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Sun 15 Jan 2006 04:00 AM

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Inside the mind of Prince Alwaleed

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal is not only one of the world’s richest men, but also one of the most influential. In an exclusive interview, he tells Hassan Abdel Rahman about the future of democracy in the region, women’s rights, and the Middle East peace process.

|~|Image3-200.jpg|~|OUTSPOKEN: Alwaleed is unafraid of expressing his views about regional and international issues.|~|Most of AlWaleed bin Talal’s Talal’s major investments are based on a long-term outlook. Perhaps that’s why the world's richest Arab was not overly worried when he lost around US$4 billion in less than a week earlier last year. Maybe Alwaleed was also confident the loss would soon be reversed — and sure enough, that was exactly what happened.

The incident is another sign that Alwaleed has all the qualities of a great international investor and a hugely successful businessman. Whatever he says, you can be almost certain it will turn out to be true. Another of Alwaleed’s qualities is his personality — he genuinely loves what he does, and this might be one of the main secrets of his success. He says: “I have such a passion towards everything I do. I do everything as if I it were the only thing I am doing”.

There are many reasons behind the success of this genius businessman. He will invest in almost everything; he is interested in almost everything; he is very absorbed in everything that’s going on around the world, and he reads for seven hours a day. He is a one-man, centralised network with non-stop energy.

Alwaleed is not only a businessman that seeks profit at all costs; he is a charitable man, and he has a message to deliver. Last year he was more interested in donating money to tsunami victims than signing multibillion dollar contracts. He has a book full of aid programmes and humanitarian support initiatives all around the world.

In addition to being the wealthiest businessman in the Arab world, Alwaleed is interested in politics, and has his own views on international and regional issues. Often, he gets criticised by the media for his comments. Very recently, for example, he earned the wrath of the Arab press by declaring; “Let’s give Sharon a chance”.

But the backlash hasn’t changed his opinions. He explains: “If I were a politician or a government figure, I would not be able to say “give Sharon a chance to prove he wants peace.” The Arab world would turn topsy-turvy then. If I were a politician, I would not be able to declare my support for Bush and the US. Such statements would lead to my resignation for sure. Today, I say that I don’t care whether Saddam will be justly convicted and sentenced or not, while I would not be able to say that if I were a politician.”

In spite of his clear support for the US, Alwaleed severely criticises its attempts to impose democracy through force. He believes that democracy is something that should “spring from the nation’s nature and history”.

The prince is completely against extremism, and all types of terrorist actions. He says such acts can't be justified, but believes that they are a result of wrongful international policies of the US. Alwaleed asserts that peace will not be achieved in the Middle East, nor will Israel be accepted, unless comprehensive and just peace is reached. This attitude was the reason why the mayor of New York rejected Alwaleed's donations in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. His donations were handed back after he announced the necessity of establishing a Palestinian state.

Despite the American occupation of Iraq, and increasing antipathy in the region towards America, Alwaleed does not agree that we are witnessing a period of clashes between cultures and civilisations. He says: “I don’t think the world is now suffering a clash between East and West. It is true that the 9/11 attacks have pushed us into a different and more complicated phase, and have resulted in increasing the gap between East and West and between Islam and Christianity. But things are a lot better nowadays, for certain”.

With regard to his role as an international businessman in calming tensions and boosting mutual dialogues, Alwaleed says: “Kingdom Holding [his massive investment group] runs a lot of projects under the umbrella of culture and knowledge exchange in a bid to achieve an accord between different viewpoints.

“We have recently paid US$40 million as a donation to finance and support two important centres for Islamic and Christian studies, in Georgetown College, and so have we in other American universities in both Lebanon and Cairo, and in Harvard University as well.”

“By being the biggest non-American investor in the US, I have made great friendships with many Jewish figures in Europe and the West. I try my best to avail of these friendships to build bridges of understanding and respect between East and West. In many of the firms in which I invest, there are Jewish heavyweight investors who have a massive influence on public opinion not only in the US, but also in the world. From what I have seen, the majority of them are totally in favour of peace, and have unbiased attitudes towards the Palestinian cause. I see that most American Jews support fair compromise with Palestinians.”

