Are the Saudis getting something right?

Are the Saudis getting something right, in terms of their foreign policy, both in the MENA region and around the world? Or is it all a big mess, much like American foreign policy in the region? In a recent article in the TIME magazine, Farid Zakaria[i] pointed out that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is a disaster and that it is pouring money down the drain, while alienating itself from the global order. The kingdom’s  rejection of the Security Council seat is the most egregious example of this phenomenon. There is however, one area where the Saudi government is acting in good faith and putting its money for a cause that may actually drastically change the intellectual and foreign policy landscape of the country in the decades, if not years to come – higher education. The billions of dollars that King Abdullah has allocated to higher education may hold the prospects for a more liberal, open and vibrant in the years to come.

Pic courtesy:
Pic courtesy:

Just taking a cursory look at the number of Saudi students in American schools tells us that something profound is taking place. Post 911, the number of Saudi students in the U.S. plummeted, for reasons related directly to the tense relations that characterized the countries and people, immediately following the incident. As this Wall Street Journal article[ii] points out, in 2004, there were just 1000 Saudi students in the U.S. In 2011, there was a huge jump to over 66,000 students. This also corresponded with the increased interest and lobbying at the highest level from the Saudis to help their citizens understand the rest of the world and vice versa. On a macro-level, the overall literacy rate was 5% in 1950s and has climbed upto over 79%, since then. This is part of the strategic plan put forth by King Abdullah, who is concerned with the potentially declining oil revenues and also an increasingly networked world, where Saudis have to find their place – once the oil runs out.

I believe that this is visionary thinking and rightly puts money where the mouth is. With a greater number of students coming to the U.S., learning, interacting and sharing their experiences and lives with others, they will create a better understanding between the two countries. Once they return- and many scholarships are tied in such a way that they eventually return to Saudi Arabia- they will bring back this understanding and nuance in dealing with the rest of the world with them. I believe that this new generation of people will be the defining factor in how Saudi of tomorrow will shape up – either as a continuation of the current order, or a radical shift to a new and more open system, one that is open to many more ideas and versions of Islam and ways of life, than it is currently.

There are indicators that this is already occurring. The women contingent’s participation in Olympics in 2012 and this year’s activism to end the ban on women driving cars are both instances of reform and change that are taking place in the kingdom. Things are changing, albeit slowly. Citizens movements, and work from activists who are asking for greater integration into the global human rights discourse and activism are changing the landscape of legal reform. Saudi based humanitarian aid organizations are cooperating and working alongside international aid agencies and both the entities are learning to appreciate the different worldviews that they approach their work.

As Zakaria points out, and quite rightly, the kingdom’s vast oil wealth has been used to underwrite the promotion of Wahhabism, a rather orthodox and fundamentalist version of Islam that is not entirely acceptable to most countries in the Muslim world. While this brand of Islam has been promoted as the “mainstream” Islam by the ruling elites in Saudi, one must be aware that the diversity within the house of Islam is as much as the diversity of human races and religions – as Islam is literally present everywhere in the world. So, in short, the Saudi version of Islam does not have a monopoly of representing Islam – the presence of the holiest sites of Islam notwithstanding. Other strands of Sunni Islam are equally valid, so are Shia Islam as well as the various permutations and combinations of syncretic Islam that has emerged in India, Indonesia and the U.S., sometimes radically challenging our conceptions of what it means to be a Muslim.

All of these hold prospects for change, but most importantly it is the 66,000 plus students in the U.S. who will define the future of Saudi. And by the look of it, and having interacted with a few dozen of them, I am optimistic that there will be a more tolerant and open Saudi Arabia in the years to come. The Saudis are getting something right – and that is investing in the future of their youth. And I hope that they don’t give up on this, anytime soon.


How to overcome cultural barriers to philanthropy?

Doing good is not easy. In today’s globalized world, where different values, norms, cultural attitudes towards life are coming together and interacting there is bound to be friction, misunderstanding when it comes to what it means to do good, and the intentionality of the acts themselves. In the field of philanthropy, this is markedly so, and listening to a few speakers during the MENA Social good, an online conference that brought in speakers from around the MENA region, I was reminded of this reality. Doing good may mean vastly different things to different people and finding the ‘common ground’ is not as easy as it sounds._12865_kuwait-charity-2-3-2005

                So, what are the challenges to doing global philanthropy or philanthropy with people of different norms and values from that of our own? For starters, the very idea of philanthropy and ‘common good’ may be different across cultures. In the U.S., one can argue that there is a broader definition of ‘common good’ and there is a vibrant civil society, as evidenced by the number of nongovernment organizations, political action committees and other forms of “civil society” institutions, that provide services to the public. The ‘self-help’ ethic can be said to be ingrained in the American psyche that is deeply suspicious of too much government intervention in their private lives. The ongoing debate about Obama care or the Affordable Healthcare Act is an example of this phenomenon.

