Alwaleed bin Talal may relish the role of the modern, global business executive who hashes out late-night, multimillion-dollar deals with such luminaries as Chairman Michael D. Eisner of Walt Disney Co. But above all, he's a prince of the royal house of Saud. I see just how much this means the moment we touch down at Riyadh airport in his private beige-and-green Boeing 727. The plane taxis to a corner of the tarmac, where a fleet of shiny black limousines is waiting, alongside dozens of family retainers. When Prince Alwaleed descends from the plane, each one of them comes forward and kisses the prince's right shoulder--a traditional Bedouin sign of respect. Then, the motorcade speeds off into the Arabian night: There is no passport check, no lost luggage, no waiting around for a lift.
1,300 CALORIES A DAY. Back at Alwaleed's palace in northern Riyadh, where other Alsaud princes live in a kind of royal ghetto, I discover a world that only the combination of almost unimaginable wealth and royalty can produce. He seems proud of the sheer scale and quantity of everything, from the high-tech video systems and the gold-plated taps on the sink in his own barber shop to the private apartments of his 16-year-old son, Khaled. Outside the palace is parked the boy's $250,000 Lamborghini Diablo. "I try not spoil them, but I can't deny them things, either," says Alwaleed, speaking of Khaled and his 13-year-old sister, Princess Reem. Both affect an unprincely grunge look outside of the kingdom. Alwaleed and his wife, Princess Dalal, divorced 10 months ago.
Lunch, served each day around 5 p.m.--to accommodate a man who regularly goes to bed at 4 a.m.--is unbelievably lavish. But an abstemious Alwaleed just picks at the dozens of delicacies, including baked pigeons and baby camels. He's on a strict, 1,300-calorie-a-day diet designed by his private doctor. "If there's one thing I hate, it's fat," says the prince, who is trim and athletic and also somewhat vain. He keeps himself fit by whacking tennis balls around with Romeo Rafon, a top-seeded ace from the Philippines who is now employed at the palace in Riyadh.
There's little in the way of protocol at the table set for 20. Several of Alwaleed's Bedouin retainers--some 60 trusted men, many of whom have spent their lives in the employ of Alwaleed or his father--joke with the prince as they tuck into their food. He clearly loves this sort of familiar repartee, even though he can't resist breaking away to do business on the telephone beside his place.
This strange mixture of informality, royal deference, and what Alwaleed calls his "workaholism" is present when he takes the steering wheel of his Mercedes-Benz S600 V12 for a spin around town. I still haven't figured out how he manages to drive the car and carry on two separate telephone conversations all at the same time. "Would you just look at that land? I love it," he says, pointing to a huge lot downtown that cost him more than $200 million when he picked it up some years ago. It's where he plans to put up a Four Seasons Hotel, which he says will be the most luxurious hostelry in the Middle East, together with a shopping center that will include the first-ever overseas branch of Saks Fifth Avenue, the department store of which he is a major shareholder.
Being a prince is clearly a full-time job. When he returns to the palace at 3:15 a.m., after a one-hour jog, 60 or so impoverished Saudis, half of them veiled women, are waiting outside. Retainers herd them into his presence in the courtyard. An aide hands each one a crisp, 1,000-riyal bill--around $300. Drinking a glass of cool water, the prince silently acknowledges yells of "May you live in paradise," as the beggars are led back to the street. A prince's work, it seems, is never done.