Are Gulf billionaires giving enough?

Dubai businessman PNC Menon has pledged to give half of his $600m fortune away. Should more of the super rich do the same?
By Ed Attwood
Sun 10 Mar 2013 09:52 AM

The Giving Pledge is gathering steam. In case you haven’t heard of this initiative, it was set up three years ago by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (pictured). The deal? You have to be a dollar billionaire to become a ‘pledger’, and you have to be prepared to give half your fortune away to good causes. It’s a simple concept — particularly as you can decide which charities you give your money to — and one that has been taken up by 105 billionaires from around the world. After all, when you’re lucky enough to be counting your wealth in the billions, it becomes virtually impossible to spend it all.

The list of current pledgers on the organisation’s website reads like a who’s who of corporate America. Apart from Gates and Buffett themselves, Larry Ellison, Carl Icahn, T Boone Pickens, David Rockefeller, Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner and Mark Zuckerberg have all joined up.

And the net has widened in recent months, with several British billionaires — such as Richard Branson and telecoms entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim — India’s Azim Premji and Malaysia’s Vincent Tan (among others) all deciding to give half of their immense wealth to charity.

Earlier this year, Patrice Motsepe became the first billionaire from Africa to join the club, after being courted heavily by Gates and Buffett. Motsepe knows what it is to be poor; he grew up in Soweto, the black township outside Johannesburg, where he watched his mother giving out free food to some of the penniless customers who turned up at her tiny grocery store. Motsepe went on to make his money by acquiring old undervalued mine shafts, and later founding African Rainbow Minerals. He is currently regarded by Forbes as the fourth-richest man in South Africa, and the country’s first black billionaire.

But there has so far been no Gulf-based entry on the Giving Pledge’s website. This does seem a little strange; after all, as you will note in our cover story this week, the Middle East was the only place in the world where the wealth of high net worth individuals actually increased in 2011, according to a wealth report released by RBC Wealth Management and Capgemini.

Credit Suisse thinks that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will see double-digit growth in the number of millionaires based in the two countries in the next five years. The investment bank says the number of millionaires in the Arab world’s biggest economy will rise to 64,000 (a rise of 17 percent), while in the UAE the figure will increase to 48,000 (up by 12 percent).

Last week, however, we heard some refreshing news. PNC Menon, who Arabian Business estimates has a fortune of around $600m, announced that he would be giving half of his wealth to charity. The founder of Sobha Developers — the company that is about to break ground on a $3bn project in Dubai’s Meydan City — Menon has already given back huge amounts to his local community via education and social welfare projects in his native Kerala.

“Once you make all of the money I don’t think you should keep all of it for your family, a large portion of it should go to society,” Menon told us last week. “I have decided that 50 percent of mine should go to society.”

“My view is very simple; I am lucky to have made my money,” he added. “After a certain point in time, money cannot make a difference in your life. I feel that it’s not even called charity, it’s about accountability and the responsibility of society.”

Menon’s act is truly conspicuous in a part of the world where philanthropy is considered vital. Many high net worth individuals have set up foundations to support charitable causes. Gulf governments have spent billions on assisting countries that are recovering from the Arab Spring. And only a couple of weeks ago, the UAE’s embassy in America made local headlines in Missouri by quietly donating funds to the tornado-hit town of Joplin.

At the same time, however, few, if any, have gone as far as Menon. Hopefully more like him will step up to the plate.

Ed Attwood is the Editor of Arabian Business.

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