In an exclusive interview with Okaz, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal says:
*King Abdullah is our role model
*Ministers should be modest and down to earth
*Kingdom needs a sovereignty fund with 8 percent interest
He started his business when he was only 25 years old. His road was not paved with roses or flowers as some people may think. Twice he had declared himself bankrupt but he soon picked himself up and turned his failures into a great success story that made him an icon in the world of business and finance.
Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz depended on the English proverb, “Make hay while the sun shines,” to build his financial and media empire over 34 years with assets worth more than SR120 billion ($32 billion). The Saudi billionaire believes that “guts and carefully-studied risks” are the two most important factors for any success. Following is his first press interview in eight years:
Q - Does Prince Alwaleed, as some people claim, side with women at the expense of men in employment in his gigantic establishments?
A - Frankly I always side with qualifications regardless of gender. I am trying to be fair to women because their rights are still not fully recognized in our country. Women's rights have regressed since the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In fact they have regressed from what they had been 30 years ago. Despite our sympathy with women, we in the Kingdom Holding Company will never abandon our high quality parameters. I would like to mention here that when the company issued its first public shares in 2007, it had a workforce of 22 men and women. Because of the dedication and competence of the employees, their number was cut down by 10 percent to reach 20 people only at this time, consisting of an equal number of men and women. About 85 percent of the employees are Saudis and the other 15 percent expatriates.
Q - Is this little number of employees enough to run a company as big as Kingdom Holding?
A - As I said before, all the people who work for the company are highly qualified. They have been selected under minute and thorough parameters. At an administrative level, I do not consider them employees but partners in the organization. This has led to an increase in their productivity though their daily working hours are only six. We have obtained first place in competence among all companies in the Middle East.
Q - You have close relationships with a number of kings, presidents, ministers and highly positioned personalities. How have these ties helped you in your investment, charity, human and social interests?
A - I have so far visited a total of 150 countries and met with a number of kings, presidents, ministers and leading personalities. These visits were imposed on me by the very nature of my work and my international investments. For instance, the Citibank Group now exists in 140 countries in five continents. The Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts are present in about 50 countries. News Corp, which represents our media arm, exists in five continents. Twitter, of which we are now one of its owners, is spreading all over the world. This makes it imperative on us to make a number of shuttle tours of the world. I also love discovery tourism to all parts of the world. I have scheduled trips to visit 40 countries, which I have not visited before, during the five coming years. When I complete these trips, God willing, I will have visited all countries of the world.
Q - Do you make these trips for business or pleasure during your vacations?
A - There are some trips that I make for business and some which I make during my annual vacations. I consider myself an employee with scheduled vacations such as Ramadan and Haj holidays. My official vacation is in summer and it extends to a whole month in addition to one week which I take during winter. I spend this week in the company of my family, which consists of my son Khaled, my daughter Reem and my five grandchildren. I make a number of business trips. Mid next year I will have a 10-day international tour during which I will meet with a number of heads of state and also the heads of companies with which we have business relations. Added to this are the fast trips, which do not extend for more than a day. As I am keen to return the same day, my private jet is equipped with an additional pilot because aviation rules will not permit one pilot to fly continuously for long hours.
Q - Do you sleep in the plane?
A - When my sleep time comes, I can sleep in the plane. I have certain times for sleep. I do not usually sleep for more than five hours. The rest of the time I spend reading.
Q - What about your weekends? Do you consider them a vacation or time for work?
A - I consider them business holidays. During the two days off for the weekend, I pick up three or four issues to focus deeply on. If I take your interview with me as an example, you will notice that I have taken the questions with me to the desert to think about them deeply before my meeting with you.
Q - Why do you spend your weekends in the desert?
A - The desert for me means belonging and serenity. I consider the desert part of my very being. For 34 years I have been spending my weekends in the desert.
Q - Who accompanies you to your camp in the desert? Do you force your employees to come to you for work during their off time?
A - I am accompanied by the people who are close to me. For my employees, accompanying me is optional except when business dictates. In this case the employees may come for exceptional meetings. For example, my last TV interview was done in my camp in the desert.
Q - Do you pay overtime to your employees?
A - I reject the idea of paying overtime. It gives me the impression that the staffer who is paid overtime is nothing more than a mercenary. As I said before, I consider my staff partners, not employees. They are receiving many benefits while they only work for 30 hours a week and six hours a day.
Q - You participated recently with French President Francois Hollande in the meetings on the international sovereign funds. How did the invitation come to you? Why you personally?
