Tarek Mostafa Ben Halim: talented financier who cared deeply for Middle East

He gave up a lucrative career to launch Alfanar, a philanthropic fund to provide support to poor Arabs.

Tarek Ben Halim
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The Libyan-born Tarek Mostafa Ben Halim was a rare and brilliant man whose legacy is the creation of a philanthropic initiative, Alfanar, which he established to address issues of social inequality and poverty in the Arab world. His decision to resign from a lucrative career as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs in 2003 was motivated, in part, by his unshakeable belief that he was duty-bound to harness his remarkable energy and passion to a cause beyond the private sector. With the foundation of Alfanar he believed that he could make a difference to others' lives. "Everyone has potential," he often said, "but not everyone has a chance." His mission, to which he remained committed throughout his year-long battle with cancer, was to create opportunity where there was none.

"There is very little interest in developing the potential of the less well off," he said. "Wealthy people are prepared to see poor people as beneath them. As Arabs, we should do something about it." From a young age, Tarek had realised the value of money, having experienced the loss of it when the family's life in Libya came to an abrupt end in 1969. The third son of Mustafa Ben Halim, prime minister of Libya from 1954 to 1957 and ambassador to France from 1958 to 1960, Tarek followed his family into exile after Muammar Qaddafi's coup in 1969. The family were on holiday in Switzerland at the time and Mustafa's wife, Yusra, had fallen ill. She was advised not to travel home as the family had intended on August 30, but to delay the trip until September 2. On the night of August 31, Qaddafi staged his coup and a return to Libya became impossible.

The Ben Halims travelled first to London and then on to Beirut, where Tarek and his three brothers and two sisters were schooled, until a kidnap attempt convinced their father it was no longer safe to remain in Lebanon. When they returned to the UK - this time permanently - Tarek and his brothers attended Atlantic College in Wales. The children were always led to believe that they would return to Libya, and felt the loss of their homeland keenly.

After studying finance at Warwick University, Tarek took an MBA at Harvard before embarking on an impressive financial career that took him first to JP Morgan, then on to Credit Suisse First Boston, and ultimately, to Goldman Sachs, where he became a managing director. Latterly, he had served as a non-executive director for Majid Al Futtaim Holdings in Dubai. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he volunteered to serve with the British forces stationed there, working with the Coalition Provisional Authority to establish a free market system under L Paul Bremer's governorship. As deputy director of private sector development, based in Baghdad, Tarek's sense of humour, host of contacts and deep understanding of the Arab world endeared him to all.

In time, the realisation that the American leadership was less interested in supporting an independent democracy than in controlling both its allies and Iraqi national interests prompted him to resign from his post. He believed strongly that the key to progress in the Arab world was democracy, as only if people were independent of religious affiliation and political factions would they be able to make progress that would bring direct benefit to their lives.

His time in Iraq, however, was invaluable in helping crystallise his belief that he should get out of his "comfort zone" and do something meaningful. In 2004, he established the Alfanar foundation, a "venture philanthropy fund" with the aim of financing small non-sectarian organisations in Egypt, such as the Egyptian Association for Social and Economic Rights, which supports potters in Cairo, and the Wadi El Nil Association for the Protection of Quarry Workers. The foundation's name came from the Arabic for lighthouse, and Tarek hoped that Alfanar might throw a chink of light, or hope, into the lives of many of the poorer people in society. Over time, he aimed to introduce Alfanar to Lebanon and beyond, to other Arab countries.

In 2005, he received an invitation from Saif al Qaddafi, the son of Colonel Qaddafi, to assist in the modernisation of the country's banking system. Acting as a consultant to the Central Bank of Libya, advising on the first Libyan bank privatisations, he was instrumental in ensuring that young Libyan bankers were properly trained, from learning English to understanding credit procedures. In Tripoli, he made a point of visiting the house where he had lived until he was 13. It had been confiscated from the Ben Halims after the coup and was serving as the Iranian Embassy. Tarek knocked on the door, demanding to be granted entrance. "I am Tarek Ben Halim. This is my house!" he shouted. Though he was permitted access, it was not until he had made several further visits that he was finally allowed to go upstairs to see his old bedroom.

Years later, after considerable negotiation, the house of his childhood was finally returned to the family. While at Morgan, Tarek met and later married Cynthia Oakes, a liberal Jew from New York. Their union was a typical example of how his unorthodox character, despite his deeply traditional upbringing, manifested itself. Before he met Cynthia, Tarek had told his younger sister, Sherine, that when he married, he would take an Arab for a wife. But his unconventional marriage was a long and happy one. The couple had three children who were brought up in both faiths. As in life, so in death, Tarek brought people of different faiths and diverse backgrounds together. Muslims, Jews and Christians crowded into the mosque in London's Regent's Park to remember him at his funeral.

"He was always looking to make a difference," said Sherine. "He knew he wanted to do something, he knew he was privileged and he wanted to share his education and his experience. He was determined that others should benefit from the advantages that he had enjoyed in his life." He was born on December 4, 1955, and died on December 11, 2009. * The National