THE OFFICES of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal are quite unlike the average Saudi workplace. One of the first things that strikes a visitor to his offices on the 66th floor of his iconic Kingdom Centre, a Riyadh landmark that soars high above the Saudi capital, is that female employees – women make up at least half of Alwaleed's workforce – work alongside men, and without the all-enveloping black abaya that is obligatory for women to wear in public in Saudi Arabia. But then their boss is a man who relishes his role as one of the country's boldest advocates for change.
Alwaleed (54) is one of the world's richest people, and is often described as the wealthiest Arab. In the West, he is known primarily for his wily investments – much of his fortune dates back to the chance he took on a then ailing Citibank in the early 1990s, a move that prompted some to describe him as an Arab Warren Buffett. Alwaleed's portfolio now includes stakes in companies such as Apple, News Corp, and Time Warner, and he is the largest foreign investor in the US. Last year Forbes magazine estimated he was worth $21 billion (€16.6 billion), ranking him 19th among the world's billionaires.
In Saudi Arabia, Alwaleed occupies something of a unique position. The fact that much of his wealth has been self-generated rather than inherited, together with his generous philanthropy both at home and overseas, and his lineage – he is a grandson of King AbdulAziz al Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia – all combine to give him some considerable licence to question the status quo. And challenge it he does, often drawing the ire of those conservative clerics whose pronouncements underpin the rituals of daily life in Saudi Arabia.
"Does it make sense to you that we are the only country in the world where ladies cannot drive a car? Does it make sense that we are the only country in the world that does not have movies or cinemas? What is this? Everybody is wrong and we are right? Forget it. Everybody is right and we are wrong. But we will change that, I'm telling you," he says, speaking in rapid-fire bursts.
King Abdullah's decision to shake up the Saudi establishment by appointing several moderates to key posts last month shows the momentum for change is "unstoppable", says Alwaleed. "There is no way you can go back." But Alwaleed doesn't just talk about the need for change, he acts on it. As well as hiring women for high-level positions at his company, in 2004 he recruited the first female Saudi pilot. The following year he sponsored the first female Saudi jockey to compete at international level.
"It is a message for Saudi Arabia – that ladies are not better than men and not worse, they are equal," he says. "I am not doing it for your eyes but for Saudi Arabia because you cannot have a society function normally when you have 50 per cent of society sitting at home . . . We are pioneers in this, in getting ladies involved in the system."
His wife, Princess Ameera, created quite a stir in January when she told a Saudi newspaper that she drives when abroad and is ready to drive at home.
"Ninety per cent of people support her," Alwaleed insists, pulling out a sheaf of news clippings on the interview.
Last week, Alwaleed himself hit the headlines when a Saudi religious scholar accused him and another Saudi businessman of being "as dangerous as drug dealers" because they own "decadent" TV channels that "spread lewdness" by broadcasting films and music videos. Last year, the Saudi chief justice said it was permissible to kill the owners of TV stations that show content deemed immoral. He mentioned no names, but Alwaleed says he considered it a direct personal attack. That judge was removed from his post during King Abdullah's government reshuffle last month, a move gleefully noted by Alwaleed.
Last week's furore follows recent remarks Alwaleed made to the Saudi media in which he said public film screenings in the country are "inevitable" despite stiff opposition from the religious establishment. In December, a comedy film about a Saudi farmer's trip to Dubai, made by the prince's production company, drew sell-out crowds when it was shown for a week in Jeddah.
He notes how reform is gathering pace in Saudi Arabia, but admits he would like swifter change. "I am more aggressive," he says. "More importantly now, we need social change, which means ladies participating in society and society opening up and not being hijacked by a small number of people who take the banner of Islam and say No, No, No." Alwaleed describes himself as "religiously very strict and socially very liberal and open-minded" and insists there is no conflict in that.
"If I want to have Saudi movies here, if I want to have ladies competent in society, does that mean I am not a Muslim? No . . . You can be both. There is a time for Islam and a time for praying, and a time for having society move and advance with the 21st century." One issue close to his heart is that of relations between the Muslim world and the West, particularly following 9/11. Alwaleed has endowed American studies programmes at several universities in the Middle East, donated more than $70 million to underwrite the establishment of Islamic studies centres at Harvard, Georgetown, Cambridge and Edinburgh, and helped fund the construction of a special wing devoted to Islamic art at the Louvre in Paris.
"To me, it is very important. We cannot have a clash of civilisations, we cannot have [Samuel Huntington's theory] win and prevail because this would be the end of the world," he says. "We have a lot of common ground and this has to be told and repeated so people listen and understand."
The September 11th attacks put Islam "under the microscope", he says. "Islam is being attacked because of this attack by some of its believers . . . Unfortunately, people hijacked our religion and now we are stigmatised by being not necessarily terrorists but supporters of terrorists. We have to work more than we do usually to prove to the West that Islam is a peaceful faith." The shock of 9/11 together with a string of subsequent terrorist attacks on Saudi soil has contributed to changing public attitudes in the country, he says.
"The population right now is moving ahead with what the king and the government wants . . . because the population understands now that these terrorists are anti-Saudi Arabia and they are anti-Muslims, not only anti-America or whatever. We have done a good job on that, by flushing them out and getting them before they commit their acts."
Saudi Arabia has not escaped the global financial crisis, Alwaleed says, and a number of projects in the country have been delayed or put on hold. His own Kingdom Holding Company announced a record $8.26 billion net loss in January due to a dive in the value of its assets, which include a substantial stake in troubled Citigroup.
"Anyone who tells you he is immune is not telling the truth . . . This is a global crisis hitting every single household, company, establishment and nation in the world," he says. "The question is not whether the crisis will hit you or not, the question is how to manage the crisis, get out of it, and be a survivor, and still continue with your projects."
For the moment, much of his attention centres on business prospects at home in Saudi Arabia, where he predicts a real estate boom despite the global downturn due to rapid population growth and forthcoming legislation making it easier for middle-class Saudis to get mortgages.
"We are a company that looks at all opportunities," he says with a smile.
An unusual background
In a 2005 biography that became a bestseller in the Arab world, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal says he sees himself as "a businessman who is a member of the Saudi royal family".
His background is somewhat unconventional by the standards of the House of Saud.
Alwaleed's mother was the daughter of a former Lebanese prime minister and his father, Prince Talal (nicknamed "The Red Prince"), was exiled in the 1960s for his reformist political views.
He is proud of the fact his wealth is self-made. "I have not inherited this from my daddy or granddaddy . . . I began from zero. When you begin from zero, you know what the zero means . . . I went through many crises in my life, but we are survivors and we emerge stronger."
A month after 9/11, then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani refused a $10 million donation for disaster relief from Alwaleed after the prince said the US should "re-examine its policies" in the wake of the attacks.