A - The invitation came to the Kingdom Holding Company because there is no effective Saudi sovereign fund. I wished so much that the government was represented in these meetings. I have been calling for the establishment of such a fund given the turbulent world financial and economic conditions. Because no such fund existed, the invitation was extended to KHC because it is a strong local, regional and international firm. We have participated in more than 10 sovereign funds with assets of more than $3 trillion. We are proud of this participation.
Q - Some economic experts do not believe that the Kingdom needs a sovereign fund considering the large size of its economy. They also say we have a sovereign fund represented by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA). What do you think?
A - This is not informed talk. I think the Kingdom needs this fund now more than ever, especially with the sharp fall in oil prices. We know that the Kingdom has reserves amounting to more than SR2.6 trillion. This amount includes finances from some other government funds. The Sanabil Investment Company, which the government has established with a capital of SR20 billion, will not do much even if its proceeds are high. The returns of the government investments are not more than 1 percent. This was revealed during recent discussions in the Shoura Council with some officials in the concerned ministries. We have to activate these funds to ensure the government with more profits. This cannot be accomplished without the sovereign fund, which will have returns of 8 to 10 percent a year, as is the case in Norway, China, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Singapore and other countries.
Q - Some people claim that you are vehemently asking for the establishment of this fund so you can take over its management. What is your response to this?
A - Managing a budget of about $3 trillion is not an easy thing to do. Alwaleed alone or any other person else will not be able to this job single-handedly or unassisted. The matter needs a taskforce consisting of Saudi economic experts and statesmen whom the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah trusts. The fund must be managed properly and with high professionalism to ensure the Kingdom with annual returns of not less than 8 to 10 percent.
Q - Looking at your recent message to the minister of petroleum and mineral resources in the backdrop of the fall in oil prices, I felt that you were looking with the eye of a merchant at oil as an economic commodity, not with the eye of a statesman who may have a different outlook on oil. What do you think?
A - Oil now is not a war weapon but rather a suicidal tool. The situation is extremely serious. The Kingdom's budget depends 90 percent on oil. If the government does not reduce its expenditure with oil prices steadily dropping, there will be a great deficit in the general budget. If spending continued at this level, the government will be obliged to withdraw from the reserves, which will finally be depleted. After this, the government will have to resort to local and international borrowing as had happened about a decade ago. Therefore, we must diversify our sources of income and establish the sovereign fund.
Q - What about your relationships with the ministers?
A - I have ties of friendships with many of them. However, I urge them all to do more for the Saudi citizen. The ministers must make the father of the nation King Abdullah their role model. The king refused many titles and said he was the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the Servant of the People. Therefore, every minister should be certain that he has been appointed in his position only to serve the Saudi citizens.
Q - Do you do believe that some ministers are arrogant and superior?
A – Yes, I believe that some of them are. A scene that I saw on television comes to my mind at this moment. A Saudi minister was expressing his protest to a question by a journalist on a satellite channel by blowing repulsively at the microphone. He told the questioner to “go to hell”. This is not appropriate for the image of the Kingdom or of the minister himself. On the other side, there are ministers who are down to earth and extremely nice in their dealings with other people.
Q - How does Your Highness see the Saudi citizen?
A - I love the Saudi citizen and I am partial when it comes to him. I put him/her on my head. During the past five years we have only been employing Saudi citizens in our companies. Even the people who work at my home are almost 100 percent Saudi.
Q - Millions of people watched you on the YouTube telling a Saudi citizen that you are a Saudi citizen like him. You said to him: “I am a Saudi citizen like you. Do not call me prince.” What is the title that is more favored by you?
A - While I am proud of the title of “prince” and thank God for this bounty, I look at the Saudi citizen as a brother. I feel comfortable when I walk on the street and someone calls me by my first name or calls me “Abu Khaled” without any barriers.
Q - You have investments worth billions of dollars in the media industry in the world including the American company News Corp, Rotana channels, Al-Risalah channel and the Al-Arab News Channel, which will soon start transmitting from Bahrain, in addition to the Saudi Research and Publishing Company (SRPC). What are your real purposes behind the media investments?
A - The media is the fourth power. Everybody knows its strength and influence. We all remember Watergate and how two American journalists from the Washington Post were able to depose President Nixon. I strongly believe in the media and consider it a weapon for all countries. I do not, however, like the hypocritical media or the biased ones. I am all for respectful and responsible information that plays its role impartially and balances between the requirements of a country’s security and the needs of its people. The media at the same time should be committed to truthfulness, credibility and openness. This may be a difficult balance but one we are determined to strike.
Q - Of late, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal has gone for the new media. You are one of the owners of the American company Twitter and the Chinese company JD.com. How do you look at the new media? Do you consider it a feasible investment?
