Well this this is a lovely story. Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia is in a strop. Forbes have done one of their rich list features and, the Prince claims, have underestimated his wealth. By nearly ten billion dollars, which is a mere drop in the ocean to the likes of you and me, but for the Prince is apparently an amount worth getting upset about.
Now, let’s put aside for a moment the question of who’s right and who’s wrong when it comes to calculating the height of this particular mountain of money, and try to work out why, exactly, he’s upset. Maybe it’s just me – and everyone I know, and probably everyone I’ve ever met – but I would have thought it far more embarrassing to have this rather public conversation about one’s wealth than suffer the ignoble fate of some people who have never heard of me up to now think I’m a relative pauper sitting on a measly 20 billion dollars. This isn’t unique to the Prince – I seem to recall American software billionaires publicly sparring for who had the most money, and the BBC article cites a Sunday Times Rich List (urghhhh) journalist on the same subject – apparently the “nouveau” millionaire would be particularly sensitive to his or her status. But the Prince does seem to fit into a league of his own.
For the software billionaires and the nouveau millionaires (unless they’re lottery winners), there is a hint of something almost acceptable. The chances are they’ve amassed a fortune through their own cleverness or hard work, and this is the clearest way they can see to show off about their self-made success. Even with this proviso, they seem to be lacking that basic bit of your brain that tells you “shut up, everyone’s looking at you” when your drunken dance on the table has gone that little bit too far. There are people starving out there. And you’re trying to make sure everyone knows precisely how many millions you’ve got locked up in your bank account. Not so much flaunting it as waving it about and shouting.
But the Prince is something special. Because the Prince is neither self-made nor nouveau. He was born into money, and he’s not ashamed of it. He may have invested here or there and increased his pot, but you know, money has its own gravitational pull and I dare say a good number of us could turn ten billion into twenty (or, as the Prince would have us believe, 29.6). By an accident of birth he is a man of privilege in an area of the world where massive poverty sits side by side with eye-bruising amounts of money to an extent unseen anywhere since ancient Rome. And instead of muttering into his own chest something along the lines of “yes, well, erm, I’m sure there’s plenty of money but you know, it’s all tied up in the estate, and it’s not quite how it looks”, and pretending to see someone he urgently needs to speak to at the other end of the room, he’s shouting about it.
It’s not about courtesy, politeness, a strange British hang-up on the class system. It’s about the fact that being born into vast amounts of money doesn’t make you a bad person and doesn’t mean you have to give it all away, but should bring with it a certain sense of guilt and a requirement for sensitivity. I live in a decadent Western democracy with pretty much all I want and need at my fingertips, so I can just shake my head in disgust, but there are people who will hear the Prince boasting of his riches whilst looking down at an empty plate, stomach rumbling, storm in the distance, nothing to eat and nowhere to go. And this man, who donated seventeen million dollars to the victims of the 2004 tsunami, somehow doesn’t have the ability to see how they might find this in any way unpleasant.
What it comes down to, ultimately, is a failure of the imagination. A complete inability to step outside one’s own golden palace and try to feel, just for an instant, what it might be like not to live in a golden palace. And it’s a shame, because if there’s one thing the wealthy and powerful need, it’s empathy and an ability, somehow, to identify with those who aren’t wealthy and powerful. And without imagination, the only person they’re going to be capable of empathising with is the one a few spots down the Rich List.