Meet the vegan Saudi prince who's asking his Twitter followers if owning crocodile-skin purses is worth the suffering caused to animals
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.
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.
campaigning for animal rights
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. "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."
Prince Khaled has a very refreshing point of view also regarding vegan food and how to explain it outside the vegan community.
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.
"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."
Prince Khaled we salute you for your work, especially regarding animal rights and ethical fashion. Your point of view of bringing the environmental change through technology couldn't be more right. Especially in the leather and fur substitutes industry. Nowadays we have so many great options of vegan leather and faux fur that high fashion should really take it to the next step and embrace these amazing materials for the good of all of us.
Meanwhile we'll continue creating our whimsical ethical handbags from the best vegan materials available and hope prince Khaled will invest in animal friendly high fashion too.
Editor's Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. To learn more about Prince Khaled's work on climate, sustainability, and clean energy, read National Observer's feature, Meet the vegan Saudi prince who's turning the lights on in Jordan.