A - No doubt the new media is important and economically feasible. Every move we make has to have clear objectives and at the same time be profitable. When we entered into Twitter, the price per share was $14. Now it has more than tripled.
Q - Your account on the Twitter had attracted more than 2.5 million followers in 15 months. You are also among the 100 most influential people in the world. How do you envisage this tool and benefit from it in your projects?
A - I am well aware of the importance of Twitter and its influence. Therefore, I look at it with complete seriousness and at the same time with extreme caution. If you look at my tweets, you will find that they are too little and not exceeding 126 so far. I have a consultative committee that reviews my tweets before they are put on my account.
Q - Do you write your tweets yourself or do you have a team to do this for you?
A - I write my tweets myself and put them on my account. However, I believe in the importance of consultation and in getting a second opinion on some tweets. Any tweet is studied by a consultative committee, which will also choose a suitable time to post it.
Q - Some people are of the opinion that Al-Arab News Channel will not offer anything new and will be a copy of other news channels. What do you think?
A - The channel will start transmission on the Feb. 1, 2015. It will adopt the values of candidness, transparency and impartiality. We will give enough space for opinions and counter opinions. The channel will not be a mouthpiece for any particular party. Our commitment will only be to our Arab nation. We will not accept funding from any other foreign body even though many other famous Arab news channels do this, adversely affecting their credibility and independence.
Q - Why have you chosen Manama for your channel even though it is not an important media city like Cairo, Dubai or Beirut?
A - We have carefully studied six Arab capitals but finally decided on Manama. We believe that Bahrain is most suitable to us considering the amount of freedom and political stability. This is one of the achievements of King Hamad Bin Issa Al-Khalifa, with whom I have close relations of fraternity and friendship. Bahrain is also very advanced country culturally and intellectually. Bahrain is the most conducive incubator for expatriates. It is the number one Arab and GCC country and the fourth in the world regarding the ability to attract foreign manpower. We should also not forget its nearness to the Kingdom and its easy accessibility through the King Fahd Causeway.
Q - Why have you established Al-Risalah Islamic channel? Has it achieved your vision and ambitions?
A - Regretfully Islam has these days been hijacked by some extremist organizations such as IS, Al-Nusrah Front, Boko Haram and others. These groups have distorted the image of Islam in the West. The purpose for the channel is to present Islam as a moderate religion in line with the same vision of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.
Q – Former president of the channel Tariq Al-Suwaidan announced that he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood Movement. You quickly responded by relieving him from his post. Could you shed some light on this? How do you look at the Muslim Brotherhood?
A - Before I appointed Suwaidan president of the channel, I asked him three times if he was a Muslim Brother. Every time he answered in the negative. We did not notice any such tendencies with him when we started transmissions. When he announced that he was one of the Muslim Brothers, I sacked him in five minutes through a tweet. I am not against the Muslim Brotherhood just because this is the attitude of Saudi Arabia, Egypt or the United Arab Emirates. I am totally against politicization of Islam. Thank God the Muslim Brothers have been defeated in Egypt and will soon be defeated in Libya.
Q - How do you look at Egypt under President Abdulfattah Al-Sisi?
A- I have very close ties of friendship and fraternity with Sisi. I met him 72 hours before the presidential elections. His election was a devastating blow to the Muslim Brothers. It will also be the final and decisive blow to what is called "Arab Spring", which has flatly failed in all Arab countries.
Q - Some people consider your attitude regarding the Muslim Brotherhood movement as against the interests of the Arab people. What do you say? Do you think the Arabs are not capable of guiding these revolutions in the right direction?
A - I am not against the legitimate demands of the Arab people and consider them rightful. I am, however, against the way these revolutions were managed. Some groups have intervened and imposed their hegemony on some of these revolutions. Some of them have gone astray. The political and living conditions in these countries have gone down. The Arab peoples have said their word and deposed the rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. They did not do this in Yemen because President Ali Abdullah Saleh is still there and has strong influence. In Syria the situation has become an open war between the ruler and his people. A quick reading of these revolutions will reveal that they were not fruitful and some of them had no suitable alternative to the deposed rulers.
Q - You did not specify the exact height of the Kingdom Tower but only said it would be 1,000 meters, a distance that could increase. Is this just a tactic to increase the height if a taller building suddenly appears somewhere else in the world?
A - I am determined to make this building the tallest in the world. It is enough that this building will put the Kingdom's name on the world's real estate map.
Q - Is the construction of infrastructure for the project complete? Are you happy with the services and facilities extended by various ministries with regard to the implementation of the project?