On the other hand, there are countries in the Middle East that have, for historic and geo-political reasons relied on state patronage to people and suppressed civil society formation. This is a different model of philanthropic giving and one that has strong networks with the religious institutions in the region. While religious giving is also high in the U.S. and according to Giving USA, it is about roughly one third of all individual giving in the country, the fact that much of giving occurs through ‘secular institutions’ is a differentiator. Secondly, when it comes to philanthropy across borders, there is a question of power relations, hegemony and unequal access to knowledge, resources and mutual perception of the ‘other’ that becomes a barrier. As Muna AbuSulayman, Media personality from the UAE pointed out: “We want to be treated as partners, even if we are not equal. We are tired of being treated as victims, and the Western world treating us as subjects to be colonized and need saving. We need to understand that these are complex issues, and need to be taken into account. We need dignity for all stake holders and this needs to be considered, as global partnerships are created.”

Institutionalization of philanthropy is another important factor that is underdeveloped in the MENA region. Especially in the Gulf countries, that are cash-rich, there is a lack of systems of measurement of philanthropy and also only now are NGOs’ in the region starting to look at accountability and transparency.  As Abu Sulayman further added: “We still suffer from a lack of institutionalization, and there is a missing link of societal needs and planning. One of this is low-cost housing. Either open-source housing or other models such as Dr. David Smith is advocating. We need to bring this into the Arab world. We need an actionable plan and how look at funds are going into projects. In CSR, we are seeing this as part of money being spent, but much of the decision making happens based on what CSR administrator thinks what a society needs. A lot of it revolves around Public Relations, and not genuine needs of the people.”

The other main problem is the notion of “doing good” and “doing well while doing good”, i.e., looking at philanthropy through the lens of business thinking. The notion of “Philanthrocapitalism” is new even in the west, but is being rapidly adopted in the MENA region, according to Ahmed Ashkar, CEO of the Hult Prize. He pointed out that the barriers to entry must be low for start-ups and also that doing good and doing well can and should go together. These are not contradictory things in themselves, added. When the cost of doing business is low and all the extra profits earned go back into the business, then we are looking at a “socially conscious business,” he said.

Criticisms of Philanthrocapitalism

One of the biggest criticisms of philanthrocapitalism is that when people get involved in what are essentially political issues, it is easy for everyone else to fear the worst. Today’s democratic freedoms have been hard-won; votes don’t want to trade their rights for plutocracy. “For traditional-minded Americans, George Soros is public enemy number one,” thunders TV pundit Bill O’Reilly in Culture Warrior,” say Bishop and Greene in their book Philanthrocapitalism.  They point out that a liberal like him can raise troubling questions such as why should the rich determine society’s priorities? Tom Wolfe, author of The Bonfire of the Vanities argues that much of philanthropy is ego-driven. “Pride and vanity have built more hospitals that all the virtues together.”

Another criticism is that most giving in the USA is  tax-driven and if the money is in a foundation, the taxman cannot touch it, at least in America.  The same is not true in the MENA, however. This also creates different incentives in both systems for giving – one a highly professionalized and almost ‘business-like’ attitude, while the other encourages a rather personal and  charitable attitude. This is extremely significant and should not be overlooked, when analyzing the differences between the two systems.

While both speakers brought up relevant concerns and seemed to be pointing to some of the challenges to doing business and philanthropy in the MENA region, there are structural issues to deal with. How does the bureaucracy of the country deal with start-ups and nonprofit organizations? What are the cultural attitudes towards charity? How does this intersect with what the entrepreneurial “do-gooders” come up with? These are some basic questions that need to be addressed, as well. I am not proposing any solutions, nor are any simplistic ones possible. These are deep questions that need to be worked out, on a case by case basis, as there are many moving parts to this problem. While power-dynamics, access to knowledge, capital and networks are key to address them, one must be sensitive to the fact that history, culture, religion and relations of the individual and state need to be factored in, before proposing any solution.

This is a necessary first step towards finding any common ground, without which, all “doing good” may actually backfire and cause more heartburn and damage.


Interfaith work and Philanthropy – a faith-based revolution or a pragmatic innovation?

“ We did not hear the term “Abrahamic faiths,” until about ten years ago. This term is not only a great leap forward in terms of interfaith work, but also a radical shift in how people are looking at each other’s faith,” said William Enright, the Director of Lake Institute for Faith and Giving, Indianapolis. He said this when we were discussing the state of interfaith work in the U.S and the implications on philanthropy, a few weeks ago, when I was at the Lilly School of Philanthropy, IUPUI. While the interfaith movement has a long history in this country and has seen many ups and downs, I will briefly discuss how religious diversity in the U.S is impacting it. I will briefly look at the opportunities it presents in the field of philanthropy.

