Interview with British entrepreneur / financier Amanda Staveley on taking the Nobel Prize to the next level.
Tell us how you got involved with this fascinating project?
I was working for the Mittals in 2004 as logistics coordinator for Vanisha’s Paris wedding to Amit Bhatia. You might remember it as the most lavish-slash-expensive hitch-up ever?
I remember vaguely. It cost something like 60 million, right?
Probably more, and as the cliché dictates ‘everybody was there’. During that week-long celebration I put together some side events for guests, one of which was the Soccer Boys Brunch.
For soccer fans?
I had Roman Abramovich give a talk over Eggs Benedict at the Raphael. He had recently bought Chelsea Football Club and some of Mittal’s other guests wanted to know all about it. They figured if Roman, who hadn’t a clue about football, could take over a big name club so could they.
Soccer fans with lots of money.
Money they had. The Soccer Boys were some of the richest people in the world. Lakshmi Mittal himself was like fourth on Forbes at the time. God only knows what HBJ was worth.
His Excellency Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al Thani. A name like that craves abbreviation. [laughs] . . . Most of these guys were in the “deviant wealth” category.
I’m not familiar with that term.
Deviant wealth is what economists call resources acquired and retained in asymmetrical, irrational, or distorted markets. As the theory goes, in a fair world with rational actors and symmetric information nobody could be that rich.
Who exactly were they – the Soccer Boys?
Some of them were oligarchs like Roman who had scored big during the breakup of the communist states. One or two were merely shrewd businessmen who had gotten very lucky. And some were – in the islamophobic, xenophobic words of a former US presidential candidate – “a bunch of dumb-ass Arabs sitting on billion-barrel toilet bowls of oil.”
Did he really say that?
The brunch was such a success that Mittal, HBJ and Jabba decided to take the concept one step further.
Should I know who “Jabba” is?
Jabba is Alisher Usmanov, the wealthiest Russian oligarch of them all. He has a big piece of Arsenal at the moment. . . . Since these guys were all hot and bothered about owning clubs they asked me if I could put together a loose-knit organization that would both track soccer properties and schedule get-togethers once or twice a year.
And you agreed?
[laughs] What’s a poor girl gonna do? This was before I had built up my own firm. The pay was fantastic and we went to so many exotic places . . . and the people? Have you ever met Tony Blair, Beyoncé, David Beckham, Bill Clinton?
Have you ever hung out with Rihanna, Richard Branson, Maradona, Angelina Jolie, Elon–
You can stop there. I’ve never met, much less hung out, with any of those people.
That’s because you’ve never attended a Soccer Boys party. That was the caliber of names on the guest lists when the Soccer Boys had their little soirées.
Was this right around the time Prince Andrew asked you to marry him?
Whoa! I’m here to talk about a monumental development and you’re asking me if I dated Randy Andy? Jesus! What’s going on here?
I’m sorry. I just thought . . . when you mentioned all those famous people . . . you know, maybe you would bring him up cause I know you were dating him.
Andrew’s a lovely man and I still care for him a great deal, but if I’d married him my independence would have disappeared. He was never a Soccer Boy nor involved in NobelWorld. Can we get back to what’s important here?
I apologize. So you turned the Soccer Boys Brunch into something more substantial?
Yes. Six months later the Soccer Boys and yours truly are weekending on Joe Lewis’ yacht in the Bahamas. I will never forget this event because Joe, who owned Tottenham Hotspurs, had an art collection on that boat worth over a billion dollars. On a boat! Can you believe it? There was a fucking Renoir in the loo. . . . . If I swear during this interview you’ll edit that out, right?
How many Soccer Boys events did you organize all in all?
A couple dozen in the years between then and now. Different guys would show up on different occasions of course.
Can you tell us some of the more memorable things that happened at these meetings?
We were in Hong Kong. Our host was Balram Chainrai who owned Portsmouth Football club at the time. He had a sleazy personal assistant named Tong Sze-Kiu who had run up charges of six million dollars on Balram’s AMEX to pay for her beauty treatments, only Balram was pretending that this had never happened on account of his family situation. All the Soccer Boys knew what Tong had done and whenever she was in the room with Balram they would make a big deal of complimenting her on her good looks. They thought that was very funny.
