How a Saudi Billionaire Does Beirut

His yacht rides at anchor off his new $100 million Beirut hotel-resort complex. He opened it last week–it includes four swimming pools, eight restaurants, three bars and a massive shopping arcade–in a blaze of fireworks and laser lights. He is listed as the 11th richest man in the world, worth an estimated lbs13bn.

His name is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the 45-year-old nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd. And he would, it seems, like to be prime minister of Lebanon. The proof? Well, at his hotel bash last week, Prince Alwaleed made some pretty nasty comments about Lebanon’s lbs20bn national debt. “Can any one of you brothers and sisters present in this gathering tell me what the expected debt figure will be in the next four or five years?” he asked. “Will its size continue to be 170 per cent of the GDP at the end of that period?”

It was a somewhat unprincely way of sniping at the current Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, who also happens to hold joint Saudi and Lebanese nationality and who, if somewhat less wealthy than Prince Alwaleed, still has a few billions to his name and also holds the leading shareholding in Solidaire, the company rebuilding the centre of Beirut. Many blame Mr Hariri for the country’s debt.

President Lahoud of Lebanon turned up to hear Prince Alwaleed’s speech. The two men get on well–Messrs Lahoud and Hariri famously do not–and Prince Alwaleed also has bonny relations with Syria, an essential for anyone anxious to run Lebanon. The prince, after all, is paying for the reconstruction of a village inundated by last month’s Syrian dam burst. Mr Hariri couldn’t make it to the hotel opening, and thus missed the economic advice of his possible nemesis. His response? “We accept such statements from anyone who wants to build a hotel in Lebanon,” he remarked in what might be called a classic put-down.

The Lebanese could be forgiven for thinking that one Saudi billionaire is quite enough to govern their country. But Alwaleed bin Talal has exemplary forebears: he is the grandson of a former Lebanese prime minister, Riad Solh. He also speaks his mind. For this is the same Alwaleed bin Talal who offered New York $10m towards reconstruction after 11 September–only to have his cheque thrown back in his face by the then mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, for daring to suggest that America take a slightly less pro-Israeli stand in the Middle East.

Prince Alwaleed also provided millions of pounds to repair Lebanese electricity stations after Israel attacked them two years ago. He’s planning yet another hotel in central Beirut. “Every investor has the right to feel secure about his investments,” he told Mr Hariri’s deputy, Ihsam Fares, yet another millionaire. “It is the duty of the state and the government to provide this safety. The investor is like a citizen, he wants to know where the state economy is going.”

So the prince has definitely moved into Lebanese politics. Even his yacht–formerly Donald Trump’s–speaks of money, its massive decks and sleek hull a near-permanent reminder off Pigeon Rocks that even a country with massive debts can attract massive wealth.

A few days ago, residents of Corniche Mazraa, a hot canyon of traffic in west Beirut, were astonished to see thousands of sheets of paper descending on them from a light aircraft, carpeting the road and pavements and apartment blocks in a snow of pictures of a green forest.

They were even more surprised to read the text on the back. Supported by the Lebanese Environment Ministry, each sheet of paper urged the people “not to throw litter on the ground”.


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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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