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There can be few global investors who travel on business trips with a 20-strong entourage including a physician, hairdresser and protocol secretary. Not to mention a squeezy bottle of Heinz low-carb ketchup.
But Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is no ordinary investor. Indeed, a recent authorised biography was entitled: Alwaleed: Billionaire, Businessman, Prince.
A grandson of the monarch who founded modern Saudi Arabia, he began investing in 1979 after studying in the US. His Riyadh-based Kingdom Holding, whose investments span hotels, real estate and banking, is estimated to have assets worth at least $20bn.
Prince Alwaleed is using this heady mixture of blue blood, fabulous wealth and investment acumen to open doors in Asia, primarily to assist the development of Kingdom Hotel Investments, a Dubai-listed company in which he is the majority shareholder.
When he wraps up his 10-day trip this week, he will have visited hotels and political leaders in countries including Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and China.
KHI finances and develops luxury hotel resorts in emerging markets, which are managed by global brands such as Raffles, Four Seasons and Mövenpick.
KHI started a decade ago but its portfolio is heavily focused on the Middle East and Africa, with only five hotel interests in Asia out of a total portfolio of 33.
The aim is to quickly beef up KHI’s presence in Asia in light of the region’s strong growth outlook.
“There is a double impact in Asia,” Prince Alwaleed told the Financial Times, in a rare interview. “Countries are growing fast on their own and also benefiting from the spill-over effects of China’s growth.”
KHI has told investors that two-thirds of its war- chest, estimated by Prince Alwaleed at $1bn, will be invested in Asia over the next five years.
But finding suitable sites for luxury hotels and securing licences and approvals can prove problematic in Asia’s developing economies.
Prince Alwaleed believes his personal involvement, touring sites and meeting political leaders, will help to expedite the development process.
President Hu of China made a point of meeting Prince Alwaleed – who is not part of the Saudi government – during a recent stopover in Saudi Arabia, en route to one of his tours
of Africa to secure energy supplies. Prince Alwaleed knows Africa well, having visited all but four of the continent’s 52 countries.
The two are scheduled to meet in Beijing this week with Prince Alwaleed expected to push his interest in developing KHI’s hotel projects across China.
Prince Alwaleed, 51, says: “I am a royal, a businessman and have a global outlook. It is a powerful combination. It takes two to tango and I will tango with them [the Chinese].”
The low-carb ketchup and zero-fat crackers, which accompany Prince Alwaleed everywhere, attest to a regimented lifestyle that includes two hours a day in the gym not to mention a capacity for regular 18-hour working days. This disciplined approach extends to his business dealings.
Despite the cheap credit on offer, he claims to keep debt levels to a minimum and he will only invest in projects that he believes will deliver a return on capital of 20 per cent a year.
He is coy about the inner workings of his financial empire and where his finance comes from, for instance declining to state what his annual dividend income is.
Analysts will get a chance to crunch the numbers for the first time when Kingdom Holding publishes its prospectus in the next few weeks, ahead of the group’s summer listing on the Riyadh exchange.
Prince Alwaleed promises that his listed company will raise the bar for corporate governance in the Middle East and that he will only be paid an annual salary of a single riyal.
He relishes pushing at the boundaries of a deeply conservative state. Half his entourage is female and, in a country where women are banned from driving, he caused consternation by hiring the first Saudi female pilot. He says: “I use my high-profile position to advance the cause of women. There is a need to change the mentality of Saudi thinking in some areas.”