Source: Case Western Reserve University.
Source: Case Western Reserve University.

My first significant exposure to the interfaith movement in Washington D.C was when I attended a Jum’ah (Friday)prayer conducted in an Episcopal church in downtown D.C, about two years ago. Ever since, each time I visit the city on a Friday, this is where I attend Friday prayers. While the notion of praying in a church may seem anathema to many Muslims across the world, this seems like the most normal thing in the U.S, where space constraints and financial restrictions are forcing small Muslim congregations to creatively reach out to other faith based groups and create spaces where they can pray, conduct meetings etc. This is not the only instance where prayers are held in a Church. I personally know of two other venues in the greater D.C area where this is the norm. What this points out is also the growing recognition and accommodation of Muslims by Christian and Jewish groups, who see the need to accommodate Muslims and their needs. This is also a good illustration of the concept of “Abrahamic faiths,” that Mr.Enright pointed out. While not new radically new as a concept (the notion of Abrahamic faiths is centuries old) but its usage and acceptance is rather new.

In “America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity”, Robert Wuthnow, Princeton University professor of Religion takes a close, hard look at the changing religious landscape in the U.S, and analyzes its impact on the American population. Using in-depth interviews with religious leaders, lay-men and also people from the “new religions” in the American landscape i.e., Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, the book provides a compelling argument for greater inter-faith dialogue and also a call for Christians to be more pro-active in learning and accommodating these religious groups. The key argument in the book is that the increasing religious diversity is presenting challenges to the American social fabric and we must pay close attention to this issue. There is a call for greater interaction and also work between religious groups, though a stronger focus has been put on Christian groups to do more, in terms of inter-faith work.

He calls for reflective pluralism, one in which there is adequate thinking and consideration given to what one believes in, and where one’s beliefs are coming from. He points out rightly, that for exclusivists to ignore all other religions and to continue to live in a bubble will be hard in the future, as the country becomes increasingly diverse.

Shoulder to Shoulder and Interfaith Youth Core

Two organizations that seem to be at the cutting edge of interfaith work in the U.S are Shoulder to Shoulder, an interfaith alliance of over 20 national organizations, across the country from Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other faithbased groups that have come together to defend each other’s rights. This is exemplified in their stance against Islamophobia, and other racially motivated campaigns by radical groups in the country. Their mission is: “Sharing ideas for starting community initiatives to address anti-Muslim sentiment by maintaining an archive of past events. Offering resources materials in a comprehensive online library that includes worship materials, educational curricula, videos, and more.”


Interfaith Youth Core is another group that is redefining how interfaith work is being carried out. It is reaching out to Millennials across college campuses to form a coalition of groups that educate each other and also organize along faith lines to transform the religious context of the country. Eboo Patel, the founder of the group exemplifies this struggle, and he illustrates that in his autobiographical book Acts of Faith.


Challenges: One exclusive path or many ways to reach truth?

Exceptionalism is one of the biggest challenges facing America in the realm of interfaith dialogue. While some denominations tend to be exclusive, others take a more ecumenical perspective when it comes to reaching ultimate reality, or religious truth. Wuthnow points this out by saying : ““ Among the thorniest questions that religious diversity poses for all the major religious traditions is whether or not they can sustain their historic claims to being uniquely true or at least better than other traditions in relating people to the sacred. Much of the reason for believers taking an active part in particular denominations or congregations has been the conviction that God could be found best in one theological location rather than in the other”.

What this calls for, then, is not only willingness to dialogue and to be open to ideas, but also to be secure enough in one’s faith that this first step becomes possible. Most often, insecurity and lack of initiative hampers most efforts. A theme that Wuthnow brings up more than once is that of the majority community accommodating the minorities. This is not only a pragmatic position, but one that resonates with the ethos of building a civil society. And if the interfaith projects mentioned above are any indication, this seems to be happening, as we speak.

There is reason to be positive, though more efforts need to be made in this direction, Wuthnow adds. One of the most eclectic experiences I have had in Washington D.C (when I lived there) was attending Jum’ah at a church in downtown, walking out a few blocks and eating Matzo Ball soup at a Jewish restaurant. It was my little pilgrimage to honor all three faiths, though arguably the Matzo Ball soup is only culturally a Jewish delicacy. The diehard fundamentalists may cringe at this thought, but this is the reality of Islam in the U.S and also reflects the pragmatism that followers of each religion demonstrate. This, I believe will define the future of interfaith work in the U.S.