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“Climate change and the unjustified consumption of energy are two of the most serious issues we face today at the macro-level.”
These words were spoken by Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed in December 2015 at a business forum in a five-star hotel in Riyadh, the bustling capital of Saudi Arabia. At the time, his call for restraint in consideration of Earth’s climate might have seemed surprising in a room full of businessmen who built their wealth on oil.
While Saudi Arabia produces the most oil of any country in the world, it is also the world's sixth-largest consumer — with a population of barely 31 million. The petroleum sector accounted for 90 per cent of fiscal revenues and 80 per cent of export earnings in 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund. Crude is so cheap in the desert country that SUVs and Cadillacs crowd its highways. The flow of oil revenue is smooth and constant, free from the burden of income tax.
Yet slowly, despite this abundance, the country's elite are starting to wake up to the reality that this high-flying lifestyle of fossil fuel consumption may not be sustainable. Much has changed in Saudi Arabia since bin Alwaleed spoke in 2015, and the Middle Eastern country has strengthened its commitments to mitigating climate change.
Bin Alwaleed is the son of the billionaire investor and philanthropist Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud, also known as Time magazine's “Arabian Warren Buffett.” As the scion of one of the world’s wealthiest people, he grew up surrounded by opulence and glamour in his father’s colossal $136-million, 460,000 square foot palace in Riyadh.
Photos of the prince taken in the late nineties show a young man with a head full of thick black hair, dressed in stylish clothes and cruising with his family on an impressive yacht. In other dated images, he stands proudly before a collection he then had of roughly 200 luxury cars.
But in 2016, that same man lives below Saudi Arabia's royalty radar, dressed in sneakers and a brand-less hoodie. The shock of black hair is gone, replaced by a grey beanie cap. He’s still addressed as “Your Royal Highness” by staff at the Four Seasons in downtown San Francisco; his family owns nearly 50 per cent of the international hotel brand (the other half is owned by Bill Gates). But unlike other members of his country's extensive royal family, bin Alwaleed blends in easily with the hipsters and techies on the city's crowded streets.
At 38, he's part of the first generation that grew up recognizing climate change as a major threat. With the endless flood of news flagging the dangers of widespread drought, air pollution and animal extinction, the young billionaire has been forced to question the best use of his time and resources. Today — often flying in the face of status quo — he uses his wealth and influence to build a greener future for the Middle East.
A green awakening
Bin Alwaleed isn't the first Saudi billionaire from the region to be recognized for eco-awareness.
Last year, The Atlantic featured another Saudi prince who defied stereotypes by investing in solar energy. What's striking about bin Alwaleed however, chairman of the lucrative KBW Investments, is the depth and intensity of his interest in sustainability, animal rights and the environment. It's not a phase, but a deeply-rooted conviction developed over many years of reflection on decisions he made in his youth.
In the late nineties, for example, (he doesn’t remember the exact year), bin Alwaleed went on a trophy hunt in South Africa. It's a controversial hobby often limited to the wealthy, as luxury expeditions for exotic game can cost upwards of $50,000. He's still visibly appalled as he speaks about it, and calls the trip "cowardly."
That expedition — and the lives he took on it — is something he's never really gotten over, he says, and an experience that motivated him to start campaigning for animal rights through organizations like Mercy For Animals. On social media, he re-tweets accounts like @VeganTruther and @PETA, asking if eating beef and owning crocodile-skin purses are worth the suffering caused to animals. A loud and proud vegan for the past five years, he hasn't let a single animal product touch his plate, and has recently invested in bringing both plant-based restaurants and culinary classes to the Middle East.
Bin Alwaleed has changed his life for the better in other ways too: once a luxury car aficionado, he's whittled his expansive collection to a single vehicle, the eco-friendly Tesla Model X P90D. He no longer lives in a massive palace and buys carbon offsets for all his flights to reduce the environmental footprint of his business. Over the last two years, he's sold all his stakes in the oil and gas industry and shifted towards lighter, more sustainable operations, including high tech, management, and construction.
“I was always confused,” he says. “Should I be me, or should I be who people expect me to be? I tried to be who people expect me to be… and I just had to say, 'Screw this, I can’t do this anymore.'”
After years of consuming disturbing climate change data, he decided environmental sustainability would be a focus in his life. Among his favourite climate documentaries are Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo DiCaprio's Before the Flood.
"You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or scientist to understand that climate change is real," he says. "I’ve seen the data out there and it is worrying, honestly."
