The famous London hotel closed its doors in 2007 for what was considered a 'soft makeover'. That is until the Saudi prince spied an opportunity of a lifetime
Until the Saudi joint owner of one of the world's most famous hotels saw a mock-up showing its plans for refurbishment, the work fell into the "soft makeover" category.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud immediately saw scope for a far grander transformation of the Savoy, a riverside palace steeped in London history and graced by royalty, statesmen and stars. To aim lower, he declared, would be to "miss the opportunity of a lifetime".
Now, the magnitude of the project ultimately undertaken at the prince's behest can be seen as a reflection of the growing influence of Middle-Eastern wealth on great British landmarks.
It is not just this luxurious hotel with its tranquil setting a few paces from the bustle of the Strand: from football to shipping, upmarket shopping to banks, Gulf investment is making a lasting impact.
When the Savoy closed in December 2007, few could have guessed it would remain shut for almost three years.
But in place of improvements once estimated at £27 million (Dh160.3m), the 1889-built hotel - a legacy of the fortune made by the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte from his Gilbert and Sullivan operas - underwent what the management calls "gigantic" renovation.
By the time the Savoy reopened three months ago, the original timetable had doubled in length and the cost had soared, first to Dh600m and finally to Dh1.3 billion.
"The hotel closed on a rising ride of economic optimism which, in the blink of an eye, turned - if not to a depression - then to one of the most aggressive of recessions," says Kiaran Macdonald, the general manager. He believes the Savoy, managed by the Toronto-based Fairmont Hotel and Resorts, was "sincerely blessed" to have such an imaginative, resourceful and financially able supporter.
"What Prince Alwaleed has demonstrated," he says, "has been not only tremendous support for the restoration of the Savoy but complete understanding of the iconic status of this hotel in the history of London and the eyes of its market."
Charles Hollis, the director general of the London-based Middle East Association, considers the flow of investment money into the UK a "good thing" because Gulf states with excess cash flow are looking for long-term value rather than quick profits.
The association is generally more concerned with exports, but also recognises the benefits to British companies of large-scale inward investment.
Citing Abu Dhabi property acquisitions in Mayfair, especially Berkeley Square, he says: "On the whole, the Arab investors tend to be responsible owners.
"Berkeley Square is phenomenally well managed by people who are really quite determined to ensure that the properties are not allowed to go to rack and ruin."
Back at the Savoy, an obvious question presents itself: what did Prince Alwaleed and his co-owner, the Lloyds Banking Group, get for their money?
A lot of the improvements, though essential, will be invisible to guests. But there is also extra glitz and style throughout the hotel, from a Lalique crystal fountain at the entrance and gold-leaf lining of the new Beaufort Bar's booths to lavish upgrades, mixing art deco and Edwardian elegance, of the 284 rooms. Work on the fifth-floor Royal Suite alone cost almost Dh15m; do not expect change from Dh60,000 for a single night's stay.
Early response is encouraging, with bookings just for afternoon tea in the Thames Foyer stretching months ahead.
"The proof of the pudding will be in the coming two years after the dust settles," says Mr Macdonald. "But the fact is that without the passion, personal interest and financial validation of the prince, it would not have happened at all."