The Prince stresses the necessity to differentiate between Judaism and Zionism. He explains: “Just as there are extremist Muslims that misrepresent Islam and distort its image, there are also extremist Jews who falsify Judaism.

“Extremists from both sides are to blame for fueling the clash between East and West,” he adds.

On extremism within the current US administration, he says: “Extremism exists in all religions and all nations, and we all have to fight it. As for the US, there are certainly a group of extremists who played major roles in electing Bush, and [the president] listens to them, pushed by his religious beliefs. And this will not end at the end of Bush’s presidency, but will try its best to move into the next presidents’ periods as well”.

The Prince says Bush would not be the same without his religious beliefs, saying: “Bush says that the decision to invade Iraq had been divinely inspired. And in my last meeting with him, he mentioned the word “God” frequently. That surely reflects his religious background”.

It is clear that the Prince will carry on giving his views, and using his considerable influence, wherever and whenever possible. Is there any chance of him slowing down?

“No way! I will never give up as long as I breathe. If I have nothing to do, I create something to get busy with. I don’t believe in rest — I work passionately,” he says.||**||One on one|~|flags-200.jpg|~|CALL FOR PEACE: Alwaleed advocates stability between Lebanon and Syria in the aftermath of the Hariri killing.|~|Do you think the Iraqi experience could set a pattern for democracy in the region?

Absolutely not! Although I support America, I have many complaints about the policies it has been adopting in the Middle East over the last few years. A lot of the decisions made and issued by the UN regarding the Israeli/Arab struggle have received no response from Israel, such as the right of return for the Palestinian refugees. Also, the US always pushes Syria, Lebanon and other Arab countries to promptly respond to the UN’s decisions that are in favour of Israel. The US occupies Iraq now, and is placing pressure on Syria and Lebanon, while Israel always gets away with the crimes it commits — aided by the US. These policies and acts irritate Arabs, and bring about wrath and resentment among Arab and Muslim countries. Arabs have the right to wonder why anti-Arab decisions are implemented while anti-Israel ones are always overlooked.

Is globalisation helping to bridge the gap between different cultures?

There is no doubt that unifying all laws in the world, be it in the West, Asia or Africa, and merging them in one single community consisting of 149 countries that adopt the same economic policies and same laws, will play a big role in the convergence of viewpoints, and will hugely contribute in reducing the tension between cultures and civilisations in the near future.

Why don’t you consider having a political role in Saudi or Lebanon, since you have citizenship in both countries?

To be completely honest, I don’t think this is good for me. I don’t really want that to happen ever. If I were a politician or a government figure, I would not be able to say “give Sharon a chance to prove he wants peace. The Arab world would turn topsy-turvy then. If I were a politician, I would not be able to declare my support for Bush and the US. Such statements would lead to my resignation. Today, I say that I don’t care whether Saddam will be justly convicted and sentenced or not, while I would not be able to say that if I were a politician. Today, I donate money and support two of the greatest universities in the world. I am entirely free and comfortable like this. I think that I serve the world better as an independent businessman than as a politician.

The freedom I now enjoy is indispensable to me. It is impossible for me to accept a government position with a monthly salary and an annual holiday. I am now at the heart of economy, and in the centre of politics too. In my current situation, I am able to meet George W Bush and Bashar Assad within 24 hours. And I remember meeting both Bush in the US and Al Qazafi in Libya within one week at a time the clash between the two was at its worst. So speak to me as Alwaleed Bin Talal, president of Kingdom Holding, not as a politician or a government figure. And let me tell you something — in ten days, I visited every continent in the world. And I signed tens of great contracts during those visits. How would anyone ask me to sacrifice all those advantages and privileges for the sake of politics? And after all, what controls politics better than economics? The current situation of Kingdom Holding, with its financial, political, social, charitable powers, is more like an independent empire that makes me an emperor who is able to move all around the world with utter ease and freedom”.