A - All the ministries have responded positively. During a meeting with Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs Prince Mansour Bin Miteb, he pledged his support and made available of all required facilities in accordance with the Kingdom’s regulations. As you know, it is a vital project and not restricted to the Kingdom Tower alone. It is an integrated city sprawling over an area covering 5.5 million square meters. The tower will be built on an area of 100,000 square meters and this represents only 2 percent of the project. Apart from the tower, the city will house residential buildings, hotels, schools, universities, hospitals, gardens and other facilities. On completion, the city project, with a capacity to accommodate more than 100,000 citizens, will become the nucleus of the new Jeddah city.
Q - How do you view the projects of the Ministry of Housing?
A - The Ministry of Housing has not yet responded fully to the dire need of citizens for housing. The state has allocated SR250 billion to build 500,000 housing units and has made available the required plots of land and other facilities to the ministry. However the work is going at a snail’s pace and is not up to the expectations.
Q - Could you explain what the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Charity Housing Foundation extended in this respect?
A - The Foundation has so far built 1,562 residential units in various regions of the Kingdom. As many as 10,061 citizens have benefited from this. Within a couple of weeks, we will make announcements about the allotment of another 10,000 housing units. We will make a drastic change in our strategy and we will move from allotting villas to allocating apartments instead. This is mainly because of land related issues. Earlier, we had received land from the government. But now the state is giving priority to the Ministry of Housing in the allotment of land and the foundation is not receiving any allocations. However, we are keen to quickly allot housing units to the beneficiaries.
Q – Your Highness, we move to sports. How do you see the situation with sports at present?
A – Sports as a domain is passing through a difficult and critical situation. I am not talking about football only, but about the authority that is supposed to care for youth and sports. I always focus on the youth before everything. Also, other sports apart from football do not receive support and attention in general. This shortcoming is reflected by the weak and negative results for the national teams, starting with the results of our football team in the Gulf Cup to the very few medals won in athletics and other games in the Asian Games in South Korea in 2014. We will find that the Kingdom won seven medals only whereas a neighboring country whose population does not exceed 1 million, like Bahrain, was able to win 17 medals, eight of which were gold. The same applies to Qatar, which won 14 medals, nine of which were gold. This simple comparison shows the reality of Saudi sports, which are receding. Here I congratulate the sports leaderships in Bahrain and Qatar and I say to our sports leaders: “Please get a move on. Saudi sports are dying and the citizens want tangible results.” I believe that privatization and mergers between sports clubs are one of the good and important solutions in order to change the route of Saudi sports and create a spirit of competitiveness in it.
Q – If the authorities concerned approve the privatization of clubs, will Prince Alwaleed continue in this field and will he strive to own Al-Hilal Club, due to your inclination toward “Al-Zaeem” (the leader)?
A – Every investment step needs a careful and deep study. As to your last question, I am a fan of the Saudi national team and I like all the Saudi clubs without any partiality toward any.
Q – Should we consider this diplomatic answer as a denial of your announced support toward Al-Hilal?
A – No, I won’t deny my inclination toward Al-Hilal. I like all the clubs and support them. For example, when Al-Nasr won the Saudi Premier League and it is the local rival of Al-Hilal, I did not hesitate to support Al-Nasr because it deserves support. I see that it is a national duty that I must carry out. I am partial toward the national team as I said and I consider all the clubs to be the supporting arms for forming a strong national team that proudly represents the Kingdom. I wish this trend would be a model and example for dispelling the wave of sports fanaticism that has started rising recently.
Q – You have entered into competition against MBC to win the rights to transmit the Saudi Premier League, but the results were not in favor of Rotana. What is your comment?
A – Frankly speaking, there was no official contract. In my opinion, the method of awarding the transmission rights to MBC for 10 years is in violation of FIFA laws.
Q – There is a family relationship between you and Minister of Finance Dr. Ibrahim Al-Assaf. Your son Khaled Bin Waleed has married Al-Assaf’s daughter. Can we get acquainted with this kinship and the most prominent discussions and opinions between you when you meet?
A – Our family relations are very strong. I harbor all love and respect for the minister of finance. Also, at a practical level, I have all respect for him. There are many times when I have entered into discussions and confrontations with him because I see the nation as above every matter. Therefore, I discuss with him some subjects that I feel are in the interest of the nation, like the subject of the sovereign fund because this is a general subject and not private and the majority of economic experts support my opinion on it. But despite all the discussions our relations are still strong and the minister is an honest man who works with patriotism, truth and integrity.
