Saudi prince who wooed West finds few friends in tough times

The Star Malaysia - StarBiz - - Foreign News -

NEW YORK: For more than a quar­ter-cen­tury, Saudi Ara­bia’s Prince Al­waleed Talal has been mak­ing in­vest­ments and build­ing re­la­tion­ships in the West.

He bailed out Cit­i­group Inc, helped re­fi­nance the ill-fated Euro Dis­ney and backed Ru­pert Mur­doch dur­ing the UK phone-hack­ing scan­dal.

Now, as Al­waleed passes a fourth week at a Riyadh ho­tel, one of hundreds of de­tainees in an anti-corruption crack­down, al­most no one has ral­lied to his cause.

Bill Gates, the Mi­crosoft Inc co-founder and phi­lan­thropist, said in a state­ment Mon­day that Al­waleed, 62, has been an “im­por­tant part­ner” in their char­i­ta­ble work to­gether. Ear­lier this month, Cit­i­group CEO Michael Cor­bat called him a “con­sis­tent, loyal sup­porter.” They don’t have much com­pany.

For Al­waleed, the rel­a­tive si­lence is a skimpy re­turn on the bil­lions he’s in­vested over the years in ev­ery­thing from Twit­ter Inc to Europe’s big­gest ho­tel op­er­a­tor, Ac­cor SA. Yet his sit­u­a­tion re­flects a harsh re­al­ity:

As much as his friends and busi­ness as­so­ciates may want to sup­port him pub­licly, they’re wary of be­ing per­ceived as crit­ics of the crack­down and the man be­hind it, Saudi Ara­bia’s Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

The son of King Sal­man, Prince Mo­hammed is try­ing to mod­ernise the Saudi econ­omy in part by wean­ing the coun­try off its decades-long de­pen­dency on oil rev­enue.

His anti-corruption drive threat­ens to end a pa­tron­age sys­tem that al­lowed roy­als and Saudi busi­ness­peo­ple to grow wealthy off gov­ern­ment con­tracts and lu­cra­tive deals with multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions.

Al­waleed, with a for­tune of US$17.2bil, was among dozens of princes, min­is­ters and se­nior of­fi­cials who were rounded up the week­end of Nov 4.

The Saudi gov­ern­ment says it has since re­leased a few de­tainees. The rest re­main con­fined to Riyadh’s Ritz-Carl­ton, a lux­ury ho­tel that only days ear­lier had played host to a con­fer­ence pro­mot­ing the king­dom as an at­trac­tive in­vest­ment.

Pri­vately, many of Al­waleed’s con­tacts in the United States and Europe say they don’t be­lieve he’s guilty of corruption and won­der if his ar­rest isn’t sim­ply a shake­down.

They also ven­ture that the lack of ex­pla­na­tion be­hind Prince Mo­hammed’s cam­paign against graft may back­fire by alien­at­ing the same for­eign cap­i­tal he hopes to at­tract.

Yet at the same time, very few are will­ing to com­ment pub­licly.

Some say they’re re­luc­tant to sup­port Al­waleed when it’s still un­clear why he was de­tained. Oth­ers say they’re fear­ful of los­ing ac­cess to busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties in the king­dom.

Al­waleed’s re­la­tion­ship with Cit­i­group dates back to 1991, when he in­vested US$590mil to be­come the bank’s largest share­holder. In 2007, he teamed up with Gates’ Cas­cade In­vest­ment LLC to take the Four Sea­sons ho­tel chain pri­vate for about US$3.8bil.

To­day each holds a 45% stake. Al­waleed also joined forces with Gates on pub­lic-health ini­tia­tives and the Break­through En­ergy Coali­tion – a group of wealthy in­vestors who pledged to di­rect a large por­tion of their for­tunes to­ward en­ergy tech­nol­ogy.

Yet even Gates could only say so much. “I’m only aware of what I’ve read in the press, and I can’t spec­u­late,” he said in his emailed state­ment.

“Prince Al­waleed has been an im­por­tant part­ner in my foun­da­tion’s work to en­sure that kids around the world re­ceive life-sav­ing vac­ci­na­tions. We’ve worked to­gether to help stop the spread of po­lio, measles and other pre­ventable dis­eases. His com­mit­ment to phi­lan­thropy is in­spir­ing.” — Bloomberg

Held cap­tive: Al­waleed, with a for­tune of US$17.2bil, was among dozens of princes, min­is­ters and se­nior of­fi­cials who were rounded up. — Bloomberg

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