The desert does different things to different people. Some fear the emptiness, some dread the loneliness, while others find happiness and serenity. None more so than HRH Prince Alwaleed, for whom the dunes are just another location from which to play the role of international dealmaker, global peacebroker and world philanthropist.
Shortly after 2am on Thursday April 19, at the end of a series of meetings that spanned over 12 hours, myself and photographer Francisco Fernandez were preparing to leave his desert camp 100 miles north of Riyadh. It had been a long, challenging, fascinating but draining day. We were glad it was all over. We were shattered.
"Where are you going?" asked Prince Alwaleed.
"Home," I replied. "I have a flight to catch back to Dubai. It's a long way from here."
He looked startled. "But it's only 2am! The day isn't over yet. You see, you can live your life at 120 miles an hour, and that's pretty impressive. But it's not good enough. Unless you live at 150 miles an hour, the world will pass you by."
No danger of that happening for the prince. Moments later, his courtiers arrived with three hours of heavy reading material and documentation that needed his urgent attention. And then to bed, at 5am. In the space of one day, I counted 573 separate people that he had met, over 200 phone calls taken, at least 100 text messages sent, and countless pages of newspapers, magazines and official documents read.
It is an incredible, mind-blowing daily routine that he has followed for 25 years. And it is one that, for the first time ever, he had just allowed the outside world to pry into.
Wednesday April 18
Kingdom Centre, Riyadh
1.15pm When you go to meet a prince, there is something quite flattering about the experience. Everyone is expecting you, everyone knows your name, everyone knows why you are here. And everyone knows that if you come to the 66th floor of the Kingdom Centre, there is only one man you really want to see - HRH Prince Alwaleed.
As the doors to the lift open onto the 66th floor, we are greeted by one of the prince's many courtiers.
"His Royal Highness will see you at exactly 2pm," we are officially informed.
In the meantime, there will be a tour around the control rooms of the prince's sprawling US$23bn empire. I had heard the prince is a news junkie, and that's pretty obvious straight away. Three television screens are housed in reception. The adjacent conference room has 16 screens, each beaming live newscasts from across the globe.
Whatever is happening in the world - from the change in stock prices on the Tokyo market to the massacre at Virginia Tech, the prince needs to know about it immediately.
The walls are filled with books about the prince, magazine covers, awards, trophies and pictures of HRH with other world leaders. It is clear that when Prince Alwaleed speaks, the world listens, the markets move and millions are affected in some way or another.
On paper, the empire consists of 42 investments in 10 sectors - from Apple Computers and Citigroup to the Four Seasons and News Corporation - but in practice his reach is far greater and for the most part unseen by the outside world. You name it, the prince has either done it, is doing it, or is about to do it. Prince Alwaleed is the world's richest, most famous and most powerful Arab by some distance.
The buzz is rising, and for the first time ever in our careers, Francisco and I feel more than a little nervous about the task that lies ahead of us.
1.40pm Our short tour is over. Another of HRH's executives appears. "You will be joined by some other people during the interview," she explains.
Erm, other people? We thought this was exclusive?
"It is. But HRH has a personal camera crew that documents every single meeting he undertakes. They will film it and record it on DVD, as part of his personal life documentation. They travel all around the world with him, recording everything. And today is no exception," she explains.
Moments later, the prince's private camera crew appear - four of them. They say nothing, but appear hugely professional, are dressed immaculately and carrying some very fancy kit. They probably all used to work for CNN. Already, we feel a little intimidated (and jealous) with our Sony tape recorder, notepad and Nikon camera.
1.50pm The camera crew disappear into his office to set up. We are told to wait. And wait, and wait. Ten minutes, 20, half an hour, time ticks on and on.
"The prince is a busy man. But he will see you today, I promise," says another Kingdom executive.
To kill time, I ask her what the protocol is when we meet him. Do we call him Prince or Your Highness?
"Your Royal Highness."
Still we wait, and wait. We are less than 10 yards from his office, and often the door opens, through which we can hear him and catch the occasional glimpse. But no meeting yet.
Without warning, the moment arrives.
"Come through. Immediately," we are told.