Q – Your son Prince Khaled Bin Al-Waleed and your daughter Princess Reem have disappeared from the media. Has your stardom outshined them in the media?
A – I don’t think so. Prince Khaled is working in commerce independently and has had good successes and Princess Reem is living a happy life with her husband and three daughters. She does not have any commercial activity. This is her decision and I respect it.
Q – Can you tell us about your social life and the nature of your relationship with your children? Do you get sufficient time to meet them?
A – There are two days a week, Wednesday and Saturday, which I have allocated for meeting Khaled, Reem and my five granddaughters. On Wednesday we meet in the resort and on Saturday we meet in the palace. As for weekly desert trips, they come when they are free.
Q – Any person who follows your activities closely will notice the absence of Princess Amira Al-Taweel from your recent visits and tours. Does this mean her absence from the life of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal?
A – Yes, I announce it through Okaz/Saudi Gazette for the first time. I have officially separated from Princess Ameera Al-Taweel, but she remains a person that I have all respect for. She represented the Saudi woman in the best way through her various participations locally, regionally and internationally. She was the best ambassador for the Saudi woman. I recall that when I married Amira, I told her that I am a public figure and I requested her to be with me in all my visits because I encourage Saudi women to participate so that nobody comes and says that Alwaleed encourages women to appear in public but he does not implement this conviction himself. She understood this. She used to accompany me in all my trips. Frankly, she was an honorable representative of women through her culture and effective participation. I wish her every success in her life.
Q – Does Your Highness provide her support after your separation?
A – Princess Amira has moved to humanitarian and charitable work. If she needs any support in this field, I am ready to direct the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation to cooperate with Her Highness.
Q – How do you view the working Saudi woman?
A – Saudi women are capable and creative. I demand society to give them a chance in all fields. I also demand society to keep away from the culture of opposing women because this opposition is not founded on a Shariah basis. With regard to allowing Saudi women to drive cars, if we view the subject from a religious perspective we will find that it is better to allow women to drive to avoid them mixing with foreign drivers. From an economic perspective, it will reduce the burdens on Saudi families. The president of McKinsey & Company, the top international consultancy company, said 1 million drivers would leave the Kingdom if women are allowed to drive. This means that Saudi families will save over SR1.5 billion a month, or SR18 billion annually considering a driver’s monthly salary is SR1,500. Also, allowing women to drive will reduce unemployment among women. It will give the Saudi man the opportunity to avail the services of his driver.
A thousand-mile journey begins with one step, and a trip to billions begins with an idea, and this is what happened with billionaire Prince Alwaleed, who was born in Riyadh on March 7, 1955.
Signs of ingenuity and intelligence was reflected in his personality since childhood, which is not surprising as King Abdulaziz, the founder of the Kingdom, is his grandfather, and Riad Al-Solh, the prime minister of the first independent government in Lebanon, is his maternal grandfather.
Ever since childhood, Prince Alwaleed loved the challenges and did not believe in the impossible.
He is characterized by a strong memory and love of mathematics, and numbers are always present in his speech and dealings.
In 1979, the prince received a bachelor's degree in management and economics science with honors from Menlo College in California and earned a master's degree in social sciences from Syracuse University in New York.
His commercial trip began on January 1, 1980 with $30,000 that he secured as a grant from his father Prince Talal Bin Abdulaziz. He debuted his venture in the world of finance and business from a small office in the Al-Fakheriyah neighborhood of Riyadh.
He began his business in the real estate and stocks sectors, but soon went bankrupt after only four months.
This failure did not deter Prince Alwaleed and affect his ambitions and determination to continue, so he again sought his father's support and secured 10 times the first amount, $300,000, allowing him to continue his business journey.
His small office had only four employees, the prince himself, an office manager, a secretary and a coffee and tea worker, in addition to one toilet used by all employees.
The prince launched his Kingdom Establishment for Trading & Contracting business but went bankrupt for the second time and again sought his father's support.
Prince Talal, however, refused and told him that he had bought him a piece of land and built him a house on the plot. He also told him: “You must depend on yourself and I will hand you the property, but if you wish you can mortgage it and get a loan. It is up to you and you are free in your decisions.”
Prince Alwaleed did indeed mortgage the property through Citibank, which later became one of his investments, received a loan of SR1 million and began a stronger journey, benefiting from his previous failures.
Success was in sight then and many towers and skyscrapers were launched from the small office, which he kept for 34 years and still maintains as a sign of fulfillment.
Translated as per the original post of OKAZ Newspaper, dated 25th Dec 2015
And the English version was featured in Saudi Gazwtte on 26th Dec 2015