What kind of beauty treatments could possibly cost 6 million dollars?
Beats me. She looked like a train wreck.
Anything more like that?
A few years back, before the shit hit the fan in Libya, the Gaddafi kid, Al Saadi, had us all partying in a tent out in the Sahara with Nicole Kidman and Wayne Rooney and a bunch of other celebrities and the Colonel came in waving a sabre and gave us an hour-long lecture on why competitive sports were evil. It was seriously scary. And embarrassing for Saadi who was hoping to buy Crystal Palace at the time. Poor kid. They’ve got him in prison now. Who knows how that will go.
Let’s talk about NobelWorld.
It’s about time.
I know, but since NobelWorld originated with the Soccer Boys and it’s all so fascinating . . . by the way, was Prince Jefri of Brunei one of the Soccer Boys?
Don’t mention that name. Two hundred Ferraris? Nobody comes close to squandering deviant wealth like Prince Jefri. Together with his brother, the Sultan, he sucked billions upon billions out of that country. Textbook deviant wealth. He really tried hard to get invited to our gigs, but the Soccer Boys, to their credit, blackballed him. No one wanted to sell him a club either.
When was the NobelWorld concept first discussed in a Soccer Boys meeting?
That would have been in Lausanne in 2011. Bernie Ecclestone, just for the sake of conversation, asked who could name the most undeveloped trademark in the world. Jabba had brought his friend Yuri Milner to the meeting and Milner figured he knew the answer. “It’s hands down the Nobel Prize,” he said.
Yuri Milner was another billionaire soccer team owner I suppose?
Didn’t own a team at the time, but Yuri Milner was – is – an extremely successful venture capitalist who, with the help of his buddies, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Ma had launched a “Nobel” prize of his own called the Breakthrough Prize.
Never heard of it.
Exactly. Despite doubling up on the Nobel’s prize sums, the Breakthrough Prize has never broken through in media space. Yuri, if anybody, really understood the value of the Nobel brand. The Nobel Foundation could build an empire on that trademark he told the boys, but they’re just sitting on it. According to Yuri the Foundation had its head stuck in the snow.
And the Soccer Boys agreed with him?
Yuri is a very smart guy. And his thinking really struck a note with the others, especially HBJ, who said we should get together and do something there.
Like building NobelWorld?
Not at that point. He was more into exploiting the name in Qatar like Sheikh Al Nahyan had done with his museum in Abu Dhabi. You know, paying Paris 500 million dollars to call his place the Abu Dhabi Louvre.
Is that true?
Everything I’m telling you is true and ninety percent of it is public information you can google – and should have done before requesting this interview. . . . It was actually Wang Jianlin who came up with the concept that the Soccer Boys fell in love with.
Oh-oh. Another name I’ve never heard of. I suppose you’re going to tell me he’s, like, the richest dude in China.
I wasn’t going to tell you that, but, as a matter of fact, he is the richest dude in China and he owns a couple of top-flight soccer teams as well. More importantly he was already into building theme parks and he was kicking ass with Disney in China and he saw huge opportunities here. Wang became a driving force behind NobelWorld.
Okey, I’ll look him up.
Wang convinced the Soccer Boys to put together an exploratory consortium to pursue the issue.
And they made you the head of it?
No. They made Dr. Michael Nobel the head of the NobelWorld Development Consortium. They gave me the title of Coordinator.
A descendant of Alfred Nobel?
Not a direct descendant. Alfred didn’t have children. A relation so to speak.
Impressive name nevertheless.
Yeah, except the guy was a con man. He had sold a business school in Dnipropetrovsk the rights to call itself “The Alfred Nobel University” so everyone figured he had Foundation backing which proved to be totally not the case. As well the rest of the Nobel family had basically disowned him. We found out the Foundation was trying to sue him for peddling a trademark he didn’t own.
They tried, but Michael Nobel had the support of the Ukrainian oligarchs. The Foundation couldn’t get at him. Of course, when the Soccer Boys discovered they’d been scammed they fired him. He’s lucky to still be alive.
