A Saudi Titan Watches Wall Street's Meltdown

  • Share
  • Read Later
Franco Pagetti / VII for TIME

Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal at his lavish desert camp outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

As Wall Street imploded last Wednesday, one of its biggest investors was 6,500 miles away — and what seemed to be several centuries in the past — giving away some of his vast wealth. In a lavish desert camp outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal sat on a thick carpet while hundreds of men gathered to seek his charity. They lined up to kiss his shoulder and hand him pieces of paper with requests for money — to buy a home or a car, to educate a child, pay off a debt or repair a mosque. Some brought him modest gifts, to thank him for past favors. Others offered poems and songs in praise. "Everybody knows that nobody who comes to you leaves disappointed," one Bedouin tribesman sang in a high lilt. "I ask for nothing more than that." (See photos of Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal at his desert camp here.)

Alwaleed is a nephew of Saudi King Abdullah, and he's also the richest man in the Arab world, with a personal fortune estimated at $21 billion at the end of last year, and holdings that include big pieces of Citicorp, Apple, Motorola, Disney, News Corp and Time Warner, to name just a few.

Many of his stocks were taking a battering as Alwaleed held court in Camp Rumah, but the Prince seemed unperturbed. The previous day, responding to news of Lehman Brothers' bankruptcy, he'd told me that while his U.S. holdings had been affected by Wall Street's slump, his investments elsewhere were doing fine. "All in all, we're withstanding it well," he said.

All the same, Alwaleed kept an eye on his investments: His camp is equipped with several large-screen TVs, many of them tuned to CNBC, Bloomberg TV and other news channels. The Prince constantly sent and received text messages on his cellphone, and took calls on two satellite phones. "I'm never cut off from news," he said. "News is one constant in my life." These Wednesday night gatherings in the desert at which he disburses instant charity are another — he's done them for nearly 25 years. "If I'm in the country on Wednesday, I'll come here and do this, no matter what."

The prospect of instant charity had brought nearly 350 Saudi men from across the kingdom to Camp Rumah on this night. The Prince and his wife host female supplicants at their palatial Riyadh home on Saturdays. Being Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, the men had waited for several hours without food or water. They were divided into two groups — around 30 sheikhs, or tribal elders, greeted Alwaleed on his arrival at the camp, around 6 p.m., while the rest waited a few hundred yards away. The Prince joined the sheikhs for "iftar" — the meal that breaks the day's fast. After a light meal of dates and yoghurt, they knelt for prayers.

Afterward, they sat in silence as Alwaleed chatted with a couple of journalists and tracked the unremittingly grim news from New York. Pretty much every financial stock was heading south, quick. Alwaleed shook his head and smiled. He appeared fascinated, even enthralled by the unfolding disaster, like a young boy watching a slow-motion trainwreck. "Unbelievable," he said, over and over again. He took a call on his cellphone. "It's a meltdown, no?" he told his caller, still smiling.

When CNBC's Maria Bartiromo appeared on the screen, the Prince was suddenly animated. "I know her very well," he said. "Look, I'll send her a message now, and she will write back." He punched an SMS message on his Motorola, and sure enough, 10 minutes later, Bartiromo replied. Alwaleed chuckled and settled back on his cushions. He showed the journalists some photographs stored in his cellphone. "This is me with Bashar Assad," he said. "And me with Steve Balmer and Bill Gates."

Dinner was announced at nearly 8 p.m., and everybody trooped off to an open-air dining area, to sit down on carpets for a feast of Roman proportions — giant trays of lamb, chicken, fish, rice, bread and pasta, and a dozen desserts. The guests are not restricted by the Prince's own no-meat diet, but on his orders all the desserts were made with Splenda.

After dinner, it was time for the Prince to finally receive the supplicants. The sheikhs went first, then the rest of the men, each handing him their request in writing. Alwaleed scarcely glanced at the notes before handing them to an aide, who stuffed them into a suitcase. His brusque manner didn't seem to offend any of the men; they knew not to expect any sort of conversation with the Prince. "If I stop to talk to everybody, then it would take hours and hours — not fair to those who are at the back of the line," he said. "The important thing is that I get to shake hands with everyone, and they can leave knowing that their request will be answered."

It would take over an hour for the Prince to shake hands with every one of the supplicants. They then slipped into the night, leaving Alwaleed with a small coterie of retainers — and the TV sets, blaring out the bad tidings from New York.

The written requests will eventually be read by Alwaleed's staffers, who will consider the merits of each application and recommend appropriate donations for the Prince's approval. An aide told me that in five years of working for Alwaleed, he'd never known an applicant to get nothing. "The smallest sum we pay out is 2,000 Saudi Riyals (around $560)," he said. The largest payouts exceed 100 times that sum. Although the Prince rarely handed out cash on the spot, the aide explained, he sometimes gave away cars — and on one occasion, a prized falcon worth $50,000.

Alwaleed figured the requests he received Wednesday night would cost him around $1.5 million. It's a safe bet he lost many times that sum the same day on Wall Street.

(See photos of Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal here.)