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Who is Alwaleed bin Talal, the absurdly rich Saudi prince just released from a mysterious imprisonment

January 27, 2018 at 9:04 AM

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Authorities in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4 arrested royal family members and ministers as well as Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire owning stakes in major companies. (Reuters)

Last November, the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the arrest of hundreds of Saudi Arabia's elite, including cabinet ministers and nearly a dozen blood relatives — princes like himself.

Among the most prominent of those arrested was the crown prince’s cousin, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal — a globe-trotting billionaire once rumored to have designs on the throne.

While Saudi officials said the arrests were from an “anti-corruption” probe, Alwaleed’s imprisonment fueled suspicion that the crown prince was really trying to eliminate rivals as he prepares to inherit the throne from his father.

Alwaleed was suddenly set free Saturday. The precise reasons for his months-long incarceration in a Ritz-Carlton hotel remain unknown to the public. So do the implications for his massive portfolio of investments, many in the United States, and his rumored lifestyle of occasionally bizarre opulence.

The biography on Alwaleed’s personal website consists of a single sentence about his lineage (born 1955; grandson of the first king of Saudi Arabia), followed by a dense page crammed with details of his wealth and power: his companies’ holdings in Twitter, Lyft, Euro Disney and Twentieth Century Fox; luxury hotels around the world; a tower under construction in Saudi Arabia that will soon be the world’s tallest building.

Business Insider once reported the prince kept “a group of dancing, laughing, joking dwarfs” in his entourage, occasionally tossing them around as sport like human shot puts. That isn’t in the official biography. And it would be a shame if all you knew about Alwaleed was his wealth, because the personality behind those billions of dollars sounds no less extraordinary.

It’s true that Alwaleed descends from King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, which the Saud family has controlled ever since. But the website biography doesn’t mention what Vanity Fair will tell you: that Alwaleed’s father rebelled against the repressive monarchy in the 1960s, forever damaging his line’s chances of inheriting the throne. Though that hasn’t stopped Alwaleed from hinting that he might one day sit on it.

Vanity Fair’s profile also retells — with some skepticism — the official story of how Alwaleed amassed his immense fortune. It reads like a fairy tale.

The prince was about 30, having returned from Menlo College in California with a business degree in 1985.

“Alwaleed claims his father gave him $30,000. Within a year, he had lost the money,” the Vanity Fair profile says. “He went back to his father, who gave him $300,000. This time, it took him three years to lose it.”

The third time was the charm: Alwaleed’s father gave him the deed to a house instead of cash and told him, “Work for yourself.” So he took a loan out on the deed, and with some shrewd investments (and his royal stipend, and the proceeds from hawking a $200,000 heirloom), the prince learned to become a self-made man.

Others have speculated that his fortune owes more to the royal family’s control of Saudi Arabia’s oil, Vanity Fair wrote — or even that Alwaleed is “a front man for the vast wealth of the Saudi royal family.”

In any event, the prince surged to the top of the billionaires list in the early 1990s, not through any enterprise inside his family’s kingdom but by investing in a then-struggling U.S. bank, now known as Citicorp.

From that point on, Alwaleed was a prince without borders. He worked with Stephen K. Bannon in the late 1990s. Donald Trump sold him a yacht. At 62, the Associated Press reported, he’s one of the major shareholders in Apple and Twitter.

But we’re getting sidetracked by dollar signs again. In our defense, they suffuse almost every anecdote about the prince’s personality, and his hard-to-pin-down politics.

Related: [Billionaire Saudi prince tweeted that he would reward bombers with Bentleys. Then he deleted the tweet]

Alwaleed donated $10 million to help New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Business Insider reported, for example. But Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) turned the money down after the prince issued a news release criticizing the U.S. position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

He has always been a press-happy prince. (Or occasionally press-cranky, as when Alwaleed sued Forbes for defamation, claiming the magazine had underestimated his wealth at a mere $20 billion.)

Seated in a recliner in shaded glasses at night, Business Insider reported, Alwaleed held forth to CNBC on the banking crisis in 2008. The same year, according to Forbes, he put on a ceremonial Saudi robe and took his personal Boeing 747 to the city of Jiddah. There he pitched his uncle, King Abdullah, on his plan to build a skyscraper more than a kilometer tall.

“It will be the epicenter of Jiddah,” the prince told Forbes. “It will be a magnet.”

The mile-high tower is slated to open in 2019.

About midway through the tower's construction, Business Insider ran an exposé on Alwaleed’s lifestyle at his headquarters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. That’s where the dwarfs come in.

“Almost every source we spoke to, including Alwaleed’s official spokesperson, confirmed that, like a medieval monarch, Alwaleed keeps in his entourage a group of dancing, laughing, joking dwarfs,” the outlet reported in 2012. “One source called them ‘jesters.’ ”

Not only did the prince hold occasional “midget-tossing” contests with these people, Business Insider wrote, but once invited his “jesters” to a business meeting, where he taught them the words “Boeing” and “Airbus” and had them decide which type of plane he should add to his personal fleet.

In the face of such bizarre accusations, Alwaleed has made great demonstrations of his concern for human rights — especially among the poor and women.

Related: [Saudi prince pledges to give away his fortune — all $32 billion of it]

“Can you believe this? It’s horrible,” he told Forbes while handing out cash-stuffed envelopes in a Riyadh slum. The same article noted that women who work for Alwaleed’s offices are discouraged from wearing the veils they’re forced to wear in public.

The prince wrote an op-ed for the New York Times during the “Arab Spring” revolutions, condemning autocratic Arab nations led by those who “serve special and self-serving interests” and embracing his father’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s autocracy.

And two years ago, following in the footsteps of Western billionaires such as Bill Gates, Alwaleed promised to give away his entire fortune, estimated in excess of $30 billion, in the indefinite future — “to build a more peaceful, equitable and sustainable world,” he told reporters.

The prince was among many global leaders to condemn Trump early in his run for president, but then attempt reconciliation after the election.

As The Washington Post previously wrote, some have suggested that Alwaleed is essentially running a PR campaign for his Western business holdings. Others wonder whether he has designs on the Saudi throne. That’s one theory for why Saudi Arabia’s crown prince — Alwaleed’s cousin — had him and 10 other princes arrested in November to face a“royal anti-corruption” committee, amid rumors that the king is preparing to step down.

Power in Saudi Arabia has long passed between the sons of the founding king, Forbes wrote in 2009. But the line of succession has become complicated as that generation nears the end of its life span.

Could the globe-trotting, billionaire son of a dissident one day take the throne?

“Sure,” Alwaleed told Forbes. “The chain of command of people who could become king in this country is between the sons and the grandsons of King Abdulaziz. I am among them.”

Others doubted his chances.

“Alwaleed is the Donald Trump of Saudi Arabia,” an expert on the Saudi royal house told Forbes that year. “He may be a symbol of success for some Saudis, but many others view him as being way too gaudy.”

But that was many years ago. Trump is president of the United States now, and who knows what’s in store for Alwaleed?

Read more:

Saudi Arabia detains princes, ministers and billionaire investor in extraordinary purge


Avi Selk is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. He previously worked for the Dallas Morning News.

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