Billionaire Saudi prince wows Nepal

By Sudeshna Sarkar, IANS
Monday, November 15, 2010

KATHMANDU - Described as the 19th richest man in the world by Forbes magazine, Saudi billionaire prince Al-Waleed bin Talal has created great excitement and anticipation with his maiden visit to Nepal with the government deciding to decorate him with the country’s biggest honour in a bid to attract investment.

Nepal’s council of ministers Monday agreed to confer the Rastradeep medal on the visiting prince, the highest honour reserved for foreigners, the spokesman of the government said.

Information and Communications Minister Shankar Pokhrel said after the cabinet meeting Monday that the government hoped the honour would create stronger ties between the two countries and pave the way for greater Saudi investment in Nepal.

Al-Waleed, who made his over $19 billion fortune by investing in the banking and hotel industries, is being wooed by Nepal in the hope he will enter Nepal’s hotel, infrastructure and power industries.

A clutch of ministers, including Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala, as well as tourism, industries and energy ministers, will hold consultations with the prince, who will also meet caretaker Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and President Ram Baran Yadav.

The 55-year-old, who arrived in Kathmandu in his private jet Saturday accompanied by his wife, Princess Amira, and an entourage of aides and bodyguards, grabbed the country’s fascination with media tales of how he went out for a nearly two-hour stroll on the bumpy roads of Nepal Sunday night, walking into humdrum shops and even pausing to buy apples from a fruit vendor peddling his ware from his bicycle.

Used to its former royal family disdaining to walk on public roads and maintaining an icy distance from commoners, Nepal’s media followed the Saudi prince’s unhurried walk to the famed Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath in Kathmandu, his foray into a downmarket garments shop without showing any disdain, and even showing interest in hawkers on the street selling the humble potato.

“We have never seen people of his stature walking on the roads,” an amazed security escort told the Nagarik daily.

The prince bought a kilo of apples from a roadside vendor and handed over his purchase to his aides, the daily said. He also expressed surprise when he walked inside a shop and found it dark.

It was probably his first experience of power outages, a normal phenomenon in Nepal since 2007 with the winter months seeing the republic suffer up to 20 hours of darkness daily.

Till recently, Saudi Arabia had been the biggest destination for Nepali blue collar workers before being overtaken by Malaysia.

Currently, about 500,000 Nepali workers are employed in the Islamic kingdom, according to official estimates.

However, Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic mission in Kathmandu and the government is hoping the Saudi prince’s visit will help establish such a mission.

Prince Al-Waleed also visited Bhutan from Nepal and is scheduled to return to his country Tuesday.

Ironically, the excitement over his visit made the media virtually ignore the foreign trip of its deposed king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, who leaves for India Monday for an almost three-week stay in the neighbouring country.

Besides attending a wedding in the former royal family of Jodhpur, the last king of Nepal is also expected to visit Shimla.

He is also rumoured to be meeting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and leader of the ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi.

Filed under: Economy

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