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Home > Business > Special

To transcend the man

Suhel Seth | November 18, 2005

The blandness of the title must not deter any business reader from reading this eminently readable book by famed CNN anchor Riz Khan.

His book, Alwaleed: Businessman, Billionaire, Prince, a biography of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, is anything but bland.

There have been innumerable tales, apocryphal as well as true about this reclusive Saudi billionaire: from tales of corporate heroism when he stepped in to save the ailing Citibank, to the time he handed over a cheque for $10 million (about Rs 456 crore) to Rudy Giuliani only to have it returned after some comments made by the Prince that the feisty Mayor of New York took umbrage at, especially since they were made in the context of 9/11.

But then the Prince has come a long way since.

The title is like the Prince himself. Simple and direct. The book begins, as most biographies do, with a raison d'e tre of the title, and no one sums it up better than the subject of the book: the Prince himself.

Alwaleed has always regarded himself as a businessman first and a Prince later; not surprising since there were at least 5,000 princes in Saudi Arabia when Riz last took count. And the book is menacingly honest in helping the reader travel through the grim sociological patterns that govern the Kingdom today. Some of which influenced the Prince to strike out on his own as he did.

The book has some extremely unguarded insights into the private and public lives of the man who has come to acquire such admiration across the world; not for his business conquests alone but for the almost fairy-tale like manner in which he conducts business. And that is the essence of a good biography; of telling you things you would not have even imagined.

This is how the first few chapters, which explain the complex relationship the Prince shared with his father, his family roots both in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and the affection with which he treated his mother and siblings, lay the edifice of humanism, which in later years would compel America's compassionate President, Jimmy Carter, to laud his philanthropic zeal.

But more of that later.

Where the book scores is the access perspective from which it is written. It is clear that Riz Khan was up, close and personal, and was permitted to talk with almost everyone who either grew up with the Prince or is with him today.

Which is why little anecdotes about his personal doctor, or for that matter his bodyguards, or the entourage which desperately tries to keep pace with him in the desert, are such interesting tales in this man's life. As is his abiding love for the desert; where he slips away every weekend to think and ruminate. Not to mention his enduring love affair with Cannes and the Cote de Azur.

Alwaleed's business life began with as much theatre as his life continues to be influenced by.

For a man who had to take a loan from Citibank to a man who nearly owned 15 per cent of Citigroup is a journey that is truly well-documented, as also his enduring friendships with men like John Reed, who was running Citigroup when the Prince lent his helping hand, and Sandy Weill, who ran it later and is now chairman of Citigroup.

This is also where the book takes off; for it reveals a pattern that has made Alwaleed the world's most well-regarded investor (why, even Warren Buffett has been, many a time, called "America's Alwaleed"; something this book revels in revealing).

Any good biography's task is not to glorify but to unravel: to place before the reader an insight into the subject. In his case, a world-figure not only for the fact of being world's fourth richest man, but also because of the kind of investments he has made and the influence of those investments. And the Prince has his fingers in almost everything you'd imagine: from a share of Murdoch's sprawling media empire and part of the flourishing Four Seasons chain of hotels, to the single largest chunk of equity in Citigroup.

This is a book which transcends Alwaleed the man. It instead uncovers a Kingdom: exposes a way of life which is at much at ease amongst bedouins as amongst bankers. For me, that is the truest pleasure this book provides.

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