News and analysis
July 02, 2015

$32-Billion Pledge by Saudi Prince Reflects Gateses’ Influence

Fayez Nureldine, AFP, Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal gestures during a press conference in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 1, 2015. Prince al-Waleed pledged his entire $32-billion fortune to charitable projects over the coming years.

Riyadh is 7,400 miles and a world away from Seattle, and yet a Saudi prince repeatedly invoked the name Bill Gates this week when he pledged his entire $32-billion fortune to charity.

"We need to announce such things," Prince al-Waleed bin Talal said, explaining his decision to go public. The role models for philanthropy "are really the big entities in the United States" such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he said. He also cited Warren Buffett, who has pledged his wealth to the Gates foundation.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, the 60-year-old prince said he had been in touch with Bill Gates and that the Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist commended his decision. The Saudi and the American philanthropists are already collaborating on an effort to eradicate polio, among other things, the prince noted.

His foundation, Alwaleed Philanthropies, will focus on empowering women and youths, providing disaster relief, eradicating disease, and bridging cultures both inside and beyond the Arab world. The work will be conducted in communities regardless of religion, a decision the prince defended more than once during his news conference.

He described the timeline for his philanthropy as "open-ended" and said he is in good health. His two adult children support his decision, he said.

"I am a Muslim, I am an Arab, and I am a Saudi. And maybe this is the first big such announcement," said Prince al-Waleed. "If this is an inducement, an incentive for others in our region, our nation, and others worldwide to contribute to that cause, sobeit. I like that."

'A Very Big Deal'

The size and areas of focus on the prince’s announcement make it a "very big deal," said Jane Wales, a vice president at the Aspen Institute focusing on philanthropy and social innovation. And it speaks to the Gates­es and Warren Buffett as standard-bearers.

"The only difference between him and others is he is saying it," Ms. Wales said. "I think it would be hard to overestimate the impact of those three in thinking about philanthropy around the world."

Last month, 10 individuals and families joined the Giving Pledge, an effort launched in 2010 by Bill and Melinda Gates and Mr. Buffett to get the uber-rich to give away at least half their wealth to good causes. The number of people participating in the Giving Pledge stands at 137.

The Gateses and Mr. Buffett have succeeded in "legitimizing the whole endeavor of philanthropy in the eyes of people around the world," Ms. Wales said.

Ms. Wales recounted Prince al-Waleed’s attendance at the 2012 Global Philanthropy Forum conference, which she founded. He went directly on to the Gates foundation offices in Seattle, she said, part of a sort of philanthropy tour he was doing at time.

“Prince al-Waleed’s generous commitment promises to significantly extend the great work that his foundation is already doing," Bill Gates said Thursday in an email to The Chronicle. "His gift is an inspiration to all of us working in philanthropy around the world.”

Spent 3 Years Preparing

Prince al-Waleed, nephew of Saudi King Salman, made his fortune as the founder of Kingdom Holding Company, which controls billions of dollars worth of investments in real estate and media and entertainment, among other industries.

The prince said he and his team spent three years researching and preparing for this week’s announcement. Alwaleed Philanthropies has already given away about $3.5 billion during the past 35 years, or an average of about $100 million a year, the prince said. The new strategy will accelerate his giving and "injects the element of institutionalization into the process," he said.

The prince’s foundation has 10 staff members, all of them women. He is a vocal proponent of women’s rights in a country where they are barred from many activities, including driving.

Having a member of the Saudi royal family advocate on behalf of women "matters hugely," said Ms. Wales.

"He, too, is a leader who sends signals," Ms. Wales said. "He is a highly respected individual in his own society, so he is signaling the importance and legitimacy of working to advance the status of women and girls and the opportunities available to them."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.