Saudi’s philanthropist prince has few supporters after corruption crackdown
New York — For more than a quarter of a century, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has been making investments and building relationships in the West. He bailed out Citigroup, 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 co-founder and philanthropist, said in a statement Monday that Alwaleed 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 to Europe’s biggest hotel operator, Accor. 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 from government contracts and lucrative deals with multinationals.
Alwaleed, with a fortune of $17.2bn, was among dozens of princes, ministers and senior officials who were rounded up during the weekend of November 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 US 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 $590m to become the bank’s largest shareholder. In 2007, he teamed up with Gates’s Cascade Investment to take the Four Seasons hotel chain private for about $3.8bn. 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 e-mailed 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."