A self-proclaimed optimist, however, he knows the planet will go on. It's humans who will pay the greatest price for climate change, he says:
"Sure, we’re hurting the environment, but at the end of the day, we’re only hurting ourselves. The environment will get hurt to a certain point and then it’s going to backlash on us. Then we're going to be gone and the world is going to go back to being the beautiful, lush place that we were supposed inhabit."
Sustainability sprouting in Saudi Arabia
Bin Alwaleed looks less and less like an outlier these days, even among Saudi billionaires. Last July, his father pledged to spend his $32-billion fortune on healthcare, education, and alleviating poverty, matching commitments from the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to give more than half their wealth to charitable causes.
Last month, he also announced a $50 million investment Breakthrough Energy Ventures as part of an initiative to invest more than $1 billion in clean energy technology. His father has also recently become vegan, bin Alwaleed adds proudly — a dietary change he likes to think he may have influenced, even a just little bit.
"We have a great relationship," says the prince, "and that vegan thing just took it to a whole new level."
Bin Alwaleed says many other leaders in his country are taking leadership on clean energy, including Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who called for deploying renewable energy as part of the country's vision document for the future. Although criticized for its lack of hard targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions during the 2015 Paris climate conference, Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 document, unveiled last April, does point away from historic dependence on oil and gas to investing in renewable energy.
"Diversifying our economy is vital for its sustainability," the document reads. "Although oil and gas are essential pillars of our economy, we have begun expanding our investments into additional sectors."
The country aims to boost its share of non-oil exports in non-oil GDP from 16 per cent to 50 per cent in the near future, and generate 9.5 gigawatts of renewable energy as a first step to bolstering the clean energy sector. The move was dubbed in a 2016 Financial Post article as the country's "biggest economic shakeup" since its foundation in 1932, and a "radical shift for a country built on petrodollars."
When the lights go on in Jordan
Bin Alwaleed says the status quo never really suited him. In 2008, with his father's blessing, he moved on from his family's multi-billion dollar investment conglomerate, Kingdom Holding Company, and founded KBW Investments, which focuses on tech start-ups and established companies in the construction sector. He and his father remain very close, he adds, both as friends and confidants.
Nine years later, one of his proudest accomplishments is the gradual installation of LED lights and solar panels in neighbouring Jordan, an investment that is expected to cut local government power bills by up to 60 per cent. The first phase includes installation of 100,000 LED units across Amman and the Jordanian countryside as part of a larger agreement to invest $400 million in the country's transportation and infrastructure.
"I went over there, proposed this idea to King Abdullah and he really liked it," says bin Alwaleed. "He arranged for some meetings with the minister of energy and the minister of municipalities, and that’s how it really became what it is now. We’re changing the entire country’s lighting infrastructure to LEDs."
Jordan, sandwiched between Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, has one of the world's highest dependencies on foreign energy sources, with 96 per cent from imported oil and gas. It draws almost all of its electricity from the Arab Gas Pipeline, which was targeted over a dozen times by terror attacks between 2011 and 2014. The instability has forced the country to switch its power to diesel and heavy fuel oil, which has been environmentally unsound and costly for the country.
Last summer, Jordan started installing solar-powered lights along bus transit routes in the capital city of Amman, home to almost half of the country's 9.5 million people. Switching to LED on a large scale makes Amman the first capital in the world to switch to this technology, and as chairman of the Saudi Green Building Forum, bin Alwaleed hopes to roll out similar projects throughout the Middle East.
It's been an "uphill battle" however, trying to convince some municipalities to change, he says, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where he has tried to get an LED project off the ground for five years.
“It was really hard to convince the municipalities that this is a good initiative and this is a good way to go forward with it," he explains. "They didn’t really believe in it, and they weren’t really the types that were leading the way for change. Now, it’s different... (Jordan) was proof of concept if you will, and our next market is definitely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.A.E. and Bahrain."
Even though traditional construction and manufacturing portfolios, like his investment in Italian crane-building company Raimondi, remain the core of his investment company, bin Alwaleed says the LED project is close to his heart.
Plant-based diets for climate
The prince's interest in mitigating climate change trickles into this personal life. The greenhouse gas emissions produced from agriculture are second only to electricity and heat production, he explains, and the beef industry's methane emissions can trap 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide within five years. It also consumes 11 times more water than either pork or chicken.
But going vegetarian can slash food-related greenhouse gases by 63 per cent, according to a recent study on plant-based diets by the University of Oxford. Going vegan — which cancels out all meat and animal products — can reduce it by 70 per cent.
“It’s all tied together," says bin Alwaleed. "Animal welfare, factory farming, the environment — usually they’re solvable if we look at things in an economic way, a humane way and a practical way rather than a greedy way."
