Prince al-Waleed bin Talal 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 (U.S.) strategic stake in the social networking site, is decisively edgy.
If Twitter is worth around $8-billion, as suggested by some rounds of the company’s fundraising, then Prince al-Waleed will add shares amounting to 4 per cent of the business to his existing stable of publicly listed investments, which includes stakes in Apple, News Corp., U.S. bank Citi, and global commodities trader Glencore.
The move ratchets up Prince al-Waleed’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 Prince al-Waleed isn’t a known user of the networking tool, his celebrity-status wife has more than 80,000 followers and applauded the move with a “tweet.” Yet within Saudi Arabia Prince al-Waleed 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 the prince 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 Arabia, where Internet penetration is still below 50 per cent. It was used earlier in the year to try to organize 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 such as 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 Prince al-Waleed 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.