Foundation for change

At the helm of the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation, Muna AbuSulayman has one of the most important jobs in Saudi society today
Foundation for change
By Anil Bhoyrul
Mon 01 Nov 2010 12:00 AM

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.

“We commission a lot of studies because we cannot rely on data that is available in the developing world. If you really want to change society for the better you need the right data,” she says, adding:  “Next week we are commissioning our own research because we can’t help female empowerment until we know the scale of   the issue. That will help me address the problems as they really are not what we think, or even wish, they are.  For example what is the minimum wage? Nobody knows what is the amount of money a woman needs to earn to live a dignified life. So I need to carry out a study to find out what it costs to have a home and put your kids in school at various stages and situations for women.”

So far three major studies have been undertaken at a cost of several million riyals and over a period of several years, looking at arts and crafts, gender and the non-profit sector.

“I think this is absolutely crucial for us to move forward,” says AbuSulayman.

One of the key aspects to the Foundation’s work is its business-like approach to philanthropy. It doesn’t just hand out cash for those who need it as a charity. Getting any kind of help is a detailed and carefully documented and monitored process.

Anyone needing help — from individuals to charities and governments — first sends the Foundation a “concept note”. If the Foundation feels it is in line with its own vision, an extensive grant application form is completed, which is often followed by a six to nine month evaluation to make sure the organisation does  exist, needs help, and to assess the type of help it needs. Once approved by AbuSulayman’s team, it is sent to the Foundation’s Board of Trustees for approval, and after that a payment schedule is set up.

“But that is only the beginning. We ask everyone for detailed progress reports, and it is absolutely vital we get them to understand how the grant is being distributed and the obstacles being faced.  It is part of our own learning process for future grant distribution, as well.  We usually ask people for evaluations every six months — outside Saudi Arabia almost everyone reports. Inside Saudi, many non-profits don’t understand the need to file such reports, and they don’t. If they don’t we send them a couple of warnings and after that we won’t fund them further until they do. You have to be tough in order to ensure that the grant is really being used properly and to build up a culture of transparency in the sector itself,” she says.

Before Kingdom Holding was floated in 2007, the Foundation was part of the prince’s business empire. Since then it has deliberately been separated and now runs as a stand-alone organisation. It is not unusual for the Foundation to spend $100m in a single year, with on-going commitments to various projects running at around $40m a year.

She explains: “Doing this was very important so that we could precisely monitor what was happening. In the past for example, natural disaster aid was carried out by someone in his private office and also by the CSR office at Kingdom, and some of the follow up on donations was sporadic and run by different offices and there was not much coordination. In 2006, when we all came under one group, we started centralising all donations and grants from one location and also doing follow ups  on previous donations that were given in the past to understand the history of HRH’s long term giving. So both centralisation and a rigorous follow up of grants have been carried out to make us run far more efficiently.”

One of the themes that is being heavily driven at the Foundation is the empowerment of women.

Over several years, it has grown to become a fundamental part of Saudi society: from working closely with a large number of women’s activists and women’s rights organisations and awareness programmes, right down to specific projects to help find Saudi women jobs, the scale of its work is hugely impressive.

She says: “When you change women’s conditions and empower them, you change the whole family. Economics is only one part of it, a lot of these programmes work on skills such as how to communicate with your kids. We are, for example, training female cashiers and salesgirls in preparation for expanding their operations in the retail sector through a partnership with Al Nahda organisation. We know that there are databases of women willing to work for 2,000 riyals but they have no jobs and we want to ensure that we match them with the right job.

“There is, as everyone knows, high unemployment and cultural restrictions, so we hope to be also lobbying for change in the system. But, I also want to add, that there is change — Riyadh has changed a lot. Just walking down the mall you see women having more access to lifestyle choices then they did in the 90s. There is a lot of social reform occurring.”

Much of this change is down to the work of the Foundation. As AbuSulayman explains: “Take an issue like breast cancer — you just couldn’t talk about it in Saudi Arabia in the past. We were one of the first to put one million riyals in a campaign for awareness in 2003 by a partner organisation. Nobody before dared to talk about it so publically.  We actually put on an event about it. Right now it’s one of the biggest killers of Saudi women, so it is a huge issue.

“Additionally, we also did research in Harvard Medical School in Dubai to only study things that are endemic to the region. One of the studies that came out of that was that the breast cancer gene that affects Arab women in the GCC is different to the gene that affects women in the US.”

Just as important is the Foundation’s work to help promote dialogue between the East and West. This has been done through programmes, forums and educational centres around the world. There have been 52 separate projects to date, the most prominent of which involving the Islamic centres at Edinburgh University, Cambridge University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, Indiana University and Exeter University.

“The prince believes that when you have credible scholars discussing progressive Islam, and they are coming from Harvard, people are going to listen to them,” she says, adding: “We encourage the right leadership in credible Islamic organisations. We have brought together people who would never sit together around the same table.”

As for AbuSulayman herself, there is no doubt that she is personally responsible for much of the progressive work the Foundation has done. She describes her role as a “dream job.” Having worked closely with HRH for seven years, she has also learned a lot along the way. As to what she will do next when her work here is complete, she will only say “a long vacation.”

Few would argue she deserves it.

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