Eric J. Lyman / 06 Nov 2017
Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world's wealthiest men.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is one of the world’s most high-profile philanthropists who has been a major donor to some of the world’s best-known universities, from Cairo to Massachusetts. But he was among those snared in a weekend blitz of arrests of Saudi royals and key officials, sparking jitters among some of the educational institutions that have for years been among the beneficiaries of the billionaire’s largess.
“Nobody knows anything yet,” James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, said in a telephone interview from Singapore. “We don’t know what the charges against the prince are yet, if his assets will be frozen and, if so, what assets. The wise course of action is to wait and see what happens in the coming days or weeks.”
Bin Talal, who is 62, was one of nearly a dozen Saudi princes rounded up over the weekend in what Dorsey called an unprecedented move, along with at least four government ministers and many former ministers.
With a reported net worth of around $18 billion, bin Talal was one of the two most high-profile arrests called for by newly installed heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is 32. The other was 65-year-old Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, seen in many circles as bin Salman’s strongest rival for his father’s throne.
Bin Talal is best known for taking major stakes in high-visibility Western companies, including Apple, News Corp., Twitter, and the Four Seasons hotel chain. But in academic circles, Middle East-watchers know him as a deep-pocketed philanthropist who donated a total of $40 million to Harvard and Georgetown to underwrite Islamic Studies programs there. He has also donated to centers at the University of Edinburgh, the University of Cambridge, the American University of Beirut, and the American University in Cairo. His foundation has supported an array of social development projects aimed at expanding electrical grids in poor countries, fighting disease, building orphanages, and opening up access to health care.
The weekend arrests came two years after bin Talal announced his intention to donate almost all his wealth to philanthropic causes during his lifetime.
“This philanthropic pledge will help build bridges to foster cultural understanding, develop communities, empower women, enable youth, provide vital disaster relief and create a more tolerant and accepting world,” a 2015 statement from Alwaleed Philanthropies in Riyadh said.
The sensitive situation has many in philanthropy circles worried, but few are willing to go on the record in reaction to the arrest, apparently out of fear of endangering future contributions from Saudi donors of any political stripe. Al-Fanar Media reached out to more than a dozen universities, charities, and research institutions—including Harvard University, Georgetown University, the American University in Cairo, and the U.K.-based Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World—for comment. All either disregarded the requests or stated directly they were choosing not to comment.
“It’s not a surprise that institutions that had received millions or even tens of millions of dollars would choose not to comment,” said one U.S.-based veteran fundraiser not directly associated with any of the entities bin Talal supported, but familiar with colleagues at some of those institutions.
“They wouldn’t want to do anything that might have an impact on the way they are treated in the future,” the fundraiser said in an interview, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s not a good time to stake a strong stand.”
As with most of the other entities contacted, Alwaleed Philanthropies declined to comment about the latest developments.
Bin Talal has long been a champion of liberal causes by the standards of theocratic Saudi Arabia, calling for women to be allowed to drive cars in the kingdom for years before that right was made into law in September, according to Lorenzo Kamel, a Saudia Arabia analyst with Italy’s Institute for International Affairs.
Though bin Talal’s views have in the past sometimes clashed with those of bin Salman, he has made a point of publicly praising the new crown prince since he took power.
“The Saudi government and media have talked about this as a strike against corruption, but it is at least in part about consolidating power around the new crown prince,” said the University of Exeter’s Cinzia Bianco, an analyst with Gulf State Analytics. “There have been occasional criticisms of the way Alwaleed bin Talal conducts his finances, but he has never been seen as particularly corrupt. So perhaps that means he was seen as a threat to the crown.”
In an interview, Bianco speculated that bin Talal’s media holdings in Saudi Arabia could also be a factor.
“If the crown prince is to one day assume the throne and have unquestioned power, as has been the case for his father, King Salman bin Abdelaziz Al Saud, all the media will have to follow the same line,” Bianco said.
Through the state-controlled Saudi satellite news service Al Arabiya, the Saudi government said that a new anticorruption committee created on bin Salman’s watch has the right to investigate, detain, arrest, seize passports, or freeze the assets of anyone it believes to be corrupt.
Nikolia Apostolou in Athens contributed to this report.