Over the past two years, HH Princess Ameerah Al Taweel has taken an increasingly public role, accompanying HRH Prince Alwaleed on his international trips both to meet world leaders, and to look at the scale of poverty across the globe. As vice-chairwoman of the board of the Foundation, she is now spearheading many of its causes. In her first ever magazine interview, she reveals her vision for the future — and the challenges she must overcome to achieve her goals.
The first surprise is she agrees to an interview. The princess doesn’t do interviews. And why should she? As vice chairwoman of the board of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, Princess Ameerah Al Taweel can let the results do the talking: on poverty alleviation, disaster relief, promoting East/West dialogue and empowering women, the Foundation has led the way in every sense. Go virtually anywhere in Saudi Arabia, and the fruits of its work can be found. Go to practically any country in Africa, and the Foundation’s legacy is there for all to see.
But Princess Ameerah, wife of HRH Prince Alwaleed, now has a role of her own to play — spearheading the drive for change. And it is a role that she is clearly ready for: confident, inspiring and seemingly born to lead, she already has many of the traits of her billionaire husband — emails are being fired across the world every minute, dozens of reports are on her desk marked “urgent”, and to her left there is the customary bank of television screens showing live business news from around the globe.
“I would love to be a person who clarifies the image of women in Saudi Arabia. We are not women who are covered head to toe in black walking behind men. We are not suppressed in our homes crying every day. That’s not us, believe me that’s not us,” she says.
She can say that again. In the past two years, the princess has played an increasingly public role in championing the causes of the Foundation, accompanying Prince Alwaleed on a number of international visits. She was also with him when the prince took his personal jumbo jet, stacked with medicines and food, to Pakistan in the aftermath of the floods. In a short space of time, she has seen a great deal of poverty and suffering — but also the seeds of change being sowed.
One of the key areas of focus at the Foundation has been the empowerment of women, particularly in Saudi Arabia. From initiatives in healthcare and education, right down to the training of women for specific jobs and even pre-marital medical consultations, the projects the Foundation has supported are countless. But for the princess, this is only the beginning.
She explains: “There are several causes I believe in, not being able to drive is bothering women here but I’m not going to be depressed if I am not driving. It is bothering me a little bit, but there are bigger issues that are far more important to me, like education.”
The key question is how long change will take, and at what pace? On both issues, Princess Ameerah stresses that she is satisfied with the current pace, and confident of long term progress.
“Look I’m with the youthful generation so at this time, in 2010, it’s easier than it was ten years ago. But it’s easier for me because the majority of the Saudi population is youthful and now there is this new movement. Now we have internet and the media and we have all that access to the world. You will see change but it will not happen in five years, it will take some time,” she says, adding: “For us to push for modernisation in such a speedy way, it could cause damage. That’s a part we don’t want. We should take the positive side of globalisation and leave the negative side. Am I satisfied with the way it is happening now? Yes, to be honest, we do see change. And we do expect change. And I do know when I look at the youthful generation, if change is not going to happen in the next five or ten years, it is going to happen in the next fifteen years.”
Since being separated from Kingdom Holding three years ago, the Foundation has grown into a significant stand alone operation. Housed in the former offices of Prince Alwaleed, it has more than twenty dedicated staff — ironically, more than Kingdom Holding itself.
From her office, the princess keeps a close watch on world events, monitoring both the on-going development projects and unfolding natural disasters across the globe. With disaster relief, such as after the Pakistan floods and Haiti earthquake, the response is immediate. Other projects, particularly in Africa, are more long term, and a business-like approach is taken.
With the prince, she has already toured much of Africa, and while keen to help, she is also aware of the pitfalls — there is no shortage of people and organisations wishing to associate themselves with the Foundation purely for personal gain.
“I’ve seen a lot of poverty in places I have visited. You can never judge until you get there; I don’t judge from the first time. But once I go there and observe, I see things. There are some people whom I have really appreciated and respected, in the past and then even more so after I have met them.
“With our contributions we don’t want even $1,000 to be stolen. Do bad things happen? Yes they can, but we try to prevent them. On one occasion, we met a senior official in a country, and before the meeting we saw poverty, we saw real poverty. How thin the people were, how bad the streets were, how poor the hospitals were. When we went to meet the leader we were expecting he would ask for a hospital funding or something similar and we were very eager to help. And he actually asked for a VIP lounge in the airport. We were shocked. We just walked out,” she says.
So are there still many barriers to bringing down poverty? “Shallow solutions are the biggest barriers to solving poverty. I hate shallow solutions which are just giving cash and baskets of food.
“You need to also teach people how to manage their finances. Instead of eating a fish, we need to teach them how to fish, that’s a big problem. We partner with specialised people and organisations, but it has to be a deep and long term solution for a huge problem, those are our conditions.
“If anyone has a good deep plan we are there to help. I think we can help in a much better way than just giving money and that’s what people are realising.”
With another key aspect of the Foundation being the promotion of better dialogue between religions, the princess is increasingly likely to be drawn into sensitive areas — particularly relations between Christians and Muslims.
But she is well prepared for this and has some forthright views. She agrees with Prince Alwaleed that the building of a mosque should not be close to the site of Ground Zero “for the same reasons the Prince has discussed”, but argues that both the media and governments must take a stronger lead.
“It’s simply lack of education. I took Comparative Religion as a course when I was at university. Before that, I have to be honest with you, I knew little about Christianity and Judaism. But I still judged them. After taking that course I know that we are different in very small specific areas, but we share so many things you can’t believe it.
“It really enlightened me and I have so much respect for all religions. You go out there and you ask people what is Islam, and they can only express misconceptions about it. The way to try to solve that is for people to access verified information by opening their laptops, reading books learning about the true Islam and then they can understand,” she says.
“My brother and sister are studying in LA. They are as close to American culture as they can be. They go to restaurants, they have friends, they have fun — but they pray five times a day. That doesn’t mean they are hostile towards the West. People need to respect that. There are about 13,000 Saudi students in US who have assimilated into the system.”
So what does the future hold for the princess? Still very new to her role at the Foundation, she is likely to be in the public eye more and more.
Although very confident and self-assured, she insists that she prefers to stay out of the media gaze, unless it helps bring attention to the causes she supports.
“I am very careful. I get a lot of interview requests for fashion magazines. If I do something it is to bring attention to a cause, I don’t want to just promote myself. The media is a wild card and you have to be careful how you use it. I believe that to promote a cause, I can promote myself... Why would people want an interview with me? They would only care to get viewers and sell magazines. But as long as I am there I will speak about a cause.”
She is likely to be speaking a lot more about her causes in the coming years, and has already gained the respect not just of her team at the Foundation but many more people across the kingdom.
Though she may not enjoy the media glare, it is certain to be heading her way.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.