Passing the torch

Bahraini businesswoman Mona Almoayyed on microfinance, migrant workers, and the roots of her family’s philanthropy.

When Yusuf Khalil Almoayyed decided in 1940 to abandon Bahrain’s ailing pearl industry and start a small electrical business, he already had one eye on giving back. “He used to make a very small profit – like BD100 [about $265],” says his daughter Mona Almoayyed, “and he’d take three per cent of that and give it to my mother to distribute to the poor. That’s something he did all his life.”

It is a philanthropic tradition that continues today, albeit on a grander scale. As one of Bahrain’s oldest family-owned businesses, YK Almoayyed & Sons’ portfolio now stretches from cars to construction, powered by an 8,000-strong workforce. The company gives 3 per cent of its annual net profit and hundreds of hours of time volunteered by its employees to charitable causes, making philanthropy a cornerstone of its business model.

In 2013, it formalised its donations with the establishment of the Yusuf & Aysha Almoayyed Charity – named after their parents, explains Mona – which has become a platform for aiding underprivileged people in Bahrain, and beyond. Focus areas include education, healthcare and elderly welfare, backed by a roughly $1m annual budget.

“It’s a culture we try to build among our employees,” she says. “If you’re brought up with this approach, you’ll always give back to society. The principle is just to help others.”

In this, Mona is a case in point. As a child, her parents’ philanthropy was a quiet constant, which swelled in lockstep with the family’s success. In the early days, her mother would buy schoolbooks or air conditioning units for impoverished local families.

“She was very popular in the community,” says Mona. “They would come to her house and she would take care of their children. They were very simple in those days.”

Over time, this approach grew to include sizeable donations to community projects. The family funded a drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit in Bahrain, a nephrology and renal transplant centre, and gifted BD1m ($2.65m) to support a local kidney dialysis unit. A $2m plan to build a retirement centre to serve the elderly is currently underway.

“My father always encouraged us to care about those less fortunate than us. He would never say no to anyone who needed something,” explains Mona.

“I believe in not just handing money to those who need it. Instead of giving them fish, we should teach them how to fish.”

image title
Support for Bahrain's low-paid foreign workers is a key focus of Mona's philanthropy, extending to the establishment of an NGO focused on migrants' rights. Photo: Getty Images.

As one of six siblings, Mona's father broke with tradition, first in sending both his sons and daughters to university in Europe, and then in encouraging them all to join the family business. In 2001, when Mona took over as managing director, she became one of just a handful of women in the GCC to oversee a family-owned firm. A year earlier, she was named the first Bahraini woman to be elected to the board of a listed firm – the local conglomerate BMMI – a role that overlaps today with seats on multiple charitable boards.

Company philanthropy aside, she gives at least 5 per cent of her personal income to charity, blending support for domestic nonprofits with donations to global aid actors such as UNHCR and the UN children’s agency.

“I really do feel the private sector has a responsibility towards society to help,” she explains, “we have such wealth in this country. We don’t pay tax, and the government helps us, so in turn we have to give back.”

Broadly, GCC family businesses do. Representing 90 per cent of the Gulf’s private sector economy, these firms are major actors in the philanthropy space, and a trove of grants and donations for local charities.

The region’s 100 largest family businesses represent at least $7bn in annual philanthropic capital, according to global consultancy Strategy&, but its impact is blunted by a reliance on unplanned, ad hoc giving.

Unlocking this sector’s potential requires a swing towards development-led philanthropy, and away from simple charity.

“I believe in not just handing money to those who need it," says Mona. "Instead of giving them fish, we should teach them how to fish."

In particular, she believes in the transformative power of microlending: or the practice of giving tiny unsecured loans to the poor so they can launch income-generating businesses and help lift themselves out of poverty.

Globally, some 2.5 billion adults don’t have access to a bank account, curbing their ability to send, save and borrow money, and to cushion against financial shocks. For the unbanked, microlending – which allows the extension of credit without collateral – can be a gateway to formal financial services.

This is the idea behind Ebdaa Microfinance Bank, of which Mona is chairman and YKL & Sons a shareholder. Ebdaa offers small loans to low-income Bahrainis, starting from $530 up to $13,263, with no guarantee required and low interest on repayments.

Since its inception in 2009, the bank, which was seeded by the Saudi Arabia-based Arab Gulf Program for Development, has served more than 9,500 borrowers, lending in excess of $29m. Of those, 5,000 are women.