And so in we go, to Prince Alwaleed's private office. It looks very much like the rest of the Kingdom Tower offices - absolutely massive, filled with trophies and awards, plus photographs of HRH with various world leaders. On the wall behind are the logos of each and every company he has a stake in - not just the 42 key investments such as News Corporation, but their subsidiaries, such as The Sun newspaper, Sky News and Fox News. News, in fact, as everywhere in his world, is the dominating factor. To the right of his desk are nine television screens, beaming live news from around the world. Another smaller screen is on his immediate left. He shakes hands warmly, but studies me inquisitively. We feel we have disturbed his busy day, busy schedule and busy life.
He sits back down, and begins flicking through his television channels. Then sends a few text messages from his Motorola mobile phone. Occasionally he glances at us, while his private camera crew frantically adjust their positions and microphones to capture every moment. Behind them are an audience of another four executives from his office.
A lot is going on. I ask how he manages to keep track of so many things at one time.
"That's a very important question. And a deep question. You really want to ask that now?"
He doesn't want to answer it. Instead, we skip around a few light-hearted subjects - his recent helicopter trip around Mauritius (where he has two hotels). "It's a great country," he proclaims.
He watches a bit more television. Takes another phone call. Sends another text.
And the process starts again. Just how does he keep track of so much going on around him?
"You have to have trust in people. You have to make them accountable. If they work hard and excel then you reward them, if they don't excel then you have to terminate them. There is no room for error at all in business," he says.
His voice rises and the words come out faster each time. "Our hiring process is very strenuous, very difficult. You have to go through so many thresholds. We are a very small group of people but I want us to be elitist in our way of thinking. The process to get a job here is very difficult. We analyse, we scrutinise, we meet once, twice, three times. They meet many layers of management then they meet me... There's no jockeying for power here."
That is not in doubt. Another phone call, another text, and then another question: Through this complex hiring process, surely there have been mistakes?
"Mostly no. Most of the people here have been here for many years, but sometimes you hire someone on the assumption they can perform. Sometimes, in very rare cases, they cannot perform. Either we terminate, or they crack and leave. It's a very high pressured situation. It's not easy. Not every person could function here. We have a good environment, a good ambience, and it's positive. I have a rapport with every single person working with me," he says.
Kingdom Holding Company in fact employs just 30 full-time staff, and more than half of these are women. Most have been with him for several years. And it is a formula that is clearly working. While the value of some of his Saudi stocks may have dipped, following a 60% fall in the local stock market value last year, his stakes in the likes of Citigroup and News Corporation continue to show healthy returns. What many saw as a risky bet on Citigroup in 1991, a US$590m stake, now accounts for nearly half his US$20bn-plus empire. It is, as he keeps saying, about hiring the right people to do the right thing.
And now, the next "big thing" is Africa. He describes the continent as "still sleeping" but reveals that last year he made a staggering 120% return on his investments there. If it's so good though, why haven't other companies leapt at the chance to invest?
"There is a syndrome. Some African countries are not very stable - maybe two or three. But unfortunately people in the world amalgamate the whole African continent with one incident or one problem. They say all Africa is not doing good. Okay Zimbabwe has a problem. Burundi has a problem. But Senegal is excellent. Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Angola, Mozambique - you know, 95% of African countries are okay; there is no problem at all. And there is an opportunity that people are not seeing," he says.
The prince is making a threefold attack on Africa - firstly through Kingdom Hotel Investments (based in Dubai) which now has more than 10 hotels in the continent. Then there is the Kingdom Zeyphyr fund, which invests in non-hotel fields, usually no more than US$100m per deal.
Thirdly, and probably most significantly, is Kingdom Holding - what he describes as a fund for big projects, of absolutely any size. Through this come his many charity ventures, including funding for schools, clinics, hospitals and immunisation programmes.
He says: "In Africa some countries need assistance. There is a proverb in China which says you don't teach a man just how to eat a fish. You have to teach him how to fish then eat the fish. Some countries can't afford to teach everyone. My strategy is to feed them the fish until they are able to fish, and then they go fishing."
He adds: "I went to Niger a few years ago. They had famine. I gave a contribution for two years and we saved the lives of two million people. And most of them were women and children. And that was for small amounts, I'm talking about US$7m. Now the famine is over and we are going in with our investments. It's a perfect example of giving them the fish and then teaching them how to fish."
