Prince Alwaleed Comments On Obama's Speech

Robert Siegel talks to Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Alwaleed is the biggest individual foreign investor in the U.S. The 56-year-old Saudi prince wields no political power in the house of Saud, but he is the richest man in Saudi Arabia — and the 26th richest man in the world.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Today, President Obama addressed the swirling events in the Middle East.

President BARACK OBAMA: At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.

NORRIS: Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the region. And my colleague Robert Siegel is in New York today to introduce you to a key player in Saudi Arabia.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

His name is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. He's a star of the ruling House of Saud. He's amassed a personal fortune that makes him one of the world's wealthiest individuals and a nickname: the Arabian Warren Buffett. He owns mansions, hotels, a fleet of 200 cars, a huge yacht and has commissioned a private version of the world's largest airplane: an Airbus 380 of his own.

He has invested in Citicorp and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns, among other things, Fox News.

Prince Alwaleed gives some of his money to disaster relief and education. And immediately after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he famously handed a check for $10 million to then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

(Soundbite of archived broadcast)

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Well, Mr. Mayor, I'm not going to take much of your time. I know you're so busy. I came all the way from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia...

Mayor RUDOLPH GIULIANI (Republican, New York): Thank you.

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: ...just to see you.

SIEGEL: A month later, the prince released a statement about the check saying: Our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek. Giuliani then rejected the statement, and he returned the check.

Well, nonetheless, Prince Alwaleed continues to enjoy strong business ties to the West and has the ear of his uncle, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Today, in order to get a better understanding of how this very powerful figure in the business world views the popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, I've come to New York where he's staying.

Welcome to the program.

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: It's a pleasure to be on your program.

SIEGEL: Today, President Obama reached out to the Muslim and Arab worlds as revolutions continue to grow in many countries in the region. What did you think of his speech?

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: I think it's a speech - a continuation of the speech he had in Cairo two years ago. Clearly, things have changed somehow since that speech, because now we have some revolutions that took place already and some revolutions that are in the making. And I think his message is clear and emphasizes the U.S. position of having the Arab world and Islamic world in general to heed for the demands and requests of its people to have more participation in the political process.

SIEGEL: A while ago, as the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt were taking place, you wrote an op-ed page article for The New York Times, in which you spoke of leaderships in the region that were tied to patterns of government that are irrelevant and ineffective.

And, of course, one question that Americans have is, is your country - is the leadership of Saudi Arabia potentially irrelevant and ineffective being a non-constitutional monarchy?

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: No. What I said is that any government in the Arab world that doesn't take lessons from what took place already in Egypt and Tunis and what's taking place right now as the part of story in Yemen and Syria and Libya, they will never get it. I think that those governments who heed the demands and listen for their - and the requests of their people, they will be able to make it.

And I believe Saudi Arabia has already taken major steps in the reform movement. And I believe that it's inevitable that Saudi Arabia will take some more steps on the political front to really be up to date to the requests and the demands of its people.

SIEGEL: Steps in the direction of an elected political leadership of the country, or is that something for another century?

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Oh, no, no, no. I mean, that's not - I mean, we're talking about less than a century for sure. We're talking about months, if not several quarters from now.

SIEGEL: But in your view, what's a working standard of relevance for the Saudi monarchy? To be accountable to an elected national assembly?

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Well, you know, although Saudi Arabia, the monarchy is not constitutional monarchy, but it's very legitimate monarchy. This monarchy has been there for the last 250 years, and the people love their king. And the king has very good relationship with his subjects.

Having said that, we still have to be current by opening up more and having the subjects of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a say and participate in the political process by having some elections just for the majlis al-shura, our parliament equivalent.

SIEGEL: A moment ago when you ticked off the countries where leaders should learn lessons of what's happened, you spoke of Libya, Yemen and Syria. You didn't mention Bahrain, which is Saudi Arabia's neighbor, where the Saudis have intervened on behalf of the Bahraini leadership. What's different about Bahrain? Why isn't that the same situation?

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Oh, for sure, Bahrain cannot be compared to what happened in Egypt, Tunis and what's happening right now in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The Bahraini matter is very much sectarian and very much triggered by our common - I would say not enemy, but at least our adversary, Iran.

SIEGEL: Sectarian, meaning Shiite versus Sunni.

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Yes. Because...

SIEGEL: But in the Bahraini case, Shia majority versus Sunni minority.

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: I understand. But those who are triggering the problems over there are not the majority of the Shiites in Iran. They are the majority armed with common sense and with not having problems. But there are small minority that are being backed by Iran, those who are creating the trouble over there. So that's why I will never compare Bahrain to what's happening in the other Arab countries.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you now about the role of women. You're famous for, in your own private activities in Saudi Arabia, for hiring women who are not completely covered. You have people dressed very stylishly. Women on your own property, I gather, drive, which they couldn't do elsewhere.

When must private virtue in these regards and when do your private values, when do you have to take them into the public arena and campaign for them in your country and saying it's not just in your own property but in Saudi Arabia at large women should be able to drive?

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: A very good question. You know, in my company, we have 60 percent of all employees are ladies. And yes, we give them the platform to go and advertise and publish and announce that they are part of the system of society. And just by doing that, that in itself is jumping board, and that's the platform for other ladies to be incorporated into society and being accepted in the community more as equal partners.

SIEGEL: But when should that position move from providing an attractive model to those who choose to follow it to saying it's not just a matter of a better opportunity for some women, it's a right of women to do these things?

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Oh, I said that publicly. I said that in my op-ed. I say it in Saudi Arabia, and it's beginning to happen. Look, Saudi Arabia is, you know, a slow moving society, and you can't impose on society what some of them may not want. But at least for those who would like to incorporate the ladies into society, now the chance is being given.

SIEGEL: And when you told me something could happened in months in Saudi Arabia.

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: No, what I said, I expect and I hope that things will change Saudi Arabia in the coming months. What...

SIEGEL: What could happen in the coming months in Saudi Arabia? What do you think?

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Well, I mean, clearly the social contract between the king and the ruling family in Saudi Arabia was established, and the decision of the King was as taken lately by establishing, for example, minimum wage, by establishing (unintelligible) benefits, by building a huge number of houses for the middle class in Saudi Arabia. Social contract, really, is being fulfilled.

Right now, I think just to fulfill some of the political aspirations of some of the political - of Saudis, like having some political participation in the system by having some elections, for example. That's one idea.

SIEGEL: And to a skeptical American who's hearing it - before you go - who hears. Wait a minute, it's a monarchy. It's an old-fashioned hereditary system of picking rulers. Clearly, eventually, it's going to go. What do you say?

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Oh, I say this is not the case because the relation between the king of Saudi Arabia and the subject is excellent. And I give you today what Obama said in his speech. He said we're not going to have U.S. democracy in that region, and he's right. You cannot have Western-style democracy in our region.

And I'll quote Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, your other ally in Singapore, who has established modern Singapore. He said, we have our own democracy. We're not going to have U.S.-based democracy or Western democracy. And Obama said that in his speech, so we respect that. So we're going to have some openness in the system. And we'll have some more democracy but not necessarily American-type democracy.

SIEGEL: But something we can call at some point, you think, in the near future, a Saudi democracy.

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: Well, I say - I mean a democracy that fulfills the aspirations of the Saudi people. That's what we need over there.

SIEGEL: Well, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prince ALWALEED BIN TALAL: A pleasure to be with you. Thank you

(Soundbite of music)

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