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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Disney's Animated Investor

An ostentatious Saudi billionaire prince who helped bail out the company's Paris resort in the mid-'90s is being courted to do so again.

January 26, 2004|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Walt Disney Co. needs a real-life prince.

His name is Alwaleed bin Talal. His grandfather was Saudi Arabia's founding monarch. With huge stakes in companies ranging from Citigroup Inc. to the Four Seasons luxury hotel chain, he is one of the richest men on the planet.

That's why Disney needs him. The company's Paris resort is suffering severe losses. Alwaleed came to the rescue before and is being courted once again.

The relationship between Disney and the prince is one of the most unlikely in the corporate world. Disney is notoriously insular and fiercely protective of its brand and its image as America's premier family entertainment company. The prince is outspoken and ostentatious, and his nationality alone attracts controversy these days.

A month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he found himself at the center of a tabloid dust-up with then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The mayor rejected Alwaleed's $10-million contribution to a victims' fund after the prince urged the U.S. to support the creation of a Palestinian state -- something the Bush administration later would do.

But the coupling of Disney and Alwaleed is not about personalities or nationalities. As Disney Chairman Michael Eisner said recently, in a bit of understatement, Alwaleed "has a pretty sophisticated understanding of capitalism."

In the mid-1990s, the prince chipped in $300 million to help keep Euro Disney afloat. Now, Eisner would like another helping of his largess.

Disneyland Paris and its new sister park, Walt Disney Studios, have been hammered by recession and a dramatic decline in global tourism triggered by Sept. 11. Executives of the resort, which includes seven hotels, have said that it soon could default on a series of loans unless it restructures more than $2 billion in debt. The prince's original investment has lost a third of its value.

Today, Eisner and Alwaleed are scheduled to meet at Disney headquarters in Burbank to discuss the future of Euro Disney, among other things.

"We faced crisis No. 1. Now we have to face crisis No. 2," Alwaleed, 48, said in a recent interview at his ranch near Riyadh. "In my latest telephone call with Mr. Eisner, we agreed on one thing. This time the problems of Euro Disney will have to be resolved once and for all."

Extensive Investments

Last year, Forbes magazine ranked Alwaleed the fifth-richest man in the world, with a net worth of nearly $18 billion.

His Kingdom Holding Co. spans four continents. Over the years, he has acquired major stakes in companies such as Apple Computer Inc., AOL Time Warner Inc., News Corp. and Saks Inc., parent of retailer Saks Fifth Avenue.

On his desk sits a Mickey Mouse figurine facing two model jets. The prince owns three real ones, including a 747. That's on top of his 317-room castle in Riyadh (with bowling alley) and a 288-foot yacht once owned by Donald Trump. He calls the boat "Kingdom."

"God has blessed me with so many things," says Alwaleed, a slightly built man who speaks in rapid-fire sentences.

His office has eight television monitors, two of them tuned to CNN and CNBC. On the wall behind his desk are his "hundred wives" -- plaques bearing the corporate logos of his various investments.

Alwaleed says he sleeps five hours a day, which gives him more time for long walks in the desert or for working out.

"I play 31 sports," he says. "I'm good at all of them."

Alwaleed's parents were considered palace outsiders. His father, Prince Talal bin Abdel Aziz, raised eyebrows in Saudi Arabia's staunchly conservative society when he married outside the ruling family, choosing the daughter of modern Lebanon's first prime minister. At one point, Alwaleed's father disavowed the royal family, moved to Egypt and declared his support for its anti-monarchist government. He returned to Saudi Arabia and made a fortune in construction and real estate.

Like his father, the prince left home too -- for an education in the U.S.

"I don't think I ever saw somebody who worked so hard," said humanities professor Carlos Lopez, who was Alwaleed's academic advisor at Menlo College near Palo Alto, whose undergraduate business program is popular among Saudi royals. "He was at the top of his class."

After earning a master's degree from Syracuse University, Alwaleed started building a kingdom of his own.

With help from his father, the prince began buying and selling Saudi real estate. Before long, he was forming partnerships to land lucrative construction contracts during the oil boom of the 1970s. Alwaleed is said to have received millions in commissions that foreign companies often pay to princes and other influential Saudis when doing business in the tightly controlled monarchy.

His specialty is investing in struggling brand-name companies whose shares can be purchased for a bargain.

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