It's impressive stuff, though the prince has been noticeably absent from any of the more public ‘save Africa' causes, such as the Live8 concerts put on by Bono and Bob Geldof. He looks startled at the mere suggestion he should somehow be involved in these projects. "I don't believe in these; these are silly things and I don't like silly things. You know, silly things on the periphery, I don't like. Concerts, getting singers, all these kinds of things, it's all rubbish. I don't buy this. Yeah I've seen this concert and they've done nothing. Who's going to come to the concert? Those who are doing good. Those who really need it are not going to come. Africa needs a major strategy and we have it."
It is a subject the prince is clearly passionate about. For the longest period during our meeting so far, he hasn't checked the news or sent any text messages. And his voice is getting louder. Does this kind of charity work - not just in Africa but right across the world - make him more proud than seeing his stock prices shoot up?
"This is not about being proud, it is my duty," he says, adding: "Islam is very sophisticated. It has been hijacked by a small minority who choose extremism but Islam is a very gentle religion. Islam loves Christianity. Islam loves Jewish people also, and you can quote me on that. But a small number of people hijacked our religion. For example the Islamic tax is compulsory - you have to give a percentage of your income to the needy people. So I'm not doing this just because I like to do it, I'm doing it because I need to do it, and I like to do it. You must at least try and help. You will never negate poverty but you can help make a difference."
Few would argue he has made a huge difference, with memorable donations to tsunami victims and others caught in world disasters. But as he struts the world charity stage, he still always has one eye focused on the business world. In the past year, this has needed to be sharper than ever. He cut a US$3.9bn deal to buy the Fairmont Hotel & Resorts, while also teaming up with Bill Gates in a deal to take the Four Seasons private. But the one thing that has remained spectacularly out of his control is the world's stock markets. Last year alone, the value of Saudi shares shrunk 60%.
"Stock markets in the region here are still at the embryonic stage. They are still learning. You have seen in the last two years all the markets in the region went to exuberant levels, and we have warned before that crash - I was on record with a magazine in my hand saying what is happening right now is a bubble and inevitably a crash will happen. So right now we're seeing that people are getting into the market haphazardly, in and out. They are still finding their way," he explains.
"The fundamental problem they have in the Middle East and in Saudi Arabia more specifically is that most of the traders in the stock market are retailers," he adds.
"They are not institutional investors who really analyse the companies, do their homework and invest big time. These are traders who will go in and out, in and out. 95% of investors in other parts of world are institutional - here it is the opposite. And it will take time to change."
One thing that hasn't One thing that hasn't changed, and never will, is his investment strategy. Since 1988 when he took his first stake in United Saudi Commercial Bank, observers have marvelled at his ability to pick undervalued assets, invest in them and watch them fly. It's something he is equally keen to talk about.
"If you look at all our companies, from Samba to Savola, the top food company in the region - our real estate, look at regionally, look at Citigroup, Time Warner, News Corporation. What's common among all these companies? What's common? One thing. They are very well-known in their arena, and a dominant force and they are icons. But more importantly all of them were at their lowest point when we got involved. That's very important. You don't go and buy a company when it's at a high," he says.
He adds: "If you buy into a company at US$10 and it goes to US$20 that's not bad, but if you buy at US$2 and it goes to US$20 that's 1000% higher. You can never find the real bottom of a company. But if it is a brand name, the potential is there then you buy it. And that's common among all the companies that we bought."
Ah, so that's why he has all these television screens then? Searching every minute for bad news? "When you have bad news, unfortunately I say, opportunities come up.
Sometimes it's a blessing in disguise. But that's a fact. When everybody sells, I go and buy. To be honest with you, this is the fact. There is the herd effect in the whole world. If one sells everyone sells, but that's when you have to think if they are all getting out you should think of getting in."
So which are the latest sectors that fit the bill? He dismisses talk of getting involved in Airbus's troubled owner EADS, saying it is "a highly politically motivated situation - I wouldn't look at it."
What about buying a football club? "I don't have any time to waste," he adds.
