King Gyanendra was a reclusive behind-the-scenes prince busy with his conservation work and business dealings in the 30 years that his brother was king. His shadowy presence during the Panchayat years earned him a reputation as a powerful business contact.
Since 1982, Gyanendra became more involved with the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (KMNTC) and garnered international attention during the annual meeting of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Kathmandu last November. But his substantial business interests in tourism, hydropower, tobacco and other industries have drawn the attention of foreign media in the past weeks. Some have argued that as king he should not be in business, while others say it is better to have an enterprising king, especially one who understands business management.
The royal family has investments in some companies of the Soaltee Group, but neither the king nor members of the royal family own shares directly, according to group chairman, Prabhakar Rana. The three companies are Soaltee Hotel, Himalaya Goodricke (formerly Himalaya Tea Estate) and Surya Tobacco.
The hotel and the tea estate date back to the time when Prince Himalaya and Princep Shah set up the businesses 40 years ago. King Birendra, his brothers and other royal family members inherited the property. The tea company is a joint venture now, and the hotel is a publicly listed company.
The Soaltee Group has two investment companies: Soaltee Enterprises (P) Limited and Surya Enterprises (P) Ltd. The other companies in the group are in hydropower, agriculture (tea and tobacco), transport, market research and shipping. On average the companies under the group pay 12-14 percent of the government's total tax revenue, and all tax obligations are said to be "up-to-date".
The royal family investments are made through Surya Enterprises, which has investments in three companies: Himalaya Tea Estate, Soaltee Hotel and Surya Tobacco. The investment are handled by professionals and Rana told us the royal family "did not interfere" in the company. The family does not have interests in trade, export and import.
Company sources told us that except for Himalaya Goodricke, the royal family does not own a majority stake in any of the companies they have invested in. King Gyanendra chairs the Himalaya-Goodricke board, which his associates told us he may give up as soon as he gets over the present crisis and settles down to take up his new role as monarch.
The King is expected to keep up with his conservation interests, and by law would become patron of the KMNTC. One source told us: "He is already too much into it, and it is an environmental chairty."