Saudi Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel says she wants to use philanthropy to bridge cultural divides and prevent violence like the recent attacks on U.S. embassies sparked by an anti-Islam video.
In New York last month for former President Bill Clinton's annual philanthropy summit, the princess spoke about her ambitions for the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundations, where she serves as secretary general. The philanthropies are financed by her husband, Prince Alwaleed, a multibillionaire and nephew of the Saudi king. They give away at least $70-million a year in 70 countries, she said.
With $2-million in initial financing, she is starting a project called Opt4Unity, which she describes as an "uncommon table" of nonprofit leaders, business executives, and philanthropists who can tackle big problems like youth unemployment in the Middle East, agricultural development in Africa, and religious and cultural divisions.
She says she hopes to introduce courses at 20 universities aimed at bridging cultural divides; start the first "Food University" designed to improve agricultural production; and encourage young people to take to social media for the promotion of tolerance, not violence.
Sitting on a couch in the busy lobby of the Plaza Hotel, Princess Ameerah, 28, cited the example of a young Saudi man studying in the United States who, after the embassy attacks, uploaded a video designed to educate Westerners about the Prophet Muhammad.
"He's a bridge builder whether he knows it or not," she said. "If you want to change people's ignorance about Prophet Muhammad, then teach about it. We want to have 10,000 young people uploading videos of them and how they can bridge build."
Princess Ameerah has become an outspoken advocate for women's rights, a bold step given that Saudi Arabia is one of the most restrictive countries in the world for women.
Her family's philanthropies supports entrepreneurship programs for Saudi women. After the government began to enforce a law permitting women to work in lingerie shops—over opposition from conservative clerics—the philanthropies created a course to train women in retail work.
Princess Ameerah is also backing efforts to strengthen the role of women in politics. She says she is bringing together 200 women professionals for a dinner in November to organize their voices and encourage them to speak out collectively in the media and in public.
She disputes the idea that change can only happen from the top down. "The change comes bottom up, and this is what we've seen in the Arab revolutions," she says. "Saudi women have been quiet for a long, long time, and it's about time we spoke up."
A Dearth of Charities
Princess Ameerah says that Saudi Arabia is hindered by its small number of nonprofits—roughly 600, she says, compared with 3,000 in Bahrain.
She'd like to see more young Saudis choose jobs with nonprofits, she says, but they often view those positions as unattractive and poorly paid. "We need to think about how we can make working in [nonprofits] appealing," she said.
The Arab Spring, she says, has had the short-term effect of constraining the work of nonprofits across the Middle East. But she hopes that when the political situations stabilize, nonprofits and philanthropies will be able to step up their work.
"People want to do good, and that will continue whether you have a dictator or a democratic government," she says.