Now the prince is on a roll, and although he has just seven minutes left before prayer time, rattles through several subjects. He talks movingly about bridging the gap between East and West, saying: "I am a very responsible person. I don't just put my money in the bank and say that's enough, I believe you have to plough back the money into society."
Post 9/11 he says we are now in a "stabilisation period", though on Iraq the US still has "no policy."
We even get onto the subject of holidays. What's his favourite destination? He looks shocked at the question. "What?! Go on holiday where I go on a sun bed and put my head down? I feel it's an insult to the brain. No holidays. Holidays are bad news. They are a disaster."
He then stops and gets up from his chair, flicks through the news channels, sends two more texts and then turns around with a huge smile. For the first time, he begins to look relaxed.
"You know, with me, there are so many parts. I can do it all and I still have a lot of free time to do everything I want because I utilise each minute in my life very professionally. Come with me to the desert tonight and you will see this." At that point the prince walks out of his office and heads towards the mosque to perform afternoon prayers.
It's only 4pm, but our journey into the daily life of HRH is only just beginning.
Four Seasons Hotel lobby, Riyadh
6.45pm "Okay guys, we're off to the desert. I don't know when we'll be back. Maybe 3am. Maybe 5am. Maybe 6am. Who knows. It all depends," says one of the prince's executives.
His executives, meanwhile, are worried about the strong winds sweeping through the Saudi capital, explaining it is too dangerous to leave just yet. It is another hour and fifteen minutes before the black Suburban jeep pulls up outside the Four Seasons Hotel, and we set off. Fast.
30 miles North East of Riyadh
8.20pm We are driving fast, very fast. Few if any words are exchanged, apart from "this could take a while." Travelling at 160km/hr exactly 89 degrees North of Riyadh, we storm down the motorway deep into the desert. At 9pm, in the distance, we see two police patrol cars, their red lights flashing. It is time to come off the motorway, quite literally.
Saudi desert, North of Riyadh
9.00pm When you get into the Saudi desert, there is no such thing as a desert road. All there is is pure, empty desert. And through that our jeep pounds, at speeds of 80km/hr. It is a frightening experience, and somehow, even in the dark, we seem to manage to overtake several cars. It appears we are not the only ones heading to see the prince tonight, but we are the only ones with a frustrated F1 driver at the controls. His constant grinning doesn't help to calm the nerves.
Al Heera desert camp, 100 miles North of Riyadh
9.30pm Suddenly we emerge from the total darkness into what looks like a set from a Hollywood movie. Dozens of camps are erect in the desert, facing a spectacular oasis. Alongside sit three pairs of jet skis, a small boat, and several desert sport vehicles. Then come the Formula One-style trailers and cabins. There are thirty in total, some for the prince, and some for his many special guests who will visit over the coming two days.
And in the middle of all this, still being set up, is the actual campsite. Half the size of a football pitch, the perimeter is covered with cushions. You can quickly spot where the prince will be seated - right in front are two gigantic television screens, two telephones, a laptop television monitor, perched in front of his feet, and four carefully placed falcons.
"He comes here for the peace, and to relax," explains one courtier.
It is serenity, calmness and paradise right in the middle of nowhere. But it doesn't come easy. As we take a short drive around the campsite, we discover dozens of food kitchens where tonight's lavish meal for hundreds of guests is being prepared. Alongside, dozens of caravans for his private staff, not to mention chefs, manual workers and even technicians, busy checking on a huge television mast. He may be in the middle of the desert, but the very latest satellite communications are available. Cost is no issue.
But the most important part of the desert camp is the guests. Where are they and, more importantly, who are they?
Inside the camp, seated under a smaller tent that can only be deemed a ‘VIP" area are around 30 tribal leaders. They have come from all over Saudi Arabia to meet the prince, and briefly ask for his help - usually financial help, but sometimes just advice. On marriage, work, life, education - anything goes.
And waiting outside the camp we see another, much bigger crowd. Over 500 of them, these are ordinary Saudis having travelled from all over Saudi Arabia. They have been waiting since 4pm, each one carrying a document detailing their problems - again usually financial. The prince will see all of them tonight, no matter how long it takes, and then decide later which to help. Usually, he will help all of them.
