This June, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal became the first Arab Muslim and the first from Saudi Arabia to sign the Giving Pledge. The commitment follows his announcement in July of 2015 that he would give away his entire $32 billion fortune.
Bin Talal is one of the world’s wealthiest people. The grandson of King Abdulaziz Alsaud, founder and first ruler of Saudi Arabia, and of Riad El Solh, Lebanon’s first Prime Minister, he is heir to two important trajectories of modern Middle Eastern politics.
After earning his Bachelor’s in the United States in 1979, he founded Kingdom Holding Company in 1980, which became an extremely successful investment holding company. The company is one of the largest foreign investors in the United States, and has holdings in hotels, real estate, petrochemicals, media, entertainment, banking, technology, medical services, and several other sectors around the world, including The Four Seasons, Citigroup, General Motors, and Twitter. Incidentally, at the beginning of this year, he sparred with Donald Trump over Twitter due to a comment from Trump about Bin Talal’s 7% share in Twenty-First Century Fox, owner of Fox News.
As his fortune grew, Bin Talal undertook charitable efforts worldwide until in 2015 he consolidated his three major foundations under the banner of Alwaleed Philanthropies. According to its website, the organization “works at both a global and local level” and focuses on the four areas of “ensuring cultural understanding, developing communities, empowering women and young people, and providing vital relief in times of crisis.” Its ultimate goal is to “build on its rich history of creating positive change to build a future of tolerance, acceptance, equality and opportunity—for all.”
Bin Talal devotes a portion of his philanthropic efforts to advancing women’s rights and opportunities in Saudi Arabia. A majority of his employees—65%—are women, and though clerics argue that female drivers undermine social values, he has been public about hiring a female pilot.
Yet despite going against the grain of Saudi Arabia’s clerics in some respects, he campaigns actively against smoking and drug and alcohol use. In addition, he often explains his charitable giving in religious terms: “Today, my motive for the work of Alwaleed Philanthropies remains as it was more than thirty years ago, stemming from a firm belief in Prophet Mohamad’s (May Allah honor him and grant him peace) saying: ‘The wealth of a man will not diminish by Sadaqah (charity)’.”
Last November, Bin Talal contributed a piece to The Economist in which he compared the Muslim practice of zakat, a form of obligatory almsgiving, to modern philanthropic efforts: “Zakat is a form of personal philanthropy, enshrined in the Koran as part of the Islamic faith. The practice mandates giving a portion of one’s wealth to those in need, and encourages the individual always to think of others. We are therefore a society of philanthropists.”
Bin Talal raises important questions about the theological or cultural motives for charitable giving. Since I am not an expert in Islam, I cannot say with any authority whether Bin Talal’s comparison between zakat and the sort of philanthropy championed by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, founders of the Giving Pledge, holds any water. But as philanthropy following Western paradigms becomes more universal, gaining an ever more international following, it will be important, as Bin Talal says, to take into account “community needs, local customs and cultural considerations” so that charitable efforts sustain local cultures and do not uproot them in the name of international development. That effort begins with asking about the theological and cultural roots of different ideas of charitable giving.