For sign of the way things are moving in the Arab world, feature the news this week from Saudi Arabia that 1,251,328 Saudi investors bid for shares in the initial public offering of Kingdom Holding Co., the investment company led by Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud, the so-called Saudi Warren Buffett. It's a tremendous response, given that the entire population of Saudi Arabia is a mere 27.6 million, according to the CIA World Factbook. And it's newsworthy because, as Saeed al-Sheikh, chief economist for National Commercial Bank in Jeddah, told Bloomberg News, "Throughout the IPO there was doubt on whether it would be oversubscribed after some sheikhs said it was un-Islamic."
Bloomberg News further reported that Saudi cleric Mohammed al-Ossaimi said in a religious ruling posted on the Web site Islamtoday.net that Muslims should shun the IPO because companies in which Kingdom has holdings are involved in "usury," fail to comply with Islam's ban on alcohol, and practice "prohibited media activities."
New Yorkers are familiar with Prince Alwaleed because Mayor Giuliani returned his $10 million donation after September 11, 2001, because the prince issued a statement blaming the attacks on America's pro-Israel foreign policy, which he said America should reconsider. Less persnickety was Harvard University, which accepted $20 million from the prince to fund Islamic studies.
In an interview in February with Forbes's David Andelman, the prince took aim at the Saudi prohibition on women driving. "There are more than 200 nations in the world," he said. "And the only one where women can't drive is here?" Forbes said that while women make up just 7% of the Saudi workforce, "they are at least half the staff of Kingdom Holdings."
Among the prince's investments are several companies with large presences here in New York City, including News Corp., Citigroup, and Time Warner. The holding company claims on its Web site that it is "the largest foreign investor in the US." Its other investments include stakes in the Four Seasons Hotels and Euro Disney.
Capitalism doesn't always translate into freedom or democracy, but it often does. Prince Alwaleed's post-September 11 comments were reprehensible, and it remains to be seen how Harvard will spend his money. We're not under any illusions about the prince's intentions. The New York Times is reporting this morning that Bush administration officials "are voicing increasing anger at what they say has been Saudi Arabia's counterproductive role in the Iraq war."
Let's hope the willingness of so many Saudis to violate the strictures of the sheikhs and invest in the companies that produce Fox News Channel and "Sex and the City" and publish the pro-Israel editorials of the New York Post says something positive about the popular desire for modernization in the Arabian Peninsula. Better that they put their money in the stock market than send it to Al Qaeda.