"It doesn't matter how many come, HRH will see them all," says an aide, adding: "One night, 17,000 people came and he saw all of them."
The camp starts to buzz with excitement and we are summoned to one of the cabins we passed earlier. The 30 tribal leaders all rise from their VIP tent. His Royal Highness will be here, any moment now.
Suddenly the prince is present. Since we last met, he appears to have undergone a metamorphosis. Gone is the fast-talking, ever fidgeting business tycoon, surrounded by executives. Instead, a relaxed looking man, smiling, carrying a walking stick. He has a waist coat and no head cover. He spots us and shouts: "Hey, sorry I am late. I was with King Abdullah."
We go for a short walk with him across the camp, followed by an entourage of at least 15 aides.
"Look at all that water you see here, it's incredible isn't it? This wasn't here a few months ago, it is an oasis that just appeared, so I built the desert camp here. There is something about this place that is so relaxing," he says.
The prince then spots three camels and excitedly takes us towards them. "This is real life, this is real nature. It's going back to our roots. Real roots. Incredible. Just wonderful, isn't it? Don't you think?"
10.30pm We arrive with him at the centre of the campsite, where his special area is now ready. The three televisions are all tuned to CNBC, and there is some paperwork to go through. Not to mention three phone calls and more texts. Does he ever stop?
"I am relaxed now but I am always working," he says, adding: "I turn my phone off at 5am every day, for five hours. But then if there is an emergency they come and wake me."
With that, he flicks through his many satellite channels, stopping at CNBC (seemingly his favourite), CNN and Sky News. The Dow Jones index has just hit a record high. Then, each of the 30 tribal leaders comes by to greet him.
11.00pm After watching more television and taking a few more phone calls, we move to an adjacent tent, no more than three minutes walk - followed by the tribal leaders.
There, a massive feast is about to be served. The prince sits in the middle, in front of a prepared meal, while the rest of us are served by his courtiers. There is another huge television in front of us, this time showing the Rotana channels (which he happens to own).
He looks over.
"What are you eating?"
"Lamb," I reply.
"Not good," he says, adding: "I am a vegetarian. I have been for 25 years. I only eat low fat food. What are you drinking?"
"Pepsi," I reply.
"Hmm. Not good. You should drink diet Pepsi, it has less calories. Or better still, just water."
The diet lecture continues, with the prince explaining: "Health is very important you know. You should pay attention to health. That's why I do sports as well."
What sports? There is no time to answer as the phone rings, and he begins a heated 15 minute conversation in English with what I presume is one of his executives in New York. "We went in at low value, what value should we go in for now? What value? Tell me what value?" he asks repeatedly.
Even in the middle of the Saudi desert, half way through his dinner, there is no risk of the prince letting go.
As we enjoy a cup of traditional tea, he looks across the desert right in front of us. "We have done a lot at Kingdom Holdings, a lot to be proud of. More than half my management are women. Things are starting to change. I hired the first female pilot in Saudi, and we have positions that are run by Saudi ladies. But real change, well, I don't know. That will take years."
11.30pm It is approaching towards midnight, but the main event has yet to get underway.
Suddenly, however, the place springs into life with the re-arrival of the 30 tribal leaders. This time though, they each come armed with paperwork, and spend around a minute talking to the prince. The first one explains that his salary does not meet his basic needs. A paper documenting the exact details are passed to the prince. The next one asks for a new electrical generator, explaining that his village has been without power for some days.
And they just keep on coming. Help with marriage guidance. Money for medicine and hospital treatment. Money for a traditional Arabic wedding.
Without exception, the prince listens to each problem, each plea. After ten minutes, he is carrying all 30 pieces of documentation, which are passed to one of his aides. They will be studied quickly and carefully, and the responses - all positive - will be prompt.
The ‘first phase' over, the tribal leaders return to their VIP area. Outside, the ordinary Saudis waiting to see the prince are let into the main camp, and form an orderly queue. It is close to midnight, they have been waiting several hours, but there is not the slightest sign of discourse.
"It's a long line tonight, but not that long," says Prince Alwaleed, as he points towards the waiting crowd. It looks at least 500 strong.
