Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber: crossing the divide

Education is critical if the Middle East is to foster understanding in its own communities, and bridge the gap with the West, says Saudi businessman and philanthropist Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber

Giving is a complex matter. For many philanthropists, the task of identifying how best to deploy their cash for impact – and to which of a myriad of needy causes – is dizzyingly difficult. Not so for Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber. The Saudi-born businessman’s approach to philanthropy is refreshingly direct, and can be summed up in a single word: education.

“Everything starts with education; it is the key,” he says. “Individuals can and do make a difference in the world, but to do so, they first need education.”

Al Jaber is the founder of MBI Group, a Saudi-based conglomerate with stakes in hospitality, oil and gas, property and more. A self-made entrepreneur, he claims assets of more than $9bn, with interests stretching across the Middle East and Europe. Throughout his career, he has siphoned off millions of dollars to philanthropy through his eponymous foundation, seeking primarily to bridge the divide between the Middle East and the rest of the world through education and cultural dialogue.

This ethos took root in the mid-1990s, when Al Jaber was pursuing his studies in London. In what he saw as the absence of a high-level educational forum to forge ties between the West and the Middle East – “to aid understanding and counteract negative perceptions; not only the West’s view of the Middle East, but vice versa,” he explains – he created one. Today, still backed by the MBI Al Jaber Foundation, the London Middle East Institute (LMEI) sits under the umbrella of the University of London as a leading hub of teaching, research and debate on the Middle East and wider Arab world.

Al Jaber also funds a raft of scholarships for young Arabs, in an effort to shape a new generation of leaders, able to straddle both East and West. His foundation has enabled more than 1,000 students over the past two decades to enroll on courses in Britain, Austria, France and elsewhere.

“Our only stipulation is that they return to serve their home country when they have completed their studies, so they can contribute to their country and their culture,” he says. “The foundation’s primary raison d’être is to serve the people of the Arab region.”

This support has rarely been needed more. Turmoil in the Middle East dominates world headlines, with bloody conflicts dividing Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. Globally, refugee figures have passed the 50 million mark for the first time since the Second World War, a quantum leap driven by conflicts in the region and reflected in the makeshift tents that span Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Children are a particular casualty; of those living in refugee camps, fewer than half have access to formal education and among those that do, the drop-out rate is high. For Al Jaber, promoting dialogue and a greater grasp of the region will be critical to resolving its biggest issues.

“Whether as doctors, teachers, artists, journalists or – as in my case, in business – we all have important contributions to make”

“There is nothing unique about my part of the world. We Arabs, whether Muslim or Christian, and our neighbours in Israel are not a hopeless case,” he says. “With knowledge, understanding and tolerance we can work together to bring about peaceful reform and progress… giving the people the chance to enjoy the benefits that are accepted as normal in the West.”

Many of the Arab world’s challenges today stem from ignorance and people “fired up by information that is biased and usually plain wrong,” Al Jaber explains. Individuals and governments together must tackle these problems.

“Given what is happening in the world, we Arabs and Muslims need to work even harder to make the views of the moderate majority heard. This is one of the things I hope the young people I provide scholarships will contribute towards,” he says.

“I tell graduating students: don’t leave it all to the politicians,” he adds. “It is too easy to blame them. Whether as doctors, teachers, artists, journalists or – as in my case, in business – we all have important contributions to make.”

The focus of Al Jaber’s foundation shifts according to regional needs. For a number of years, its scholarship programme helped female students from Saudi Arabia, young people from Iraq and more recently Yemen, to pursue their educational goals. With the ongoing unrest in the latter, Al Jaber feels an increasing obligation to assist the troubled country’s youth, in the hope of contributing to a more stable, prosperous future.

“This year we will, once again, be focusing on Yemen. We are in the planning stage at the moment, so it is not possible to say how many students we will assist, especially with the difficult situation there,” he says. “But we will do our best to benefit as many young people as possible.”

