January 23rd, 2012
04:12 PM GMT
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (CNN) – For the past three years I have taken part in what is known within a group of 50 business and policy makers here in Riyadh as the “sand and snow expedition.” It starts from the capital of Saudi Arabia at the Global Competitiveness Forum and finishes at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
From an editorial standpoint you can, in one week, capture the views of the world’s largest oil producer and the latest on the Arab Spring before moving on to an arena with some 2,600 chief executives and political leaders trying to share the stage perched high among the Swiss Alps.
The visit in Riyadh included an exclusive interview with the wealthiest businessman in the Middle East, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (pictured), chairman of Kingdom Holdings. From the 67th floor of the tower that bears the name of his group, Prince Alwaleed delved into some of the most sensitive issues in the region, from the Arab Spring to sanctions on Iran.
In the halls of the GCF, executives expressed deep concerns about potential conflict with Iran and the impact such a move would have. As he does with some of his investments, Prince Alwaleed took a contrarian view.
“I don’t believe war is inevitable,” he said. “I don’t believe the Strait of Hormuz will ever be closed because Iran knows this is suicide.”
A week ago Saudi Arabia, through oil minister Ali Al Naimi, offered to supply 2.5 million barrels per day in the event that Iranian crude was forced off the market. Alwaleed reaffirmed that pronouncement was indeed a correct one.
“It is not only wise, but a very political and strategic phrase from our oil minister who reflects the views of King Abdullah. For Saudi Arabia to go public and say we will flush as much oil as needed to compensate for any loss of Iranian oil, that is a big message to Iran, don’t keep threatening the world economies.”
The interview followed the release of 4th quarter earnings, which dropped 20 percent due to unrest in some of the key markets: Kingdom Holdings has hotels under the Four Seasons, Fairmont, Raffles and Movenpick brands. While not pleased with the latest results, Prince Alwaleed did say 2012 may be a turning point in the Arab Spring: “I can confirm we have seen the bottom in 2011 and we are seeing indications that as 2012 commences we are seeing an improvement in tourism industry in our region.”
He was suggesting that violence – aside from Syria - may have reached its peak, but not so optimistic about how long it will take to reach political stability. “We are getting into unchartered territory. We cannot really judge where they are heading. We are seeing the aftermath of the revolutions.”
And the prince drew historical comparisons to revolutions in France, Russia and Iran: “Really we cannot judge it is too early. Some revolutions take 20-30 years. We hope that is not the case in our region.”
From outside the region looking in, many foreign investors have been alarmed at the rapid inroads made by Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco.
“No doubt that the Islamic path or factor is playing a role right now,” said the prince. “I believe they don’t have any choice but to be business friendly. They would like to continue to rule their countries.”
Record youth unemployment - one of the key drivers of the Arab Spring - needs to be addressed quickly suggested the chairman of Kingdom Holdings and member of the Saudi royal family as a nephew of King Abdullah.
We then addressed the issue on many minds here - the eventual succession of the king and whether reforms he has put in place will far outlive him. “I believe there is no choice for Saudi Arabia and whoever succeeds King Abdullah, God forbid after he lives long, that they have to go down the reform path.”
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