Before he signals for them to approach him, it is time for two more phone calls, and another flick through the television channels.
Then they arrive, one by one. They look in awe at the prince, often kissing his shoulder before briefly outlining their troubles, and handing over written details. He listens attentively to each one, occasionally glancing across at me. Like the tribal leaders, their problems and needs are basic.
"I have been in rental accommodation for 40 years. I really want to buy my own house," says one elderly man.
Another, younger looking man appears. "I am a security guard with a low paid job. I desperately need money for transportation so I can go to work."
Their stories vary, but generally have the same, sad, financial theme. They need cash, small amounts, and fast. There is no question that any of the claims are not genuine - in any case, all visitors have been screened outside the camp to make sure they are not simply making weekly visits with different claims.
He has been doing this for 25 years, yet the prince shows genuine interest in his people and their problems. He looks saddened at some of their plights, often indicating to his private staff to sort out their finances immediately.
After around 45 minutes, the line is down to just 30. He has seen over 500 people, and over 500 documents given to him are put into two large black suitcases. The last 30 visitors, traditionally, come not just with problems and pleas, but specially written poems. Each one lasts over two minutes, and the words usually begin by thanking the prince for his generosity.
Some of the poems are read out so passionately, they almost bring a tear to the prince's eye. One young visitor, no more than 20 years old, reads a heart-rendering poem about his financial troubles. When he finishes, spontaneous applause - led by the prince's security guards - erupts. Seconds later, the prince signs his documents. The cash is on its way, very, very soon.
Thursday April 19
Al Heera desert camp
1.20am "I have been doing this for 25 years. I would say the total number of people I have seen and helped in the past decade is more than one and a half million," says the prince.
We are now into the early hours of the morning, but as I have realised, time is not a concept HRH cares much for. He starts showing me the various Rotana channels he owns, then orders us some more tea. It looks like he wants to start the second part of the interview now - the camera crew suddenly reappear, and flash lights are installed around us.
"This is a humbling process. A down-to-earth process. No doubt about that. Sure its very easy to get carried away. This process brings you back down to earth, you interact with the people and see what is happening. These people ask for minimal amounts of money. It shows you how blessed I am," he says.
But surely he must enjoy the life in the palace, the private yacht and private jumbo jet. Not to mention the US$20bn-plus personal fortune? "Definitely. But it's also very important to be down with the people. You see how God has blessed me."
That is clear. And the prince makes it even clearer that he has always known what his destiny would be. "I was always focused.
"I always knew I was going to go into business. When I began I had nothing. I started with US$30,000. I didn't know it would be this big but I knew I was going to do something. I didn't expect it to be this big. I always wanted to achieve," he says.
But does he get a kick out of power? "Power? Inevitably when you have all this strength it gives you a lot of power. When you are the richest Muslim, or most admired company - all these things are very important but they add responsibility and pressure. You have to perform better and excel, and not disappoint. The expectations are raised, so I am under more pressure than ever. People expect almost perfection. And every mistake you make is amplified," he says, adding: "All the mistakes I made [in the past] I like. I love them. Because I learned from them. None of them were fatal, none of them were devastating. I learnt my lessons. I was in some difficult situations, it was not easy. I learned the hard way, so I made my mistakes. They were not destructive and I promised myself I would not do them again."
As we get ready to leave (the photographer and I, that is - HRH is preparing to read for another two hours), I ask him whether he doesn't miss just being ‘Mr Ordinary'.
Not being so rich and powerful, but just being able to walk into a shopping mall and do his own thing. No burdens, no responsibilities. Surely, sometimes he must wish for that every now and again?
"No," he says. "I'm living my life, I'm fully living it. Day by day. I'm fully immersed in it. I know that I am making a difference in this world, in my community, in my nation, so I am happy with what I am doing. I am very meticulous. I want everything I do to be A1." And does that make him happy?
"I have a state of mind that is higher than happiness - and that is serenity."
Four Seasons Hotel, Riyadh
4.00am Nobody says a word on the long journey back. Or even as we enter the hotel lobby. I order a coffee, and my photographer Frank orders a diet coke. He looks at me and says: "Did all that really happen?"
Yes, it really did.
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