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Tue 20 Dec 2011 04:43 PM

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Alwaleed pushes the limits with edgy Twitter stake

Saudi prince raises his cool factor, but backing unregulated speech may not sit well in kingdom

Alwaleed pushes the limits with edgy Twitter stake
Prince Alwaleed has invested $300m in the microblogging site

Prince Alwaleed might be pushing the limits with Twitter. Even though the billionaire entrepreneur Saudi-royal is known for both his reformist views and bold media investments, his latest coup, a $300m strategic stake in the social networking site, is decisively edgy.

If Twitter is worth around $8bn, as suggested by some rounds of the group's fundraising, then Alwaleed will add shares amounting to 4 percent of the business to his existing stable of publicly-listed investments, which includes stakes in Apple , News Corp, US bank Citi, and global commodities trader Glencore.

The move ratchets up Alwaleed's cool factor as he sets about to launch a 24-hour Arab TV news channel next year in partnership with Bloomberg.

Based somewhere in the Middle East, it is expected to rival the likes of Qatar's Al Jazeera and promises to provide "an independent spirit and an independent view".

While Alwaleed isn't a known user of the networking tool, his celebrity-status wife has over 80,000 followers and applauded the move with a "tweet".

Yet within Saudi Arabia Alwaleed is already a divisive figure, either applauded or deemed immoral for his vocal support of women's right to drive or for the content of his Arab entertainment television network Rotana. Clear financial support for such unregulated speech may lose Alwaleed more favour amongst more conservative elements in the kingdom, where he also has significant investments.

The problem is that Twitter is freely available in Saudi, where internet penetration is still below 50 percent. It was used earlier in the year to try to organise mass protests. While those efforts failed, they posed enough of a worry to prompt an unprecedented $130bn handout from ailing but reformist-minded King Abdullah.

Other autocratic states like China allow Twitter-equivalents but only with censorship, and greater disclosure of users' personal details.

In Saudi Arabia the internet is subject to more relaxed controls than other media. And Alwaleed may be ready to take the risk, considering that an eventual Twitter listing could earn him a tidy sum.

But in a country where the printed press remains heavily self-censored and foreign news publications still arrive with pages torn out, the prince's latest punt may be a reputational gamble.

(Una Galani is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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