News, Culture & Society

Humbling of Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal

Looking at his various transport options, it is perhaps surprising that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal did not at least try to make a dash for the border over the weekend.

This is a man with two private jets, including a Boeing 747 with its own banqueting hall and gold throne. It is believed to be the only personal private jumbo in the world.

A friend of world leaders and the Prince of Wales, he also boasts a fleet of around 300 cars, including Lamborghinis, McLarens and Porsches. Then there is his 282ft superyacht which once belonged to Donald Trump (with whom he has had a very public slanging match) and which featured in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again.

But over the weekend, it appears that the Saudi Arabian authorities came knocking at Prince Alwaleed’s Riyadh home before the king of bling had a chance to grab the keys to his toys. In any case, even the world’s largest private jet would have been of little use after the police had already closed all the country’s VIP airports.

High life: Prince Alwaleed and his wife Amira with Prince Charles in 2010

This, though, has been just one of many extraordinary new developments in Saudi Arabia. In the space of 36 hours, the capital came under missile attack and a member of the royal family died in a mysterious helicopter crash.

Meanwhile, assorted princes, ministers and businessmen — Prince Alwaleed among them — were removed to a five-star detention centre as part of a crackdown on corruption. At the same time, the visiting prime minister of Lebanon chose this very place at this very moment to announce his resignation. Considering Saudi Arabia is regarded as one of the most secretive places on earth, the desert kingdom has suddenly been generating a hell of a lot of headlines.

So what on earth is going on there?

That is the question that’s occupying diplomats and financial analysts far and wide. Because, make no mistake, these are events which could not only have a severe impact on a troubled and volatile region, but also hit Western stock markets.

Pressure groups may like to berate British politicians for sucking up to a repressive dictatorship rooted in medieval theocratic beliefs — and the latest events have shone a new spotlight on some of the grotesque extravagances of Saudi’s ruling class. But thousands of British jobs still depend on selling the Saudis goods and weapons worth billions.

Prince Alwaleed’s vast stakes in companies such as Twitter and Apple, and his ownership of some of the world’s greatest hotels, including London’s Savoy, have not only made him the richest man in Saudi, aside from the King himself. They have also made him a global celebrity billionaire, a person whom Western governments were desperate to cultivate. When Prince Alwaleed had finished renovating his £220 million Savoy Hotel, it was Prince Charles who came to do the honours.

With a fortune estimated at $18 billion, Alwaleed is sometimes likened to the great U.S. investment guru Warren Buffett. Except that, unlike Prince Alwaleed, Buffett does not have an airborne bedroom with en-suite bathroom (yes, it does have gold taps) or a private zoo. Buffett is not under house arrest, either.

As of last weekend, a better analogy might be Game Of Thrones. For Alwaleed’s survival now depends on the man behind all this high drama, his distant cousin, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Known as ‘MbS’, the dynamic 32-year-old son and heir of Saudi’s elderly King Salman has made it clear his country must ease off the fundamentalist theology if it is to prosper in future.

The interior of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's private Boeing 747 airplane

The interior of Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal’s private Boeing 747 airplane

He has been drawing up a series of reforms designed to modernise Saudi Arabia, to make his country less dependent on the price of oil, and to consolidate the country’s opposition to the other great power in the region, Iran. Earlier this year, he announced plans to allow women to drive and to dilute the powers of Saudi’s religious police. Only last month, there came his vision for a £500 billion ‘mega city’ called Neom, a latter-day Dubai on the Red Sea, with connecting bridges to Egypt and Jordan.

According to the promotional video, it will be a place where women are free to jog in leotards, work and even to play musical instruments (racy, I know, but there you are).

While his ideas for this sort of ‘moderate’ Islam have appalled many of Saudi’s deeply conservative imams, they have won him cautious approval overseas.

Yet the wider world is also concerned by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s close involvement in the civil war in neighbouring Yemen.

Here, Saudi-backed government forces are fighting Houthi rebels in a conflict which has killed thousands of civilians. Like the Saudis, the Yemeni government forces are predominantly Sunni Muslims. The rebels follow Islam’s rival Shia tradition, as Iran does.

It’s thought Houthi rebels fired that ballistic missile at the capital two days ago, before it was shot down. There is now speculation that Saudi Arabia is on the cusp of some sort of pact with Israel as well as other Sunni rulers in the Gulf, before a full-scale confrontation with Iran.

Prince Alwaleed pictured in 2015

Prince Alwaleed pictured in 2015

The Lebanese prime minister announced his resignation on Saudi soil, while accusing Iran of meddling in Lebanon and threatening his life — stoking up tensions even more.

It is clear the Crown Prince is determined to assert Saudi authority across the region, and has the backing of 81-year-old King Salman. But if ‘MbS’ wants to pursue all these ambitious agendas, he needs to ward off any rival challengers for the throne. Hence, this weekend’s purge of potential opponents.

In the midnight blitz of arrests — apparently conducted without formal charges, or any legal process — a dozen princes, four ministers and around 30 former ministers were rounded up. The Crown Prince issued a statement saying: ‘The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable.’

Of all those in the frame, Prince Alwaleed was the biggest name.

As prisons go, Riyadh’s five-star Ritz-Carlton resort is perhaps the world’s cushiest. Only last month, Tony Blair and Richard Branson were guests at an investment conference there. But no one is sure how long these reluctant new guests will be there, and whether they might then be transferred somewhere much less agreeable.

It might seem strange for the Crown Prince to arrest Alwaleed — who is 30 years older — given both men share the same vision of a more modern, female-friendly

Saudi Arabia. Not only does Alwaleed make a point of employing more women than men in his global empire, but they are free to wear skirts and leave theirhair uncovered.

He even employs a female pilot to fly one of his jets. In a country where, for now, it remains illegal for a woman to drive a car, that is quite a statement. And Alwaleed likes making statements.

In 2015, he tweeted that Donald Trump was a ‘disgrace’ for his remarks about Muslims. ‘Dopey prince,’ replied the future president of the U.S.

Indeed, it may be this love of global publicity which has earned Alwaleed the hostility and suspicion of his cousin.

This is the man who grandly ordered the world’s first private double-decker Airbus 380 super-jumbo — with Turkish bath and concert room — though even Alwaleed would later draw the line at such excess and sold it.

On the whole, Saudis do not like those who draw attention to the arrogant opulence of a regime which thinks nothing of shutting down an entire beach on the French Riviera so the ruler can take a swim — as King Salman did in 2015.

As yet, there is no suggestion that Alwaleed has done anything wrong. However, in a place as opaque as Saudi Arabia, where public amputations and executions are still part of 21st-century life, justice remains a relative concept.

All that can be certain is that, for the moment, the lady pilot Prince Alwaleed likes to employ is not going to be doing much flying.