“Philanthropy should be part of everyone’s life. We can always find someone less fortunate than ourselves”

To date, Middle Eastern youth funded by the foundation have pursued higher education at top regional and international universities, including the American Universities of Cairo and Beirut; Dar Al Hekma College in Saudi Arabia; INSEAD, Sciences Po and the University of Nice Sofia Antipolis in France; Vienna’s MODUL University, and the University College London.

Fahmia Al Fotih is among them. Born in a tiny mountainous village in Yemen, she was the third among eight siblings. When she was old enough to go to school, she had to endure a one-hour walk to the top of a mountain to reach the only school in the area. It had no chairs or tables and students had to make do with sitting on a cold floor. At five years old, Al Fotih had to help out with domestic duties from fetching water, grazing animals and harvesting to housework. She never imagined a world outside her diminutive village, let alone her country.

Now at 36, Al Fotih works as a communications analyst at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Yemen, raising awareness about reproductive health and rights and helping reduce maternal mortality in the country, where the rate is among the highest in the region.

With her father’s support, she graduated from university in Sana’a and became the first female journalist in the newsroom. She enjoyed journalism immensely, but wanted to grow and pursue her education. She persistently applied for an MBI scholarship and was finally one of seven lucky students to win one three years later. “It was the happiest moment in my life and for my dad. He didn’t have any money or property so all his investment was in our education. I remember everything as if it was yesterday,” recalls Al Fotih.

She travelled to London to do an MA in International Relations at the University of Westminster, graduating in 2009. “For an ordinary girl who came from a tiny village in Yemen it was a turning point in my life,” she says. “I discovered myself. It wasn’t just about supporting me financially, but the complete package. Through it, I could discover my soul, see the world, and the many possibilities out there.”

Stories such as Al Fotih’s are what drives Al Jaber to continue giving. He says he allocates his capital when and where he can make an impact and advance his overarching goal of fostering understanding between the Middle East and the wider world. He is a strong believer in social responsibility, seeing philanthropy as the duty of all individuals, and not just the responsibility of the wealthy.

“We believe that business people have a major role in society, creating jobs that give dignity to the worker, and paying back to society the benefits they have accumulated,” he says. “[But] philanthropy should be part of everyone’s life. We can always find someone less fortunate than ourselves.

“Today there are several global philanthropists who provide role models, but everyone has something to give. Everyone can make a difference.”

In an extension of this, Al Jaber believes it is critical to foster cooperation between the private sector, government and large global organisations such as the United Nations. Such tie-ups could go some way towards addressing the lack of resources and economic difficulties seen in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, by leveraging the ability of the private sector to provide some services with greater efficiency, he says. One example is the MBI Al Jaber Foundation’s partnership with the UN education and science agency, UNESCO, on education reform, which seeks to enhance education systems in the Arab world, from curriculum content to teacher training.

“The programme had its ups and downs initially, [but] now many countries throughout the region are making progress on this issue and reforming their systems,” Al Jaber says.

It is not the foundation’s only success. As a proponent of free speech, Al Jaber cites one of his proudest achievements as the MBI Media Institute in Sana’a, Yemen, which has been operating for almost two years, often under extreme conditions. The institute, which is funded by the foundation and offers free courses in journalism, photojournalism and production, has trained more than 1,000 people in pursuit of a non-partisan press.

When asked about his legacy, the Saudi businessman says he hopes to leave behind a world where people in the Arab world and the West have a better understanding of each other and share a mutual respect. “To achieve that, we need to foster education and break down barriers by exposing young people to other cultures and ways of seeing the world,” he says. “I have attempted to make my contribution by supporting educational reform, funding scholarships and assisting those who are willing to listen as well as speak.”

For Fahmia Al Fotih, Al Jaber has left a lasting impact on her perception of the world and on her future. “I consider Sheikh Al Jaber as a champion of education in the Arab world, and women’s empowerment in particular, in a world where women are perceived as second citizens,” she says. “I thank him every day of my life.”