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The globe's richest Arab - and the man who runs a big slice of the world

Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal speaking to John Irvine Photo: Reuters

We were heading for the 66th floor of the tallest building in Saudi Arabia. Waiting for us was the world’s richest Arab.

Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal owns Riyadh’s splendid Kingdom Centre.

But it is not enough for him and he is building another tower in the other big Saudi city, Jeddah. Predictably, it will be the tallest building in the world.

Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal owns Riyadh’s splendid Kingdom Centre

Where exactly the Prince is placed on the league table of the world’s most wealthy is not clear. I have read top five, top ten and merely top twenty.

What we know for sure is that he is the only individual on the planet to have ordered an Airbus A380 double-decker super-jumbo. When delivered it will top trump his Boeing 747, the bog-standard jumbo.

Throughout the Prince’s suite of offices are magazine covers – with him on the front – and photographs of him in the company of every world leader past and present that you can imagine.

Even in the middle of the desert the Prince never had fewer than three televisions in his field of vision, in his office it was many more

He talks to many of them regularly, although he admits breaking off personal contact with Bashar Assad of Syria about a year ago.

Prince Al-Waleed is the biggest foreign investor in the United States. He owns or part-owns companies that are household names the world over.

Recently he refurbished London’s Savoy Hotel, which he got Prince Charles to re-open.

During our numerous conversations over a fascinating afternoon and evening the Prince confided that he was not sure whether he owned the Savoy outright, or just half of it. He was perplexed when I told him I had read both versions.

A look at the wall in the Prince's office with some of his investments from around the world

Fortunately his hotel guy was on hand to clear things up. He had owned all of the Savoy for a brief time, but now had just a 50% stake.

“Who owns the rest, Your Royal Highness?” I asked.

“A bank, I think.” And then prompted by the hotel guy….”Lloyds Banking Group. By the way the only hotel I now own completely is the George V.”

The Prince was a great host. His knowledge and grasp of world affairs was impressive.

“Belfast is still having problems, even after [Senator George] Mitchell made peace.” Indeed.

Following a lengthy and wide ranging interview in his office we were invited to join the Prince at his desert retreat.

We enjoyed a feast and chatted the way men of the world do.

We compared notes on countries we had been to. He was way ahead on a total of 161. I did get him on North Korea though.

“I am planning to go. What did you think of it?”

“Well to be honest Your Highness Pyongyang is pretty weird. Think Orwell’s 1984.”

“Funny, when Schmidt from Google was there he texted me that he really liked it.” Gee thanks Eric.

Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal

After the feast we had coffee by the fire – a massive bonfire.

Set out before the Prince was an angle-poise lamp, a computer terminal, pens, print-outs of the world’s serious broadsheets and news magazines, and a plethora of TV remote controls.

Even in the middle of the desert the Prince never had fewer than three televisions in his field of vision. He watched news and stock prices.

I asked him what ambitions he had left. “We have done nothing yet!” came his reply.

Even in the desert the Prince remains surrounded by screens and with a large pile of the world's press

Thinking out loud he said that only now were the wounds from 9/11 beginning to heal. Greater East-West understanding was essential for the future of mankind.

The Prince told me he would read until around 5am. He would then pray and go to bed an hour later, sleeping until about 10.30am.

As we said our thanks and farewells in the wee small hours we took pictures of him absorbing news and reacting to it by phone and e-mail.

Prince Al-Waleed might not run the world, but he does run a big slice of it.

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