Lessons in giving

Arab philanthropists give billions to charity, says Sheikh Dr Mohammed bin Musallam bin Ham Al Ameri. With better collaboration and shared learning, it could deliver more.

Sheikh Dr Mohammed bin Musallam bin Ham Al Ameri has some advice for new philanthropists: start your journey where others stop. “Don’t reinvent the wheel,” says the Al Ain-born businessman. "Learn from the successes and failures of others. Wherever you can, work with others too: it saves you time and money and it yields better results.”

It is advice that the 48-year-old, vice president of the UAE’s Bin Ham Group and a former Federal National Council member, follows himself. In 2019, he signed the Giving Pledge, a global campaign led by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates, in which billionaires make a public promise to give away at least half of their wealth to good causes. Hundreds have signed on, including Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Mackenzie Scott; coming together to pool ideas and knowledge with the aim of becoming better philanthropists.

Bin Ham is among the younger signatories, and one of only three pledges from the Arab region. In his accompanying Giving Pledge letter, he described it as “an opportunity to join a unique group of philanthropists, and a chance to concert efforts to find solutions to some of our world’s most pressing challenges.”

“I took the step because I could see the benefits it would bring,” he explains today. “The pledge is a global network, with research, resources and knowledge that are shared across its members. I think it will make a big difference in the way we think about our philanthropic work.”

“The challenge is the lack of data available to help guide philanthropists to make informed decisions.”

Bin Ham’s approach is reflective of a growing wave of Arab philanthropists who are pairing the region’s propensity for giving with a global mindset and a strong focus on securing measurable impact.

Deep-pocketed donors ranging from the Jameel family in Saudi Arabia, whose philanthropic arm, Community Jameel, works to advance health, education and livelihoods around the world, to the UAE’s Abdulaziz Al Ghurair, chair of one of the region’s largest privately funded education foundations, are modelling bigger and bolder ways of giving, with the goal of creating transformative change. 

There has also been a thawing of the traditional reluctance among Arab philanthropists to speak about their giving, a trait that has hampered collaboration. Taken together, these trends are encouraging donors of all stripes to think more strategically about where and how well they use their wealth for good.

For Bin Ham, this more disciplined approach to investing philanthropic capital represents a natural evolution of the Arab region’s long-standing commitment to charity. But it has also exposed gaps in the ecosystem, especially for budding donors who may be unsure of where to start.

“Man does not last, but his good deeds are permanent,” he says, quoting the UAE’s founding president Sheikh Zayed. “I believe a culture of giving is deeply rooted in every individual in the UAE, because we follow the lead of the country. The challenge, however, is the lack of data and information available to help guide philanthropists to make sound and informed decisions.”

This shortfall impacts how donations are deployed, he says, because those that know better, do better.

“There are philanthropists who, for instance, build mosques and that’s commendable,” he explains. “But if they were shown a study of children at risk of contracting, say, polio, then they might choose to spend their money on vaccines as well.”

image title


In August 2010, billionaires Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates launched a campaign that they hoped would set a new standard of philanthropy: the Giving Pledge. A global movement, the pledge is an open invitation to the world’s super-rich to commit to giving away at least half of their money, with the aim of making large-scale and purposeful philanthropy the norm among the world’s wealthiest people.

The pledge launched with 40 signatories, all of whom were American. In the decade since, its ranks have swelled to include more than 200 members from 24 countries; a mix of rich and emerging world billionaires ranging in age from their 30s to their 90s.

The pledge does not accept money or tell people how or where to donate their wealth. Instead, signatories gain access to a network of engaged philanthropists eager to share ideas, successes and failures, and to discuss how best to leverage their giving to tackle global challenges.

UAE-based members include property developer PNC Menon and his wife Sobha; GEMS Education founder Sunny Varkey and his wife Sherly; VPS Healthcare’s Shamsheer Vayalil and his wife Shabeena; Badr Jafar, the CEO of Crescent Enterprises and president of Crescent Petroleum, and his wife Razan Al Mubarak, who leads the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is also a signatory.

