Since separating from Kingdom Holding three years ago, the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation has grown into a stand-alone organisation run like a business. At the helm is Muna AbuSulayman, one of HRH Prince Alwaleed’s most trusted advisors. Charged with spending up to $100m a year on good causes, she has one of the most important jobs in Saudi society today.
Dawn has just broken in Riyadh. Close to the Prince Talal mosque, hundreds of Saudis have gathered in an orderly queue. Some have travelled hundreds of miles over many days, each with the same purpose: they need help. Financial help, medical help, emotional help. Or maybe a roof over their heads, or an electric generator to keep them warm in the winter.
It is a well oiled system. Each one has their documentation and ID ready. They are quizzed, and once verified, their papers are processed on a computer. The following night, most will travel for another hour to meet their prince, and a week later, will receive the aid they seek.
Fifteen minutes drive from the mosque, Muna AbuSulayman is at her desk tapping away on her PC.
“I’m doing some research on cement prices. If I can find a cheaper quote, the difference could be huge, seeing as we are trying to build 10,000 new apartments,” says the Secretary General of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation.
Wherever you go in Saudi Arabia (and at whatever time), it’s hard not to notice the work of the Foundation. You could visit one of 62 mosques that have been built or drink from one of the numerous waterline networks set up in the kingdom. The work includes housing units donated to poverty stricken local families, electric generators that help illuminate remote villages, the funding of hospitals, and the provision of loans and help to the poor who wish to get married but cannot afford the expenses. In addition, the Holy Quran has been translated into thirteen languages, and 360,000 copies have been distributed around the world. Outside Saudi Arabia, from the financing of six electric generators in the Comoros Islands to the donation of 825 pairs of shoes to the Susie Reizod Foundation in Kashmir, or even the building of world class health centers in Africa, few countries have been untouched by the hand of the Foundation. Even the likes of Harvard University and Cambridge University have benefited from specially designed Islamic centres and programs.
At the control centre is AbuSulayman. She has worked with HRH Prince Alwaleed closely for seven years, and now heads up his Foundation. It is no easy task, with four general areas earmarked for action: poverty alleviation, disaster relief, women empowerment and promoting East/West dialogue.
But AbuSulayman approaches the job as she would running a business. “I don’t like to get very attached to a cause because you would not be able to view it objectively. We have a certain mandate to fulfill and at the same time I have to satisfy the prince and the board, in addition to managing budget. The Foundation has to be run this way, or we will never make real progress in the important issues and problems facing the world,” she says.
Progress is clearly being made, with the Foundation’s work becoming increasingly strategic. Several million riyals are being invested in commissioning studies, so the prince can find out exactly what the problems are before deciding how to tackle them.