[laughs] Of course I’m kidding.
So then they gave you the job?
You’d think they would have learned by then, but no, they gave it to a sports agent named Mino Raiola who they had all negotiated with at one time or another and come off the worse for it. They figured it would be good to have a guy like that on your side.
Hey, I know who that is. That’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s agent.
Exactly. That was the connection. Ibrahimovic was the most omnipresent force in all of Sweden. Totally incomparable. You could put Zlatan’s name on squirrel shit and it would sell. Mino’s idea was to get Zlatan involved in our negotiations with the Nobel Foundation.
I don’t see the connection. Did Zlatan even make it through grade school? The Nobel Prize is about academia and higher learning.
Yeah, well Ibrahimovic is about working extremely hard at what you’re good at, showing total dedication to your skill-set and winning at all costs. There is no bigger winner in Sweden than Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Soccer Boys figured he, if anyone, could muster public opinion to help overcome any objections the Foundation might have to our proposals.
But Zlatan’s name is never mentioned in connection with NobelWorld. What happened?
Milo and Zlatan were too greedy. They were asking for a huge slice of the pie and the Soccer Boys weren’t going for it. Plus, the Qataris who own PSG, a club Ibrahimovic had played for, considered him unreliable, unpredictable – not much of a team player.
So now finally you get the job?
And you head up to Stockholm to begin negotiations with the Nobel Foundation?
Correct, and at the same time Wang’s company, Wanda, begins drawing up concept briefs and building mockups, and Jabba has his people working on the schtick.
The NobelWorld storyline. If I may read a little for you: [Amanda reads from a prospectus]
Let children from 5 to 95 learn the magic of science, the treasures of great literature, the intriguing secrets of economics, the blessings of peace in the awesomely inspiring environment of NobelWorld. Education through excitement. Enlightenment through fun. World Peace through engagement.
What are the consortium’s plans in more concrete terms?
First, we build NobelWorld, Stockholm. I mean, like, we have to, since it’s the home of the Nobel Prize, even if Alfred Nobel lived most of his life outside the country and spoke better Russian than Swedish.
I didn’t know that.
This is a real learning experience for you isn’t it? . . . Unfortunately Sweden has disgusting weather and lacks an exploitable population-base for any project of this magnitude, but once we have a scaled-down facility up and running in Stockholm Wang Jianlin will get started in China and HBJ will do Doha; Mittel, India; Jabba, St Petersburg; and so on.
Can you describe what the parks are going to look like physically ?
NobelWorld is divided into six sections, each reflecting one of the Nobel Prizes. The sections are connected by Laureate Boulevard where all nine-hundred-plus prize winners have their names engraved in gold medallions. The park is surrounded by a scaled replica of the Synchrocyclotron at CERN so that visitors can circle the perimeter in their own Higgs boson electromagnetic-driven particle ships.
[Laughs] You’ll never know who you’ll run into on the Synchrocyclotron.
Clever slogan. What more?
I can’t give away everything at this time, but I can read you some stuff from the prospectus. This is from Peace Prize Island. [reading from prospectus]
Escape the hustle and bustle of world turmoil and chaos for a few enjoyable hours on this beautiful, tranquil, man-made island. Rest, relax and find nirvana in the company of authentic Tibetan monks in the Dalai Lama Temple of Wisdom. Jump onboard the Martin Luther King Freedom March Carousel. Relish exquisite South African cuisine in a state-of-the-art replica of Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell. Pay your respects in Mother Theresa’s Teatime Pavilion . . . and so on and so forth.
That sounds more like Disneyland minus Mickey Mouse than the super hi-tech roller coasters and skydrops I’ve been hearing about.
Well that just covers the Peace Prize. There’ll be lots of amazing technology in the other sections, like the DNA-Geneotron – the world’s first roller coaster featuring a double helix corkscrew; The Fistful of Dollars Bumper Car Experience in the Economy Prize section; The John F Nash Beautiful Mind Ride – a hovermobile safari inside the head of a genius.
[reading] Navigate the axons, dendrons, and neurons of a master of mathematics in this amazing educational adventure. If you’re going to cruise inside a brain why not pick one of the smartest?
