Gulf businessmen yet to emulate Gates on charity

The Gulf's wealthy can learn from the generosity of Bill Gates, writes Dr Mohamed A Ramady.
Charity begins at home: Bill Gates has given most of his fortune to a charitable foundation to combat disease and poverty.
Charity begins at home: Bill Gates has given most of his fortune to a charitable foundation to combat disease and poverty.

So the mighty Bill Gates has decided to retire to devote his time to philanthropy. He shares some characteristics with Gulf entrepreneurs, such as having set up what eventually became a monopoly. But this is where the similarity with Gulf businessmen ends. With some exceptions, few in the Gulf harbour a true philanthropic spirit and the urge to share their wealth with their fellow men and women. Much of this wealth is acquired through monopolies and 'wastas', the connections and influence that smooth the path to riches.

Those who met Mr Gates when he visited the Gulf last year must have marvelled at the simplicity and humility of the man. Who else in the world has so openly stated that he is giving up nearly all his wealth - a cool US$32 billion (Dh117bn) - to the world's poor through his endowment and charitable foundation? This charitable act has triggered some other famous entrepreneurs to give all to philanthropy. The richest man in the world - Warren Buffet - has also agreed to leave the bulk of his fortune of over $40bn to the charitable foundation set up by Mr Gates and his wife Melinda.

During his brief Gulf tour, Mr Gates pointed out that the region's economy will thrive only if a substantial commitment to improve education takes place. World class universities are needed to generate a critical mass of qualified labour and a research and development culture. This, according to Mr Gates, requires openness, transparency and creating incentives for those who contribute to intellectual property development. With these conditions in place, the Gulf could attract the best academic brainpower in the world.

Development is only constrained by the lack of imagination, and imagination and the habit of questioning can only come from an educational system that encourages and nurtures such traits in young people. History will be generous to Mr Gates, but it will be harsh on Gulf Arab entrepreneurs. Few in the region, it seems, are willing to go his route. Instead, they give rather grudgingly, and after some heavy hints and "directives" from higher authorities. Even then they only partly open their purses, which were in any case often gained through lucrative agencies, monopolies and outright wasta connections.

The talk of the town in the Gulf is an admiration, not for generous acts of philanthropy by entrepreneurs, but who is building the tallest, biggest and wackiest shopping mall, theme park or tower. However, all is not lost. The Gulf was renowned for its individual philanthropic and charitable donations in the years when oil money was less available. But the time has now come to institutionalise this effort to ensure that the benefits are widespread, and reach as many of the intended recipients as possible.

In the pre-September 11 era, zakat and Islamic charitable donations were the preferred modes of giving as they fulfilled an Islamic requirement. It was simple and noble, as it was also anonymous in the truest spirit of charitable giving. The events of September 11 changed all that for the Islamic world, with charitable organisations coming under increased scrutiny and pressure to open up their books and become more "institutionalised". Traditional charitable donations dried up or were driven underground and new forms of charitable giving had to be found.

The staggering donation of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, to establish a $10bn endowment foundation to promote education in the Arab World, shows what can be done at the governmental or quasi-governmental level to foster education. Quality education - not quantity - is essential to ensure that the Arab world is not left behind. The foundation will focus on human development, supporting and empowering young minds and focusing on research, education and investment in that noble infrastructure of knowledge.

Philanthropy is, in the final analysis, also good for business. If, through such educational and charitable foundations a new generation of skilled and educated workers is born, or young entrepreneurs realise their vision, society as a whole will be better off. It will produce a community that is prosperous and more likely to buy the products of the donor, instead of being relegated to window shopping..

Mr Gates saw that, and decided to empower the poor and the disenfranchised to buy more Microsoft products in the future, as well as helping to eradicate malaria along the way. Dr Mohamed Ramady is a former banker and Visiting Associate Professor, Finance and Economics, at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Published: July 26, 2008 04:00 AM


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