Sheikh Mohammed al Rahbani is one of the world’s wealthiest men but here’s why you won’t find him on any Forbes rich list

You probably haven’t heard of the Saudi billionaire Sheikh Mohammed al Rahbani – and that suits him just fine. The 49-year-old’s business interests are vast, spanning an air-conditioning venture in his native country, a steel plant in Abu Dhabi and vast swathes of undeveloped land across the Gulf. But you will not see the sheikh courting Forbes – or, indeed, taking the magazine to task – over its annual ranking of billionaires.

Nor will you see the Al Rahbani name splashed across billboards in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or the UAE, the three key countries where the family plans to develop land bequeathed by the sheikh’s late father. Despite coming face-to-face with a journalist for a rare interview, Al Rahbani remains the resolutely quiet billionaire, who generally shuns the limelight.

He has homes in the Swiss town of Gstaad – where he spent time as a child – and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. But he counts his six-storey London townhouse as his primary home. “You live the life of being anonymous here,” he said of London. “Nobody looks at you, I like that a lot.” Sitting in his main residence – an immaculate townhouse a stone’s throw from the famous Harrods department store – he talks through his main business interests. His tone is as modest as one could expect, given he is sitting opposite a photograph of himself next to a beaming President Barack Obama.

“We are a very low-key family. We like to keep it as such,” says Al Rahbani. “We do what we have to do. But we are not bragging.”

Profiles of Saudi billionaires invariably invoke comparisons with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who made his name in business at a young age after investing millions in Citicorp, now Citi. Prince Alwaleed had a public spat with Forbes after the magazine estimated his wealth at a mere $20 billion – some $9.6 billion less than the prince claimed. The publisher’s allegation that Alwaleed had knowingly caused the share price of his Kingdom Holding Company to rise and therefore inflate his own net worth led the prince to sue Forbes for defamation.

That is not something Al Rahbani will be doing. For while he acknowledges he is very much in the billionaires’ club, he is averse to the idea of being publicly listed among some 1,826 others on Forbes’ rich list, where he should be – but isn’t – listed. “You don’t have to go and say: ‘Oh here I am, look what I have,’” he says. “People know.”

Al Rahbani’s primary business is the Saudi Finn Ducting Company Limited (SAFID), which manufactures air distribution products such as ducts and vents. The Riyadh-headquartered company was founded in the late 1970s by his late father, Sheikh Haleem al Rahbani, in conjunction with Nokia. Back then, everyone thought the Finnish firm was in fact Japanese, says Al Rahbani. The fact that Nokia later grew into a household name illustrates his father’s vision, he adds.

SAFID eventually came under his ownership and he is currently chairman of the company. It is now expanding into other product lines such as air handling units – giant devices used to ventilate large buildings – and, sometime in the next few years, external air-conditioning units.

The company – which Al Rahbani says is growing at more than 10 per cent annually – has its own research and development centre, where it looks at how to improve efficiency in cooling systems and examines the use of solar power technology. SAFID requires a lot of galvanised steel for the production of ventilation ducts. It currently buys this material locally or imports it from Japan but Al Rahbani came up with a better idea of building his own steel factory.

With partners AJ Group in Dubai, SAFID formed the United Iron and Steel Company, another of Al Rahbani’s key business interests. The company built a Dh1 billion cold press steel plant in Abu Dhabi. Crucially, SAFID will buy about 20 per cent of the galvanised steel the factory produces. It doesn’t take an MBA graduate to see the joined-up thinking in Al Rahbani’s ventures. The steel plant will supply SAFID, which makes ventilation parts for buildings. And buildings are what Sheikh Mohammed plans to develop on the massive land plots left to his family by his late father.

Sheikh Mohammed al Rahbani

Al Rahbani senior amassed so much land that he was known in Saudi Arabia as the “King of Property”, his son says. The plot in Kuwait alone – said to span 18km by 12km and worth at least $2 billion – is so big that a dedicated team is required to keep tabs on its borders. Other land owned by the family includes plots in Saudi Arabia worth at least $1.5 billion – including 1.6 million square metres in Jeddah City – and smaller plots in the UAE. The land is managed by Rahbani Group Holding, primarily by the sheikh as head of the family, but also by his sister, Princess Maha, who joins us for the interview.

The Al Rahbanis have already built around 3,000 villas in Jeddah but have long-term plans for the development of the rest in conjunction with partners. “We are really not in a rush,” he says. “Properties can get sick but they do not die. The price might fluctuate here and there but at the end of the day, it is there for you.”

Al Rahbani’s interests go beyond property and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) business. He is an investor in the San Diego-based Pathway Genomics, which specialises in genetic profiling to determine an individual’s risk of specific diseases. He has taken the concept to the Saudi government, proposing widespread DNA screening for the population, but acknowledges this will be “a long discussion”.

He sees Pathway Genomics primarily as a business venture. But there is also a humanitarian aspect to it, as there is with his general philanthropic work, which includes a programme to distribute food to poor families in Saudi Arabia. He is also a supporter of the Clinton Foundation and has strong ties with the United States, which stretch back to his education.

One of four children, Al Rahbani attended the International School in Geneva and King Saud University in Riyadh. He later spent some time studying in the US and met his Washington DC-born wife Kate at Boston University. That was 18 years ago and the couple now have three children aged 13, 15 and 17.

Al Rahbani’s parents were clearly an inspiration to him and keeping both their business and personal legacy alive is a day-to-day concern for him. “My dad was my hero and I learned a lot from him. And my mother was everything to me,” he says. Aside from his parents, another of Al Rahbani’s personal heroes is Obama, whom he has met several times. His first meeting with the former US President was at a private dinner in Los Angeles a few years ago. “I was impressed. He is so humble and he is human,” he says.

It is such qualities – humbleness, generosity and steering clear of the limelight – that Al Rahbani says he would like to pass down to his own children – along with, of course, his unknown billions. “The legacy I’d like to leave my kids is the same legacy as my parents left for me,” he says. “I teach them always to be humble, to appreciate what they have in life – and not to take anything for granted.”