In the days before globalization, when the US Air Force operated the only television station in his magic kingdom and the adventures of Davy Crockett were standard fare, the Saudi king loved to shower visitors with gifts. While heads of tribes received sacks of gold, Westerners often took home wrist watches stamped with the royal profile. These were known colloquially as “:Mickey Sa‘uds.” Today, his nephew Walid bin Talal, a grandson of &lsquo:Abd al-‘Aziz, and the son of the man who once looked to spark a revolution inside Saudi Arabia, has joined with Mickey Mouse and friends as a junior partner in American capital’s conquest of global consumers’ desires.
The path from the rent seeking (“contracting”) of the oil bonanza days to Walid’s landing at Beirut’s popular Planet Hollywood is one journalists have started to explore. Bin Talal first seemed content to follow his father’s footsteps with $1-2 billion in scattered real estate holdings and related investments around the kingdom, Cairo and points beyond. He bid for membership in the club of global marketeers at the time of the Gulf war (time to diversify?) in 1991 with the purchase of an 18 percent share in the ailing giant Citicorp, making him the bank’s single largest shareholder. Banks, however, are not much fun compared to Hollywood.
Walid’s really big adventure begins in 1994 when his Kingdom Holdings injected $500 million worth of fresh francs (a 25 percent share) into the US-French Euro Disney venture north of Paris. He has since become a one-man global pleasure mogul, buying parts of Saks Fifth Avenue, London’s Canary Wharf, the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, Four Seasons hotels all over the world and all of the George V in Paris. He hangs with home boys like Michael Eisner, head of Disney, and went head to head with Kirk Kerkorian in a losing bid to take over MGM Studios. In 1996, he created another holding company, Kingdom Entertainment, with the pop star Michael Jackson as the vehicle for a brave new world of “films, concerts, theme parks, hotels, restaurants, TV programs and comic books” that, his publicists insist, will promote true “family values.”
One family — namely the Al Sa‘ud — apparently see little of their values reflected in this unholy alliance with the King of Pop, who, readers of past columns will recall, less cosmopolitan quarters believe to be part of a Zionist conspiracy against Arab youth. Intelligence Newsletter (May 29, 1997) reports that Crown Prince ‘Abdallah summoned his brother Talal to try to have the errant son call off the deal. Walid’s foes turned up the heat with an attack on the ART satellite network, another venture of which he owns a big chunk, for televising the “Miss Arab of Israel” contest live from Haifa. He does not appear too worried. Perhaps he thinks another of his business associates, Arnold Schwarzenegger, can take care of things. The star of Terminator is a founder of the Planet Hollywood International restaurant chain, which is backed heavily by Singapore investor Ong Beng Seng. Walid bought 1 percent of the company and has exclusive franchise rights for the Middle East, the Mediterranean and East Europe. Plans call for opening the first batch of Planet Saudiwoods in Brussels, Athens, Cairo, Lisbon, Istanbul and Budapest.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
As the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar’s tastes are a lot more staid than his cousin Walid’s, judging from the two jet loads of guests flown from Paris and New York to attend his daughter’s wedding. Michael Jackson was not part of the party. George Bush was there with his family. So was Lester Crown, one owner of basketball superteam, the Chicago Bulls. Crown’s name is unlikely to impress MERIP stargazers unless they happen to live in Chicago, read Jane’s Defense Weekly or work for the Department of Justice. This billionaire real estate investor and contractor, however, has intrigues reporters and prosecutors alike for decades.
Crown manages the fortune of a family that started out in the construction industry, grew rich through strategic investment in Chicago’s notoriously corrupt political regime, and extended their holdings into global oriented industries (American Ship Building, Maytag, Hilton Hotels, TWA, in addition to skyscrapers from New York to San Francisco, Sun Belt agroventures and Aspen ski lodges). The most important of these holdings is General Dynamics (maker of the M-1 tank for the Army and the F-16 jet for the Air Force). Crown is the defense giant’s single largest shareholder. His alleged role in an old Chicago bribery scandal also made him persona non grata in the Pentagon in the 1980s and almost lost him his security clearance. His rehabilitation depended on a team of all-stars that makes his Chicago Bulls look like amateurs by comparison: Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, David Packard (Hewlett-Packard’s co-founder), and the chief counsels to two ex-presidents Lloyd N. Cutler (Carter) and Leonard Garment (Nixon). Crown is more than just a friend of Bandar’s and royal tank supplier to the House of Sa‘ud. He is one of the regime’s main links to the Labor-oriented currents inside the American Jewish community, and a visitor recently to some of our favorite heads of state in Jordan, Israel, Syria and Egypt.