Bin Ham’s own philanthropy is a learning curve, he says. As vice chairman of the Bin Ham Group, a family-held conglomerate with interests in tourism, healthcare, real estate, engineering and more, he plays an active role in both his family’s business and its benefaction.

Donations are channelled through the family’s Musallam Bin Ham Foundation, with an emphasis on healthcare, housing and education. The latter includes offering in-need UAE residents housing, rent relief and school places, as well as funding free healthcare, including through the group’s medical clinic.

Earlier this year, as the coronavirus took hold, the family earmarked a further AED10m (about $2.72m) to pay out in support of low-income families thrown into crisis by the pandemic and its knock-on effects. This followed a community analysis, carried out by the foundation, which mapped the most urgent local needs and identified housing and schooling as priority response areas.

“We saw a very rapid spike in demand for housing and educational support in the early days of the virus’s spread, so we needed to make timely decisions,” says Bin Ham. “We were able to offer a considerable number of people support in a short time. Covid-19 is an example of how we were able to come out of a crisis with positive results.”

image title
The Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Free Spirulina Feeding Centre in Kenya. Photo: supplied.

As a prominent Emirati family, community features heavily in the Bin Hams’ philanthropy. Bin Ham’s father, Sheikh Musallam bin Salem bin Ham Al Ameri, and his grandfather, Sheikh Salem bin Ham, were influential figures in the early years of the federation and worked closely with Sheikh Zayed. The family has stayed close to its Emirati and Islamic traditions, retaining close ties with the local community and dispensing grassroots funding and support.

“This is something I learned from my father and my grandfather; that philanthropists must visit and be close to their communities and their needs,” explains Bin Ham, who says his role as a member of the Federal National Council, the UAE’s national assembly, sharpened this understanding. “Life is constantly changing, so keeping pace with community changes and developments means you’re better able to meet those needs on time.”

Bin Ham’s personal giving takes a more global lens. In addition to his support for GCC causes – including sponsoring group weddings in Oman and Bahrain, to ease the financial pressures faced by young couples – he has focused on malnutrition and hunger.

Bin Ham has lent his backing to the Intergovernmental Institution for the Use of Micro-Algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition (IIMSAM), an intergovernmental organisation that distributes spirulina, a food supplement, to malnourished children in developing countries.

Until recently, he was the organisation’s deputy secretary general and his contributions, in tandem with donations from other Gulf philanthropists, have helped pay for the IIMSAM’s Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Free Spirulina Feeding Centre in Kisumu in western Kenya. IIMSAM has also distributed spirulina in a number of other African, Asian and Latin American countries as well as to several places in the Middle East, including Jordan and Iraq.

“Child nutrition was an area where I wanted to build knowledge and expertise: I see it as a key priority,” Bin Ham says. “We’d like to see the curve on hunger and malnutrition decline year on year, until we can mark the end of this problem globally.”

“We need to create an Arab or Middle East umbrella that joins philanthropists and those who work in organised giving, in order for them to find the best possible ways to target change.”

Although Bin Ham has now stepped back from IIMSAM, he remains keen to expand his overseas philanthropy. Public health – specifically childhood vaccination campaigns, in countries such as India and Pakistan – is a potential new cause area, and he is eager to innovate and learn in step with other philanthropists.

Most pressingly, he sees an opportunity to convene a regional platform that would allow Arab donors to pool knowledge, peer-to-peer learnings, and open the door to better collaboration, rather than flying solo.

“The real achievement of the Giving Pledge is that it assembles philanthropists under one banner, so they can share their experiences and, together, set goals that go beyond their individual abilities,” he explains.

“Similarly, we need to create an Arab or Middle East umbrella that joins philanthropists and those who work in organised giving, in order for them to find the best possible ways to target change.”

Early stage talks are already underway between local philanthropists, Bin Ham says, and he hopes to see these progress.

“Covid-19 has shown the world is one global village. This makes it imperative for us to work together, hand-in-hand, and to improve things as much as we can," he notes.

“Life is short in human terms, but not if you can create a legacy that endures. There is a lot more work to be done.” – PA