Philanthropy in the Middle East (GCC) is intrinsic to its culture and religion. The data we gathered on donations of a million dollars or more illustrates the sheer scale and nature of giving in the region, including the focus donors have on non-GCC Arab countries.

But the data tells us only part of the story, as many major donations are not publicised. So estimating the scale of philanthropy and the charitable sector in the GCC accurately is challenging. Most philanthropy is private, and is frequently informal and anonymous. Traditionally reticent about speaking of their charitable work, some philanthropists are, however, now choosing to speak publicly about their giving to encourage and inspire others to do likewise.  

Through gathering the views of donors, the charities in receipt of large donations and experts in the field, we have made a number of observations about trends in philanthropy beyond the analysis of the numbers themselves. For example, in the GCC, we found an increasing focus on the impact of giving, and a growing number of trusts and foundations.

The tradition of giving

Philanthropy and Islam

Giving to charity is deeply rooted in the Arab culture and in its predominant religion, Islam.
Traditionally, the rich culture of altruism in Islam has been focused on the act of giving to those in need, without expecting recognition for this generosity.

Much of the philanthropy undertaken in these countries goes unpublicised, with the belief that once people talk about their good deeds, they erase the altruism of their motives. As a result, data collected for this report is likely to highlight just a small part of the true picture of million dollar giving. Indeed, a recent study found that Middle Eastern philanthropists are the least public about their philanthropy – 60% of those surveyed insist on anonymity about their gifts[1].
Philanthropy is nonetheless culturally hardwired into the DNA of the GCC economies. In our data we observed a heavy emphasis on traditional charity to groups such as Zakat houses, which collect zakat payments (mandated giving by Muslims to those in need) to distribute among various causes that support community development. Other ‘traditional’ charitable gifts include those with very broad groups of recipients, such as gifts to the Syrian people.

[1] J Benthall and JB Jourdan, The Charitable Crescent, IB Taurus, 2003.

Increasing the impact

Results-oriented giving

In recent years a key emerging trend has been the greater focus by donors on the impact of their giving. Increasingly, themes of giving toward a quantifiable goal or with an emphasis on performance indicators are catching hold[2].

In part, this is the result of greater use of technology, which has enabled people to get closer to the subject of their donations, allowing them to see and assess their impact. In turn, this has encouraged people to think more strategically about their giving, and ask questions about the sustainability of the work and how they can use their gifts to ensure maximum social benefit. 

An emphasis on giving in a sustainable, results-oriented way is discussed in our case study interviews. The donors talk about the importance of building strong relationships, making a lasting difference and creating a social return on investment. With donors also revealing their desires to create a legacy for others, we can also expect the next generation to become actively involved in philanthropy.

Other trends include the likely increase in institutionalised philanthropy as governments recognise the potential of civic participation and take steps to encourage it.

Some philanthropists in the GCC are also choosing to speak out about their philanthropy and the causes or organisations they support in order to inspire others to consider giving.

[2] N Derbal, Takaful: The First Annual Conference on Arab Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, John D Gerhart Centre for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement, Cairo, 2011; RA Khafagy, Gulf Philanthropy: Structural, Domestic, and Global Challenges, Cairo University, 2010

Addressing root causes

A long-term approach

Middle Eastern million dollar donors stand out by prioritising philanthropic interventions aimed at eliminating root causes of problems rather than alleviating their symptoms.

This may be due to the long-term and patient approach that Middle Easterners display toward philanthropy. Indeed, the 2014 BNP Paribas Individual Philanthropy Index[3] revealed that philanthropists from the Middle East are willing to wait the longest to see the results of their philanthropy.

[3] BNP Paribas Individual Philanthropy Index, BNP Paribas in partnership with Forbes Insights, 2014.

Next-generation philanthropy

Young people increasingly engaged

Hundreds of children and young adults have answered a call to action by the Emirates Foundation to come up with inventive ideas to help to solve a range of social problems. 

More than 500 people between the ages of 15 and 35 from across the GCC entered the Emirates Award for Arabian Gulf Youth that completed its first cycle in November 2014. The award highlighted hundreds of young people who were interested in giving back to their own communities, demonstrating the increasing engagement of young people with philanthropy in the region. 


The tradition of giving

The history of philanthropy in the Middle East (GCC) is deeply intertwined with the history of Islam, the official religion of the region. Indeed the practice is as old as Islam itself, dating back to the 600s.

In GCC countries, religion serves as the primary motivation for giving. A recent survey found that some 63% of Middle Eastern respondents are motivated to give to charity by their religion[3]. An associated motivation comes from the ‘ummah’, the concept of the larger community of Muslims. Even as Muslim non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have become more formal and professional, they retain the general motivation to do good for fellow Muslim nations[4].

Various forms of charity and philanthropy are central to the Islamic faith. One of the five pillars of Islam[5] is ‘zakat’, or mandated giving for those who are able. The practice involves Muslims giving a percentage of their surplus earnings to those in need, and is directed at specific types of recipients – generally causes or populations within the ummah.

In addition, ‘sadaqah’ involves voluntarily giving above and beyond the mandatory percentage (zakat) and often to a broader range of recipients [6]. A further common practice in the Arab culture is ‘waqf’, which entails endowing land or property for philanthropic purposes.

It is estimated that every year $200bn-$1tn are given as zakat or sadaqah across the Muslim world, with GCC philanthropy comprising a significant percentage of these figures[4].

GCC governments generally have state ministries or departments for zakat. These ministries assess and collect zakat from their own citizens and the funds go directly to charitable activities. Similar departments and ministries exist in varying forms in each of the six GCC countries.

Philanthropy in the Western sense of institutionalised grant-making is a relatively new concept in GCC countries, dating from the oil boom in the 1970s. The subsequent surplus wealth expanded the capacity of GCC countries to give charitably. As a result, giving has become more institutionalised and has allowed the region’s countries to contribute to causes around the world[1][7].

GCC monarchies are also heavily involved in philanthropy in the region, with their input often impacting the causes that are most supported, such as education and working with children[2]. When a donation is announced by the government, it has often been initiated by a member of the ruling family of that country[8].

Corporate giving is similarly prominent in the region. Depending on the particular country, zakat may be collected not only from citizens of the GCC countries but also corporations owned by those citizens. Businesses within the community are expected to have a strong philanthropic orientation within their strategies. In recent years, corporate social responsibility has been increasingly emphasised by GCC companies.

While philanthropy is widely encouraged in the GCC by their cultural and religious background – with the infrastructure for charities and foundations growing – many philanthropists in the region have chosen to base their foundations in countries where there is an established system of registration.

[4] Analysis: A Faith-based Aid Revolution in the Muslim World?, Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 2012.

[5] A Singer, Charity in Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, 2008.

[6] M Abuarqub and I Phillips, A Brief History of Humanitarianism in the Muslim World, 2009.

[7] BL Ibrahim and DH Sherif, From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy, American University in Cairo (AUC) Press, 2008.

[8] RA Khafagy, Gulf Philanthropy: Structural, Domestic, and Global Challenges, Cairo University, 2010