Saudi Prince Al Walid is testing the political waters. Though not in line for succession, the billionaire nephew of King Fahd strikes a populist tone that resonates in Saudi Arabia, throughout the Arab world and with the West.
Saudi Prince Al Walid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al Saud recently criticized calls for an Arab boycott of U.S. goods, arguing that such a move would be damaging to Arab nations that enjoy a favorable trade balance with the United States, the English-language Arab Times reported April 30. Although debate about a trade boycott has escalated in recent weeks, Al Walid's decision to weigh in on the issue is significant.
Al Walid, one of the world's richest people and a nephew of Saudi King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah, does not hold an official government post and is not in line for succession, but he has made a number of quasi-political and diplomatic gestures in recent months. Popular among Saudi citizens, well-connected to other Arab leaders and heavily invested in U.S. businesses, Al Walid may be hoping to parlay his financial successes into a political career.
The prince is a third force - along with ruling factions of the royal family and outside factions, such as Islamic fundamentalists — to help determine the future Saudi political landscape. Because of his position within the royal family, Al Walid has little chance of a political appointment in the current government. He is, however, a staunchly pro-business figure with a populist bent — and with both Fahd and Abdullah in their 70s, he could be positioning himself for a political career in the next Saudi regime.
Al Walid defies the traditional Saudi model. He courts rather than avoids public attention. His audacious behavior likely is due in part to the fact that he is not in line for succession. During the 1960s, his father, Prince Talal bin Abdul bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, broke with the ruling members of the royal family and left the kingdom at the head of a movement called the Free Princes, which advocated change in line with Egypt's Arab nationalist movement. Talal's bid for change failed, however. He ultimately was allowed to return to Saudi Arabia, but his branch of the family was not allowed to take on political leadership roles. Talal now serves as the kingdom's special envoy to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The father's sins have not been visited upon the son, at least in the realm of business. Al Walid has an estimated net worth of $20 billion, and Forbes magazine listed him as the world's 11th richest person in 2002. His investment portfolio includes stakes in the global telecommunications, media, technology, restaurant, entertainment, banking, hotel, financial and tourism sectors. In the United States, his holdings include shares in Citigroup, WorldCom, AT&T, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald's, Walt Disney, Ford Motor, Gillette, Procter & Gamble, Amazon.com, eBay, Internet Capital Group, Netscape, Priceline.com, Infospace and DoubleClick, Motorola, Donna Karan International and Compaq.
The prince, in his mid-40s, has been compared to Warren Buffet, George Soros, Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates — but a more apt comparison might be to someone like Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman-turned-politician who became mayor of New York City earlier this year.
There are growing indications that Al Walid is interested in politics. He has championed a number of political causes and is courting public opinion at home, in the rest of the Arab world and in the West.
Al Walid is known for reviving troubled companies, and he may be trying to do the same with the troubled Saudi-U.S. relationship. In November, he called for elections in the desert kingdom, saying a debate about elections already was raging within the royal family. The New York Times labeled his remarks candid and in sharp contrast to the usual public statements of Saudi leaders. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the statements could be perceived as pandering to a U.S. audience seeking a reasonable voice in the Gulf state.
They also may have been aimed at regaining popularity among New Yorkers after an earlier public relations debacle. Al Walid gave $10 million to New York City for the victims of the World Trade Center attack but created a controversy when he followed the gift by issuing a statement blaming U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East for the rise in Islamic extremism. Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was forced to return the money due to public anger over the prince's statements.
Al Walid has described himself as pro-American and a proponent of continued diplomatic relations with the West. With investments in so many U.S. businesses, he has a natural constituency in the United States that could be tapped for support should he enter the political fray in Saudi Arabia.
The prince also is courting favor with the broader Arab populace. In April, he gave the single largest donation, $27 million, to a Saudi state-sponsored telethon raising money for Palestinians. He also has raised money to help rebuild infrastructure in Lebanon destroyed during the Israeli occupation. Also, the prince invests in regional projects and businesses in countries like Lebanon, Libya and Egypt. He is well connected to Arab political leaders in many other nations — his mother is the daughter of former Lebanese Prime Minister Raid el-Solh — and he has a number of investments in the Levant.
At home, Al Walid is known for his generosity and Midas touch. Although rivalries within the royal family persist, the billionaire is popular with the general public. He is considered something of a self-made man: a royal outsider who parlayed his limited fortune into billions through business acumen. And though not considered a fundamentalist, he also is not tainted with the reputation for corruption and excess that stains many younger Saudi royals. Even the London-based opposition has credited the prince for being "cleaner" than many of his cousins.
Although striking a populist note within a monarchy would seem ludicrous, calling for change at a time when the traditional political model has come under increased pressure throughout the region is smart. It wins the popular vote, it reassures a troubled West worried about radicalism and it hints to neighboring states that public participation in politics is not incompatible with economic success.