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Saudi's Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed on his Dubai Vegan Venture and the Future of Food in the Middle East

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In this exclusive interview, Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud talks about his latest Dubai venture, the rise in popularity of plant-based protein and the food industry of the future.

When Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud first decided to go vegan, a domino effect was put in motion. It was 2009 and the plant-based diet was scarcely talked about, even in big cities like London and New York, never mind in the Saudi royal’s home city of Riyadh. But, he was overweight, had sky-high cholesterol and knew he needed to do something drastic to achieve a healthy lifestyle.

Fast forward 10 years and Prince Khaled is now one of the biggest and best-known proponents of veganism, not just in the Middle East, but across the planet. Not only has the successful venture capitalist been among the first to financially back some of the world’s now most prosperous vegan companies, such as Beyond Meat and Just, he has also managed the unthinkable for many vegans: he convinced his mum and dad to switch to a completely plant-based diet.

Keeping it in the family

“I know, it’s the hardest thing to do, especially with family,” he says with a laugh. We’re talking over the phone as he’s being chauffeured from the airport to his hotel in New York City, where he’s spending the next few days focusing on promoting the Saudi Sports For All Federation, of which the prince, a self-admitted CrossFit enthusiast, was recently announced president. “You see, you have to learn how to play their game. With some parents, you have to plant the seed and just let it go, then let them come up with the idea … like it was theirs all along.”

The way Prince Khaled convinced his father, the businessman and investor Alwaleed bin Talal, was by giving him a copy of Dr Michael Greger’s How Not to Die. That was in August 2017, and while it took about seven or eight months, by the next year his dad had fully embraced a plant-based lifestyle, something he maintains to this day. Prince Khaled’s mother also follows the diet, and his daughters are showing interest, too. “I’m slowly educating them on the importance of a wholefoods, plant-based diet,” he says.

While Prince Khaled turned to veganism for health reasons, his interest has since expanded beyond its nutritional values. “When the discussion moves in the direction of ethics, people automatically gravitate to the cruelty-free reasoning,” he says. “While that is 100 per cent true and I’m behind it, I’d like more people to highlight how much better it is for the environment. If you want to talk about sustainability, a vegan diet is leaps and bounds better than animal agriculture in terms of carbon footprint and the use of resources.”

This is the message he’s been passing on through his work for the past decade, but having these kinds of conversations, particularly with his family, wasn’t easy at first. When he initially went vegan, the reaction was one of shock, not awe. “But that doesn’t change the fact that I know what’s good for me, I know what’s good for the environment,” he says, adding that he quickly became sick of listening to family members joke at dinner about his meal being nothing more than a piece of lettuce and two celery sticks.

“I think, ‘that’s fine, but I wasn’t at the hospital three weeks ago having a triple by-pass!’ There’s a trade-off at the end of the day … It’s a tough thing to start talking to them about, but when you’re plant-based, it comes with a responsibility – you have to educate people.”

A man on a mission

While chatting to him, it’s immediately clear that Prince Khaled is an open and friendly guy. It’s not exactly what you’d expect from a member of any royal family, not to mention such a busy, jet-setting businessman – he spends most of his time between Riyadh and San Francisco – but it’s a trait he often attributes to his parents, who he says instilled in him the belief that it’s important to connect with people, no matter what level of society they sit on.

“I believe that we all need to think about what kind of people we want to be, and what kind of planet we want,” he says. “Do we act as responsibly as we can towards the Earth? Can we also encourage others to act more responsibly? I try my best, in every way possible, to live mindfully.”

He practises what he preaches, too. For instance, through the Sports For All Federation – which falls under the banner of Global Goals, a joint programme by the United Nations and World Health Organisation, he explains – Prince Khaled actively works to develop Saudi Arabia’s recreational sports landscape, encouraging people in the kingdom to exercise more. This year, the federation also established the Saudi female football team The Greens, which specifically promotes environmental causes from the pitch by orchestrating clean-ups after matches and handing out reusable bags, among other things.

Prince Khaled was also named chairman of the Saudi Humane Society earlier this year, and one of the first things he did was put a plan in place to compassionately tackle the problem of stray animals in Saudi cities. He is also the founder and chairman of KBW Investments, co-founder and vice chairman of property developer Arada and founder and chief executive of KBW Ventures. Through the latter, Prince Khaled puts a significant amount of money into businesses that have benevolent missions. Future Oceans, for example, aims to protect all marine life by developing products like Pingers, which stop dolphins from going near fishing nets. Prolacta Bioscience creates specialist formulas made from human milk for the nutritional needs of premature infants in neonatal intensive care units. Zipline is a drone delivery company that carries vaccines, medicine and blood to rural areas.

Investing in the 'double bottom line'

While these companies fall in line with Prince Khaled’s humanitarian outlook, they also have vast money-making potential, which is what ultimately secures them a place in the KBW Ventures portfolio. “While we love what we call the double bottom line – the potential for profit matched with social impact – [we don’t] specifically seek out companies that are mission driven,” Prince Khaled insists. “We want to do our best, and we want to get in early with companies that are providing alternatives that allow people to do their best. This is what drove us to get in with Memphis Meats – they are a fantastic founding team that is going to really change the options in terms of what people eat.”

Memphis Meats is a Californian company developing a way to produce real meat from animal cells without the need to feed, breed and kill sentient creatures. This is called cellular agriculture, or “clean meat”, an industry Prince Khaled believes has a bright future. “We do of course think the potential for returns is through the roof, and that demand will be extremely high for clean meat, especially as people become more and more educated about the pitfalls of the traditional meat industry.

“We do look at things like product-market fit, but we also consider that sometimes a technology is so nascent that it will take years for education levels to catch up with the innovation itself. We’re OK with that, as that’s how some of the household names of technology began.”

He also firmly believes in the financial future of the plant-based protein business. At a recent venture capital event by Bloomberg, he said he believes publicly listed Beyond Meat will do $1 billion (Dh3.6bn) in revenue within the next two years – maybe 10 times that amount by 2029.