Customers include small local ventures seeking finance to expand and a cottage industry of women-owned businesses. The success stories are many.

“One lady started from nothing. She borrowed BD300 ($796) and now she has three shops selling spices,” she explains. “Another borrowed BD2,000 ($5,305) to start a small playgroup. She has taken three or four further loans – and paid them off – and now operates three playgroups.”

The bank claims a repayment rate close to 96 per cent and, according to Mona, expects to close a profit this year.

“Many of the people we lend to are housewives or young people, who aren’t in employment,” she says. “It’s not enough to just give people money. The goal is to support them to improve their standards.”

image title image title
Ebdaa Microfinance Bank, of which Mona is chair, has lent more than $29m to low-income clients in Bahrain, including local startups and women-led enterprises. Photo: Getty Images.

This aim extends beyond low-income Bahrainis, to the treatment of foreign workers. As with other GCC states, Bahrain is powered in part by unskilled migrant workers, who occupy 95 per cent of construction and domestic jobs. Much of their pay returns home, with remittances helping to boost prosperity in economies from Nepal to the Philippines.

Workers in the region are typically employed via a sponsorship, or kafala, system, which has come under fire from global rights groups who say it can tie migrants to poor working conditions and pay. Gulf states have responded with tightened laws to combat illegal recruiting practices, but have stopped short of a wholesale shakeup of the system.

In 2005, Mona helped to found the Migrant Workers’ Protection Association (MWPS) in Bahrain, an NGO dedicated to combating the exploitation of low-paid foreign workers. The first of its kind in the GCC, it brought scrutiny to the topic of migrants’ rights, drawing a previously fringe topic into the public arena.

“We felt we needed a society to protect this section of underpaid labourers and domestic staff,” she explains, "who don’t have labour laws to protect them, and often work unlimited hours.”

MWPS offers the full spectrum of assistance, from medical treatment and legal services, to financing visa fees and airline tickets for repatriation. It also operates a shelter in Manama, which housed a total of 181 domestic workers in 2017, mainly from Ethiopia, India and Kenya.

Of these, 95 per cent reported never receiving a day off, while a third complained of physical abuse. More than 75 per cent reported having their passport taken away on arrival in Bahrain.

The NGO also works with labourers to improve their working conditions, and advocates on behalf of blue-collar workers for protective legislation.

“We have to credit Bahrain for allowing us to have a shelter,” Mona says. “It is unheard of in any other Gulf state.”

The tiny kingdom is “very active in NGOs and philanthropy,” she notes," for a population of less than 1 million people. It’s in our culture.”

Mona is currently MWPS’s honorary chairperson, having served as chair for six years, and plays an active role in fundraising for projects. “We’ve seen huge progress, but there is still so much more to do,” she says.

“By saying we give, it inspires others to do the same.”

Regionally, philanthropy too is evolving. A slow tilt towards more outcome-based giving has gone hand-in-hand with an increased openness among Gulf donors, who have traditionally seen philanthropy as a private matter. This, in turn, is persuading others to expand their giving, suggests Mona.

“My father, in the old days, would say: ‘when your left hand gives, your right hand should not know.’ But now we find that by saying we give, it inspires others to do the same,” she says. “Take Bill Gates: he has encouraged others such as Warren Buffet to give. If he had kept his philanthropy to himself, no one would have known. It gives you the culture of wanting to give.”

By the same lights, Mona has long leveraged her own profile to campaign for broader opportunities for women. During her six years as chairman of the Bahraini Businesswomen’s Society, she lobbied hard for equal rights and pay – squaring up to the ministry over now-defunct labour law restrictions that barred women from certain roles and working hours.

“While in the eyes of the law we are equally treated, in reality people discriminate between a man and a woman,” she says. “They would give a job to a man but think twice about giving it to a woman. It’s not only in the Arab world - in Europe it’s the same.”

Hiring practices in her own company take aim at the glass ceiling. “We employ lots of Bahraini women, and they are very dedicated. Some of them have been with us for 30 years.”

Looking ahead, Mona envisages philanthropy taking up greater segments of her time, driven by a sharper awareness of social inequalities.

“The older I get, the more I realize how fortunate I am and how unfortunate others all, all over the world,” she says. “Perhaps that is a sign of age. Life is short. It makes you want to give more.” – PA