Didn’t Nash suffer from paranoia?
That’s what’s going to make the attraction extra exciting. [Laughs] We also have Max Planck’s Quantum Leap – You’re neither here nor there in this outrageously entertaining roller coaster ride; And Madam Curie’s Isotopia, where visitors can experience radioactivity close up and at first hand.
I hope that’s not real radioactivity.
We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed.
In the Land of the Literature Prize we have the River of Words –Keep your wits about you and avoid drowning in this rumble-tumble, whitewater, splash-’em-up fun fest where you’ll be both the author and the hero of your very own literary adventure.
Okey, sounds like there’ll be a lot going on.
One more. It’s my favorite: The Stephen Hawking’s Black Hole.
Explore the secrets of the space-time continuum from the comfort of your own C350 Permobil. Travel to the ends of the universe at twice the speed of light and discover what dark matter is really all about.
I don’t recall Hawking ever winning a Nobel Prize.
Well, you need Hawking. You can’t do something like this without bringing in the poster boy, the ikon. We’ve arranged for him to receive a lifetime achievement award at the prize ceremonies in 2017.
So NobelWorld is a lot like an ordinary adventure park only with a Nobel Prize theme?
So wrong. I have only given you half the concept. Now here comes the jewels that separate us from the pack. [reads from prospectus] Strategically situated throughout the park, closely integrated with rides, attractions, and other amenities you will find highly-funded research centers, spacious conference halls, university affiliated laboratories and scholarship-endowed faculties housing an elite gathering of academics, scientists, authors, and peacemakers.
That’s the difference. That’s what cuts the cake. State-of-the-art research centers where the world’s greatest minds can meet in a super stimulating environment.
And if scholars get stumped on a problem I suppose they can go for a spin on Einstein’s Roller Coaster of Relativity?
Not a bad idea there, my friend, maybe there’s a spot for you on the schtick team . . . But let’s be serious. This is sea-change stuff. We’re going to tear down the ivory towers and demolish the ivy walls that separate our great thinkers from the general public. Through pedagogically designed attractions we are going to reach out to the knowledge-thirsting youth of the world who have been turned off by the tedium of stifled classrooms and staid textbooks and we’re gonna turn them on through state of the art edutainment.
It’s definitely a revolutionary concept. How did the Foundation first react to it?
They talked about integrity and respect for ideals, avoiding commercialism, vulgarism, populism and so on, and on, forgetting that their antiquated glitz banquet and their anachronistic, ossified. prize ceremony is total populistic, commercialized, old-world, theatrical bullshit from start to finnish.
Yes, but what was their answer?
In short they said the mere suggestion of associating the prize with a theme park was horrendous.
Strong words. That must have been very discouraging to hear?
Considering the amount of money we had thrown at them you would have expected a more humble and obliging attitude. Yes.
You gave them money? It’s my understanding that the Nobel Foundation doesn’t accept donations.
They’ve gotten around that by creating something called the Rights Association which is financed by sponsors and donors but has nothing to do with the awarding of prizes. Our ambition was never to influence the prize decisions.
But do you feel the prize process is fair?
Everybody knows that Nobel prize decisions are tainted by academic jealousy, international politics, soft bribes, cronyism, lobbying, infighting, and backstabbing. You name it. But as I told you, that wasn’t our concern.
Nevertheless it seems as if the foundation has been faithful to Alfred Nobel’s wishes through the years.
You mean like launching the Economy Prize in 1968? Come on. Give me a break. Alfred Nobel would have never granted that kind of recognition to an economist. He despised the money men. But some Swedish power brokers pulled a fast one on the Foundation in ’68 and got them to create the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Technically it’s not a Nobel prize. It’s called Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.
Nobody cares about a technicality like that. Nobody says – oh, it’s not really a Nobel Prize. . . . Once that prize was in the works do you know what those power brokers did?
They gave prizes to economists?
Very funny. What they actually did was to try to alter the course of civilization by awarding the prize to neoclassical Chicago School economists such as Friedman and Hayek and whoever. And they were doing this long after laissez faire, supply-side, trickle-down monetarism had proved itself an inadequate, even perilous solution to the world’s problems. It was nothing less than a putsch.
