s the time to capture it,” Khan said. “He risked his money on Citibank. He’s like Warren Buffett. In fact, the two have become something of long-distance friends. They’re both buy-and-hold types.”
So loyal is the prince to his favorite brands, he only carries Motorola cellular phones and drinks Pespi, no Coke. His stake in Planet Hollywood, he admitted, was a bad move, but he insists that his investment in Disneyland Paris, in which he sank around $345 million in 1994, will prove prescient.
Alwaleed bought the George V Hotel in Paris in 1996 for $175 million, acquired 5 percent of the shares of News Corp. the following year and raised an earlier investment in AOL Time Warner to $1 billion in 2001 and 2002.
Despite his understanding of U.S. business, the prince at times seems out of touch with U.S. culture. Khan begins the book with a scene of the prince, a self-avowed news junkie, watching the Sept. 11 attacks unfold on CNN. Alwaleed canceled an appearance at a high-end shopping center he had built in Riyadh and started thinking of a dignified way to react.
Eventually, Alwaleed decided that a donation of $10 million to the city of New York was appropriate. He flew to New York to deliver the check to then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. But a line in the prince’s press release about the donation, urging America to “adopt a more balanced stance to the Palestinian cause,” was offensive to Giuliani and he returned the gift.
Alwaleed was dismayed, but he learned a lesson of American business: the value of notoriety.
“Suddenly, everyone knew who Alwaleed was,” the prince is quoted as saying in the book. “Giuliani did me a huge favor, actually.”