How to spend $32bn doing good

In her first interview as the head of Alwaleed Philanthropies, Princess Lamia AlSaud explains how the organisation hopes to build bridges towards a better world.

In 2015, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal made headlines when he announced he would give his entire wealth to philanthropic causes. The news, given in a press conference in Riyadh, marked a turning point for giving in the Middle East – not least because of the sum involved; an astonishing $32bn. In that moment, Alwaleed became the first Muslim Arab to make such a landmark pledge, redrawing the boundaries of giving in a region already known for its generosity.

The Saudi royal has long been a major donor to causes around the world. This year alone, Alwaleed has pledged $1m to aid victims of twin earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador and a further $1m to the thousands affected by flooding in Sri Lanka. To date, his aid has reached people in 120 countries.

But it is his $32bn pledge – and the creation of a new master vehicle, Alwaleed Philanthropies (AP), to support it – that has, for the first time, pushed his philanthropy into the international spotlight.

The reality is that little has changed in the prince’s approach, but the pace has certainly quickened. Fellow Saudi royal, Princess Lamia AlSaud, the new secretary general of AP, quotes the aspirations of her chairman, when she says: “After 35 years HRH says he is only taxiing; we haven’t taken off yet.”

The stated mission of AP is to build bridges and move towards a better, more tolerant world. It seeks to foster cultural ties through education, to develop communities, and empower women and youth.

It also aims to provide relief in times of catastrophe. All of these strands are already work in progress. In the words of its founder: “Humanity has no religion, no race, no gender. That’s why the radius of our contribution will cover the whole world, and not just one region”.

AlSaud describes the prince as a role model. “I hope that his pledge will encourage and inspire others.” 

The $32bn gift will, she says, be given during his lifetime, with the amounts given by his businesses increasing gradually, but working to a schedule.

“We want his businesses to keep growing for obvious reasons,” she says, smiling. Already, there are 100 million beneficiaries worldwide.

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Prince Alwaleed's philanthropy will focus on areas including disaster aid, women's empowerment, education and employment. Photo: Getty Images.

Three foundations now sit under AP: one in Saudi Arabia to support local projects; another in Lebanon dedicated to philanthropy and humanitarian projects there; and a third, AP Global, the vehicle for international cooperation. The team meets with Alwaleed each quarter to present new projects under consideration. 

The size of the team under AlSaud is small – just 10 Saudi women – so its role is to ‘work smart’, and to make the greatest impact through partnerships.

Existing tie-ups include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which received $30m towards the global campaign to eradicate polio; the Gavi Alliance, to aid in the delivery of vaccines to children in low-income countries; and the US-based Carter Center, which received a grant towards its work to eliminate river blindness.

The foundation also backs a raft of projects to support young people and women. Among them, is the network of local nonprofit groups supported by Education for Employment (EFE), a US-based organisation that hopes to equip young Arabs with the skills to enter the workplace. EFE offers workshops, courses and training in an effort to combat a regional youth unemployment rate of around 30 per cent. 

There are also 30 initiatives around the empowerment of women, education, employment and intellectual freedom; topics on which Alwaleed has been a vocal advocate for many years.

AP has a number of strategic partnerships with trusted agencies working on the Syrian refugee crisis, including the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Also in the Middle East, there is funding for agricultural projects in Palestinian communities, and for family housing units in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Globally, AP has shown a perhaps surprising ability to move rapidly in times of real crisis, and in some unexpected areas. When last year’s devastating earthquake struck in Nepal, it lent immediate support to agencies including International Medical Corps and Habitat for Humanity. 

“We acted faster than you can imagine,” says AlSaud. “We were the second responder providing aid for victims.”

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Alwaleed Philanthropies has joined with the Gates Foundation, Unicef and Gavi to support vaccination in lower-income countries. Photo: Getty Images.

Moving decisively has become the modus operandi for AP since AlSaud took the reins in early April, with announcements of new initiatives and commitments coming at speed.

There is a sense that the foundation is finding its voice and becoming bolder and more open in its decision making; telling the world about its donations, and its ability to make an impact.

In May, £20m (about $28.7m) was committed to the Humanitarian Leadership Academy (HLA) to help launch 10 rapid response centres around the world, in partnership with Save the Children. 

HLA, the world’s first academy for humanitarian aid, hopes to train people in 50 countries as frontline aid workers, able to respond to crises in their own communities. AP’s funding, and its global network of partners, will be leveraged to scale the initiative.

Centres have already opened in the Philippines and Kenya, with three more set to be launched this year – in Bangladesh, the Middle East and a collaboration centre in the UK. The foundation also has plans for Latin America, South and West Africa.

“We are living now in an era of unprecedented humanitarian disasters, and so far the global response to these disasters has been inadequate,” says AlSaud. “We need to do more to ensure that humanitarian needs are better served at the point of impact, especially in the critical 72-hour aftermath of any crisis.

“HLA will be central to our efforts to meet this challenge. This is what the future of disaster relief looks like, and we are proud to be involved.”

This is not short-term aid. AP is committed to being a long-term support to its many partners, and places sustainability at the heart of its agenda.

“It’s not just about the immediate aid, and then we’re out,” says AlSaud, specifically referring to the earthquake in Nepal, but indicative of the approach being taken by the organisation.

“When we enter a project it should always be sustainable. The minimum period of commitment for us is five years. In Syria, for example, it’s not just about paying for the refugee camp,” she continues. “We give craft workshops, and offer education for those of all ages.

"We don’t want to just tap in and provide one element of help," she adds. "We seek to have an impact beyond shelter, to include education and skills.”

“We are without boundaries. There is one world and we have one goal: we believe in human. We don’t differentiate.”

For what the team calls AP Global, it is all about the wider vision.

“We aim to be more organised, focused and strategic. If it’s sustainable, we have trusted partners and we can see a goal that can take us towards something even bigger, then it’s worth the investment,” AlSaud says.

“We are without boundaries. There is one world and we have one goal: we believe in human. We don’t differentiate.”

That wider vision has tolerance at its heart, and intercultural and interfaith dialogue is being encouraged in many ways. There are now six Prince Alwaleed Academic Centres at key seats of learning around the world, from Cambridge to Harvard, Beirut to Cairo; between them beneficiaries of more than $70m.

They support the exchange of ideas, innovation and creativity and aim to foster closer ties between the Muslim world and the West. Fellowships, exchanges, events and community initiatives are used to scale the message internationally, but there are also specific, micro-level outcomes.

In Edinburgh the initiative set out to move aside cultural barriers with a series of workshops about Islam for police officers, and offered advice about best how to work with the Muslim community. 

“The outcome was helping to change the mindset,” explains AlSaud. “In bridging these gaps, providing aid and developing communities, it all comes down to one goal for us: simply living in a better world.” — PA