Wow that’s a conspiracy theory-class accusation.
No one’s accusing anybody. The Soccer Boys obviously have nothing against trickle-down economics as long as the trickles remain trickles. It’s just an exemplification of why the Foundation’s holier-than-thou attitude is hypocrisy.
So what was your strategy to get Foundation approval for NobelWorld?
Basic social engineering. Putting people to work who we felt already were in our pockets, like ex-chairman Magnus Storch, and senior legal adviser Barry Hart, and the financial genius-slash-math whiz James Simons who creates Nobel’s investment strategies. All these people had dealings with the boys on our team as well.
And this social engineering was successful?
In a roundabout way. The Foundation knew where they were failing. They knew they were letting Sweden and Norway down by not doing enough to promote the Scandinavian origins of the trademark. Polls showed that only a small fraction of respondents knew where the home of the Nobel Prize actually was. Something had to be done. So they hit us with a counter proposal.
Taking the NobelWorld concept in all it’s necessity and brilliance and squashing it into a pea they planned to call the Nobel Center. That was their offer and they had the gall to ask us to pay for it.
Hey, that’s the thing they want to build in the middle of Stockholm – on Blasieholmen. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding that project.
Of course there has. Would that totally inadequate little building attract tourists to Sweden? Could that insignificant edifice inspire laureates of the future, capture the world’s imagination? Obviously not. The so-called Nobel Center is just a sneaky, devious maneuver to foil our plans.
Because if they build the Center there wouldn’t be as much pressure on them to do NobelWorld?
Exactly, but they’re not going to get away with it.
No because we have an ace up our sleeve.
We’ve got the the royalty card. The King of Sweden is on our side.
You mean Carl XVI Gustaf? He’s a titulary monarch. He’s powerless. You’re pulling my leg. The guy has avoided political controversy his entire life. The only time anybody pays him any attention is when he puts his foot in his mouth.
Be that as it may, and I will disregard your disrespect for his majesty for the time being, the king has stepped up to the plate. He has already publicly spoken out against the planned location of the center and privately he’s putting heat on the Foundation. Actually, the entire royal family are all in for NobelWorld. And they do, by the way, have real power. Without their participation in the prize ceremonies – well, those empty seats wouldn’t look too good on television, would they?
How did you get Carl-Gustaf in your camp?
It was HBJ. Several of the Soccer Boys have been on hunting trips with the king, but HBJ knew him best and he had been coaching him towards NobelWorld for some time. HBJ is quite the trooper. He confided to me that hunting without falcons is like swimming without arms, but he stuck it out, he went on those trips, and Carl-Gustaf really respected his judgement.
I can imagine the King was envious of HBJ’s wealth and power.
HBJ told Carl-Gustaf that the building the Foundation was threatening to construct was so insignificant and tiny that HBJ’s wives’ handbag collections couldn’t have fitted inside it.
How many wives does HBJ have?
That is so fucking irrelevant to what we are talking about here.
Well I was just wondering . . . you know . . . if there were so many handbags.
Get a life. He has three if you must know.
Sorry. Anyway I am really surprised that the royals would get involved in this.
There was another delicate item that came into play – the king’s son-in-law.
Chris O’Neill. He’s the one married to Princess Madeleine.
I know who he is. A wealthy American financier.
Yeah, that’s the thing, you see. He’s not so wealthy after all. As a matter of fact he’s seriously in the hole. If it wasn’t for his wife’s apanage he’d be bankrupt.
Wow. How do you know all this stuff?
So HBJ told Carl-Gustaf that if he could help squash the Nobel Center plans and get the ball rolling with NobelWorld then Chris could expect a fat position in the consortium and the king agreed.
So you’re saying that NobelWorld is going to happen? This is amazing. What is your role going to be?
No, I’m outa here. I’ve done my part. It was a fantastic journey, but it’s time to move on.
Can I ask to what?
Sure. I’ve got my own investment company, PCP Capital Partners, and I’m going to buy Liverpool, or at least a big chunk of it.
Amazing. When can we publish this interview?
Probably never. But I’ll let you know.