As a younger man, the prince ate meat, wore leather, slept under covers stuffed with goose down and bought food from stores and restaurants that supported factory farming. It wasn't until 2009 that he decided to make a permanent change, after a diagnosis of high cholesterol and prescription for pills that gave him headaches. His health encouraged him to switch to a healthier diet, he says, not only for his personal salvation, but to tackle concerns around food insecurity, global emissions, and animal cruelty, all in one go.
Cutting meat from his diet was hard at first, he says, but got easier little by little. Asked about his favourite plant-based dishes, he whips out his phone and geeks out over Beyond Meat, an American startup that makes incredibly convincing vegan substitutes for classic chicken and beef dishes.
“It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen,” he says, showing off a vegan 'hamburger' photo from his most recent visit to the company's headquarters in Los Angeles. “I can help them expand their product. The purchasing power back home (in Saudi) is huge, so it will really help the company.”
In the U.S., only seven per cent of respondents to a 2013 survey by Public Policy Polling identified themselves as 'vegan,' and while there are no official numbers in Saudi Arabia, it would appear that vegans are few and far between. The nation was the world’s largest importer of broiler meat in 2013, and is the biggest importer of Australian lamb.
Bin Alwaleed thinks the meat industry is inefficient not only because of its massive carbon impact, but because plants that could be used to feed starving people end up feeding livestock instead, which only end up being slaughtered. He says the process makes "zero sense," but he isn't keen on sowing division by judging those who choose a different lifestyle.
He knows you catch more flies with honey, which is part of the reason he prefers the term 'plant-based' to vegan.
"If I say the 'v-word,' people automatically put their guard up," says bin Alwaleed. "But if you talk plant-based, they’re comfortable and it’s easy to get along with them. I’m trying to push the plant-based movement."
The fragile nature of life
Having grown up among the rich and powerful and taken his own business ventures to soaring international heights, bin Alwaleed looks like someone who has the whole world at his fingertips. But his priorities and philosophy seem to be underscored by acute awareness of the fragility of life and its ephemeral nature, which he discovered during a brush with death in his early teens.
At the age of 14, the prince was jet skiing in France on summer vacation and did a back flip — like he had done hundreds of times before — off the back of vessel and into the water. But something was different this time, perhaps the way he throttled out or the speed at which he hit the waves.
Bin Alwaleed's skull was instantly crushed. The bone put enough pressure on his brain to paralyze the entire right half of his body, and he was flown by helicopter to the only neurosurgeon in Marseilles for an emergency operation. The surgery was successful, and one week later, he regained the use of his right arm. His right leg came back within a year.
Yet it was not learning to walk again — or the experience of being paralyzed itself — that changed his life forever; it was seeing his father, a stern and structured business magnate, cry in the hospital room.
“Here’s this guy who you think is superman, nothing can weaken him, he’s the strongest person in the world, in a corner weeping," he says. "I get goose bumps right now just thinking about it. That was a pivotal point in my life, seeing how human he is and how showing emotion is not a bad thing at all.”
The accident gave bin Alwaleed new appreciation for life, and pushed him to take risks (calculated, he stresses) both personally and professionally.
“That (accident) really helped create who I am right now in terms of the emotional being that I am,” he admits. “I’m never going to sit there with a poker face and negotiate like the best businessman in the world. I’m always going to show emotion and if it gives me the short end of the stick, that’s fine.”
A bright outlook in 2017
As he continues to build his business empire, which fuels his philanthropic and venture capital investments, it's clear bin Alwaleed is most concerned about the legacy he's leaving behind than the wealth he's undeniably amassing. The father of two lists his daughters as his inspiration, first and foremost.
"If I leave, knowing that they will say 'Daddy did everything he can for us and for the world,' then I’ll be a happy guy," he says. "I need to leave something positive for them, and only having a negative outlook on the world will rub off on them."
There's a solution for everything, he says, from Saudi Arabia's obesity crisis, to climate change, to U.S. President Donald Trump. He refuses to share in the pessimism of those who believe 2017 will be "the worst year ever," for everything from environmentalism, to gaming, security, and real estate profit.
"At the end of the day, it’s less about me feeling like, ‘What the hell, why should I give a shit, the world is ending.' There’s always hope, and as cliché as that sounds, it’s the truth," he insists. "We can reverse what’s happening in the world."
To learn more about Prince Khaled and his work on climate change, sustainability, and clean energy, read National Observer's exclusive interview, published Mon. Feb. 13, 2017.