Meeting HRH Prince Alwaleed can be an intimidating experience. I have been lucky enough to do it three times in the last six years, and none have been easy. The prince is sharp, intense and always seems to know much more about every single thing than you do. If you ask duff questions, he sure lets you know about it. And if you haven’t done hours of research and preparation, you need to think long and hard before exiting the lift doors on the 66th floor of Riyadh’s Kingdom Centre.
But when I met him two weeks ago for the interview in this week’s special Rich List issue, it was clear something had changed. He appeared relaxed, casual, and even jovial. This may have something to do with the fact that 2012 has been nothing short of an incredible year for him. At the time of our meeting, shares in Kingdom Holding were trading at 147 percent higher than twelve months earlier, adding $4.6bn to his overall wealth. Yes, you read that correctly, 147 percent. He is the only man on the planet who makes Arabtec’s 2012 share performance look below par.
How did this happen? One word kept coming out during the interview — the word “vindicated.” In many different parts of his business, the prince has been vindicated in 2012. Take News Corp, in which Kingdom Holding has a seven percent stake. Back in the summer of 2011, there was no shortage of ‘experts’ suggesting the prince should cut his ties with the Murdoch empire after the phone-hacking scandal. This was, the experts said, a company in fast decline. He didn’t, instead seeing the value in Rupert Murdoch’s demerger plans. This year, News Corp shares have risen 34 percent to a five-year high.
Take Twitter. Last December Kingdom Holding invested $300m in the company, for a stake that sources tell me is around four percent. That would have given Twitter a market value of $7.5bn. You would be hard pressed to find anyone valuing Twitter for less than $10bn today.
And as much as reaping the benefits of the investments he made, including Citigroup and Apple, it’s the ones he didn’t make that have been equally significant. Before its flotation, Facebook looked like the obvious “missing link” in the prince’s portfolio. But, as he says in the interview, he felt “uncomfortable” with the company’s pricing at the time it floated. We all know what happened next.
He may well appear more relaxed, but don’t be fooled by this. His capacity for hard work is unmatched, and 32 years since launching his empire, he still follows the same routine: working eighteen hours a day, which includes six hours of solid reading and one hour of exercising.
As he says in the interview: “I have been here doing this for 32 years, one third of a century, every day, every day and every day. Some people say to me I am acting like it’s my first day and I say that’s how it should be, you should act like you are beginning from scratch and creating your company. That’s how it should be. That’s the way… I have a very structured life: every day the same thing. That it is like I am on autopilot and why should I change it? It is a recipe for success. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
On the previous two occasions that I interviewed the prince, I ended with the same question in the hope of getting that world exclusive — given all his achievements, was he now thinking about stepping down and putting his feet up? This time, long before I got to Riyadh, I already knew the answer: he’s only just getting started.