Sheikh Khaled Al Juffali discusses why Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest individuals must work together if they are to achieve the greatest possible philanthropic impact.
In the Islamic world, you are born with philanthropy in your heart and mind,” says Sheikh Khaled Al Juffali. “It is a process, a way of life, an unending tradition. And it is something our family takes very seriously.”
Philanthropy, like entrepreneurship, runs through the veins of the Al Juffali family. Sheikh Khaled’s father, the late Ahmed Al Juffali, built a business empire that has enabled the family to amass a multibillion-dollar fortune. He also enshrined in his daughter and three sons the importance of giving, contributing to a wide range of causes and in 1985 launching an eponymous charitable foundation, which has since acted as a platform through which the family might offer assistance to the poorest segments of Arab society.
The E.A. Juffali & Brothers Company, of which Sheikh Khaled is vice chairman and managing partner, is one of the kingdom’s most high-profile conglomerates, with partners including IBM, Siemens, Ericsson, Mercedes-Benz, Michelin, Dow Chemical, and DuPont. Yet outside the boardroom, he and his siblings have made an equally significant impact. Sheikh Khaled’s sister, Maha, has garnered international recognition for her work in helping children with disabilities. His elder brother Walid has for decades supported a wide range of cultural and academic initiatives. And younger brother Tarek contributed tens of millions of dollars to food and aid relief, healthcare and education, before his death in 2008.
Sheikh Khaled and I meet on a cold and clear February morning on the shores of Lake Geneva, in a luxury hotel resplendent with old-school charm. The city is teeming with visitors to the annual Geneva Motor Show, but Sheikh Khaled is in Switzerland to talk altruism, not automobiles. He is a founder and driving force in the Shefa fund, an initiative that is based in Geneva but exists to disburse private Saudi wealth among philanthropic organisations across the poorer Islamic nations of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
“The philanthropic potential of Saudi Arabia is huge, and we have not even seen the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “However, it needs to be well coordinated and organised, and this will be done best on a private basis. The government does a tremendous amount of philanthropic work, but it is unwieldy. Individuals and families are the key, through the pooling of intellectual as well as financial resources. There has to be a collective effort, because with numbers comes strength.”
Accurate estimates of private wealth reserves in the Gulf are next to impossible, thanks to the opacity of many family-owned firms. However, there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is home to more ultra-high- and high-net-worth individuals than any other country in the Arab world. The most recent Forbes list of the world’s billionaires calculated that there are 27 billionaires in the Arab world, sharing total assets of $92bn. Saudi boasts more than any other nation in the region, with eight individuals and their families holding assets worth a total of $55.5bn. What’s more, according to a report published last year by Credit Suisse, the number of millionaires in Saudi Arabia is set to soar by 17 per cent in the five years to 2017, up from around 46,000 to 54,000.
Launched in August 2012, the Shefa fund is aiming to attract a portion of this wealth and channel it into broad, strategic philanthropic initiatives across the MENA region. It is based in Switzerland, Sheikh Khaled says, as a consequence of the myriad complexities of the Saudi legal system as well as straightforward financial pragmatism.
“The bureaucracy and the legality of creating a foundation [in Saudi] can be a nightmare,” he admits.
“The government has wisely become very cautious with regards to giving licences to trusts or foundations, because there is a fear that they may be used to channel bad money, but at the same time this is hindering philanthropic activity,” Sheikh Khaled continues. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but it has certainly made things more difficult.”
According to Sheikh Khaled, the fund has so far raised around $15m of its $20m initial target. Shefa, which means ‘wellbeing’ in Arabic, is talking to non-governmental organisations and private individuals across Saudi’s western region, and aims to persuade them to contribute to efforts to combat tropical diseases. Sheikh Khaled insists that, so far, the fund has only “scratched the surface” of Saudi’s giving potential: this year, the Shefa bandwagon will move on to Riyadh and other major cities in a bid to further expand its contributor base.
“The worst part of it is that sometimes I feel like a debt collector,” he laughs. “It’s a continuous effort, and you have to keep the contributors and non-contributors aware of what you are doing, but you have to do it on a discreet level, not on a public level, because it is a personal choice.
“It is both frustrating and rewarding, frustrating when you are chasing people for contributions, but hugely satisfying when they give because it makes you feel as though your effort has been spent in the right direction,” he continues. “The last thing I want is that we create this foundation and then after two or three years it runs out of money and can’t continue. “We need to keep it going, and to do that you need to work your socks off. We need to gather people together, we need to keep on talking about it, and we need to keep people informed. The burden on me, and on others within our philanthropic community, is to keep that ball rolling.”
His approach to other contributors, or potential contributors of the future, is a systematic one. Donors have two years over which they may spread payments, and Sheikh Khaled and his associates produce a constant flow of information: videos, photo reports and much more.
“The power of knowledge is tremendous, and the visual stimulus is very important,” he says. “We give people pictures of the work that is going on, especially the ones who have committed, and we keep the others informed too. It’s like cultivating business contacts, you have to keep people abreast of what’s happening.”
Away from Shefa, the family invests time in another philanthropic endeavor that has long been a passion. Sheikh Khaled’s sister Maha studied child psychology for handicapped children in the US, and when she returned to Saudi in 1985 she drew the family’s attention to the plight of children with Down syndrome. As in many countries in the West, and despite great leaps forward in recent years, Down syndrome is still subject to social stigma in Saudi Arabia. The condition is not widely discussed and the majority of children with Down syndrome receive no formal schooling. With this in mind, the Al Juffali family resolved to build a facility that would help raise Down syndrome children from birth until they graduate from school at the age of 18.
“My sister opened the centre, and at that time my father was still alive and he supported them by getting some teachers,” recalls Sheikh Khaled. “They started with one small house in a compound, but quickly they had two houses, and three, and it grew and grew.”
Sheikh Khaled’s father bought a piece of land and in 1995 laid the cornerstone for a purpose-built facility, the Help Center, in Jeddah. Although he passed away before its completion, his legacy remains in the opportunities the Help Center grants the children who attend classes every day. Now the Help Center takes care of more than 350 children, while another 100 are attended to through house calls; since inception the Help Center has provided support to more than 5,000 families. It employs around 150 staff, responsible for teaching as well as conducting studies with the cooperation of the Saudi government, and educating ordinary Saudis as to the causes of Down syndrome.
“Each child costs the Help Center about $20,000 per year, but the maximum anyone pays is $1,000, others pay $20 or $30 per year,” Sheikh Khaled explains. “We make the parents pay so that they feel there is a responsibility to come in on time and to look after the children when they are not at the centre. The financial responsibility may be largely on our side, but the effort must be shared if we are to achieve lasting impact.”
His father’s son, Sheikh Khaled has found a way to help build the family fortune, at the same time as he pledges swathes of it to charitable causes. While he considers it unlikely that his philanthropic activities will ever take precedence over his responsibilities as a custodian of the family business, and as a father, he maintains that significant lasting change can nevertheless be achieved.
“Philanthropy is tremendously time consuming, but you have to find equilibrium in life,” he shrugs. “It is still possible to have the impact you desire without dedicating every moment of your time to philanthropy.
“The trick is to concentrate on a certain aim, and stick to it.”