Alwaleed’s Twitter stake: Cool plus points or reputational gamble?
Prince Alwaleed's $300 million stake in the largely unregulated platform Twitter may be a financial windfall but it could also lead to losing favour among conservatives, says Una Galani.
December 19, 2011 5:18 by Reuters
Prince Alwaleed might be pushing the limits with Twitter. Even though the billionaire entrepreneur Saudi-royal is known for both his reformist views and bold media investments, his latest coup, a $300 million strategic stake in the social networking site, is decisively edgy.
If Twitter is worth around $8 billion, as suggested by some rounds of the group’s fundraising, then Alwaleed will add shares amounting to 4 percent of the business to his existing stable of publicly-listed investments, which includes stakes in Apple , News Corp, US bank Citi, and global commodities trader Glencore.
The move ratchets up Alwaleed’s cool factor as he sets about to launch a 24-hour Arab TV news channel next year in partnership with Bloomberg. Based somewhere in the Middle East, it is expected to rival the likes of Qatar’s Al Jazeera and promises to provide “an independent spirit and an independent view”.
While Alwaleed isn’t a known user of the networking tool, his celebrity-status wife has over 80,000 followers and applauded the move with a “tweet”. Yet within Saudi Arabia Alwaleed is already a divisive figure, either applauded or deemed immoral for his vocal support of women’s right to drive or for the content of his Arab entertainment television network Rotana. Clear financial support for such unregulated speech may lose Alwaleed more favour amongst more conservative elements in the kingdom, where he also has significant investments.
The problem is that Twitter is freely available in Saudi, where Internet penetration is still below 50 percent. It was used earlier in the year to try to organise mass protests. While those efforts failed, they posed enough of a worry to prompt an unprecedented $130 billion handout from ailing but reformist-minded King Abdullah. Other autocratic states like China allow Twitter-equivalents but only with censorship, and greater disclosure of users’ personal details.
In Saudi Arabia the Internet is subject to more relaxed controls than other media. And Alwaleed may be ready to take the risk, considering that an eventual Twitter listing could earn him a tidy sum. But in a country where the printed press remains heavily self-censored and foreign news publications still arrive with pages torn out, the prince’s latest punt may be a reputational gamble.
— Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and his Kingdom Holding Company announced on Dec.19 the purchase of a strategic stake in micro-blogging site Twitter for $300 million.
— Kingdom said that the investment was “the result of several months of negotiations”.
— “Our investment in Twitter reaffirms our ability in identifying suitable opportunities to invest in promising, high-growth businesses with a global impact,” Alwaleed said in the statement.
— Alwaleed, a nephew of the Saudi king and who has several high profile investments in western companies including Citigroup, and News Corp, recently announced plans to launch a Middle-East based 24-hour Arabic language business-focused international news channel with Bloomberg called Alarab.
— Kingdom Holding had assets valued at 92.4 billion Saudi riyal as of December 2006, according to the company’s website.
(The author, Una Galani, is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own. Editing by Pierre Briançon and David Evans)