Do you think the next ten years will witness peace and reconciliation between Arabs and Israel?

The initiative of King Abdullah in Beirut four years ago was such a great chance for peace between Arabs and Israel. The initiative invited and encouraged the establishment diplomatic relationships with Israel, and launched the principle of “land in exchange for peace”.

But unfortunately it was neglected and missed by Israel — who ignored it and went instead to punish Palestinians while refusing to make any dialogue.

It also invaded Lebanon at the same time as Arab leaders were debating whether to build mutual diplomatic relationships with Israel, provided that it responded to international decisions. Because of the fact that it is stronger, and that time is on its side, Israel did these things. And therefore, it is to blame for the Intifada resurrection, and the birth of extremist movements in the Arab, Islamic and Jewish worlds.

Your statement that Arabs should give Sharon a chance after he deserted the Likud party received lots of criticism. How do you evaluate Sharon’s attitude today?

I think Sharon is hoping to enter history as the most famous Israeli leader. He is famous for being a man of war, committed brutal crimes in Sabra and Shatila, destroyed the infrastructure of Palestine, and tried his best to eliminate the Intifada.

I figure he has left Likud because he has an intention to enter history. I think Sharon plans to sign a historic agreement with Palestinians — we should give him a chance and see what solutions he and his new party may offer. I am cautiously optimistic about this.

How do you analyse the current situation between Syria and Lebanon in the aftermath of Rafik Hariri’s assassination last year?

No matter how bad the problems grow between the two countries, Lebanese politicians must bear in mind that Syria will stay where it is — next to them — and will never be moved elsewhere. Ever since the Lebanese gained independence, it has been clear that it will never enjoy stability unless it is in very good terms with Syria.

If Syria is fine, so is Lebanon, and vice versa. Whatever happens, Syria will not go to Mars — Mehlis’ report will not take Syria out of its geographic position, and put it elsewhere. I totally agree that the Lebanese have the right to know who killed all those Lebanese people, and I totally agree that the killers should be punished. But Syria must not be accused of all that is happening in Lebanon.

Would you ever consider retiring and looking for a more comfortable life?

No way! I will never give up as long as I breathe. If I have nothing to do, I create something to get busy with. I don’t believe in rest; I work passionately and comfortably. I have no pressures in my daily life, and even when I face problems, I try to search for the positive side of them. I am normally very positive minded, and very optimistic.

I think I have got tremendous energy. Kingdom Holding is such a gigantic power. I love making deals and achieving successes.

Among all your investments and companies, which one is the most dear to you?

I have such a great enthusiasm towards everything I do as if it were the only thing in my life. All my investments and companies are dear to me. They once said to my daughter: “your father has got no time to spend with you”.

Her reply was: “No, that is not true at all. We all feel that we are the most important and precious thing in his whole life. We do feel we are everything to him”.

What are the best investments opportunities the region now provides?

Media is so very important for me. A year ago, I made a decision to move the headquarters of Rotana [the broadcasting company] to Riyadh. Rotana is a company that consists of six TV channels, including LBC. And we will soon launch an Islamic TV channel called Al Risalah. This channel will represent the open minded viewpoints of the right Islam.

It will be transmitted to the entire Arab world for free. It will be the real platform for Islam. Al Risalah basically targets the West and the US, but will start only in the Arab world.

Who has influenced you most?

I have not been influenced by anybody. I have not imitated anybody in the field of business. My only paragons are my grandfather Abdulaziz, who established Saudi Arabia, and my grandfather Riyadh Al Sulh, Lebanon’s independence hero. I learn lessons from those who accomplish great successes.

How do you spend a typical day?

I work for 17 hours per day; I read for seven hours in both English and Arabic about all subjects from all around the world.

At the beginning I used to drive my car myself, and then I realised that I was wasting one and a half hours, so I stopped driving, and invested the one and a half hour in reading. I sleep only for four or five hours a day.||**||

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