Saudi businessman Dr. Abdullah bin Marei bin Mahfouz called upon his fellow well-to-do to give one third of their wealth for charity and follow the example of several American businessmen who donate hefty amounts to a variety of causes.
Bin Mahfouz was the first to take the initiative and he already donated one third of his fortune to Kinda Charity Organization in order to be spent in health and education projects, the London-based al-Hayat reported Thursday.
"I first took permission from my father and my children then made the donation," he told the newspaper.
Bin Mahfouz cited the example of Bill Gates, the world's second richest according to Forbes magazine, and Warren Buffet, the third richest, who called upon their fellow American billionaires to give away half their wealth.
"I believe the experience of American billionaires could be applicable in Saudi Arabia and I don't see why not adopt a similar initiative," he added.
The Gates-Warren initiative has so far managed to attract 38 American billionaires including Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City and founder of Bloomberg L.P. for financial services, Ted Turner, founder of CNN, and director George Lucas. The total donations have so far reached $230 billion.
When bin Mahfouz first announced his initiative, he was faced with criticism on the part of the media and particularly Saudi journalist Kamal Abdul Qader who labeled his initiative "sheer propaganda."
"If he means it, he has to convince businessmen to donate at least one tenth of their wealth," wrote Abdul Qader. "This way, poverty will disappear in the kingdom and each Saudi will own a house."
Arab billionaires' meagre contribution
News of businessmen giving away sizable portions of their fortunes has become quite common in the United States, home to around 403 billionaires and who make up the majority of the world's billionaires.
However, the situation is different in the Arab world, where such news is always met with surprise due to the rarity of their occurrence.
The total wealth owned by Arab individuals is estimated at $800 billion, distributed amongst around 200,000 people. Most of this wealth comes from the Gulf, home to 78,000 of the richest in the Arab world.
Despite the global financial crisis, which harmed businessmen all over the world, Saudi and Gulf businessmen still top the 50 richest Arabs. Saudi billionaires make up 32% of the list, followed by Emiratis then Kuwaitis.
However, the contribution of Arab billionaires is extremely meager in comparison to donations made in the United States and which reached $260 billion in 2006, double the amount reached in 1995.
The list of the world's most generous donors is devoid of Arab names while Western businessmen come on top. Gordon Earle Moore and his wife Betty alone donated $5 billion when they gave away half the shares of their company Intel Corporation.
Female Arab billionaires
It is not only male businessmen that are slammed for absence from the charity scene, but also their female counterparts and who are accused of hiding the real figures of their fortunes.
Critics compared the almost non-existent role of Arab women to the donation of $500 million by Veronica Atkins, widow of Dr. Robert Atkins who initiated one the world's most famous diets, for fighting obesity and diabetes.
The frozen wealth of Saudi women in banks is estimated at 70-100 billion Saudi riyals, only 30% of which is being invested.
According to statistics, women from the Gulf region will own $385 billion by 2011. Saudi women come first followed by Kuwaitis.
(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)