Interview: HE Dr Sheikha Aisha Al-Thani

HE Dr Sheikha Aisha bint Faleh bin Nasser Al-Thani is the chair and founder of Al Faleh Group which provides educational services in Qatar, through three centres, including Doha Academy. She is also a founding member of the board of the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists (WCMP). She discusses with Alliance editor Charles Keidan the moral position that underlines her philanthropy, her belief in the connection between education and the affirmation of rights and the role of philanthropy in creating links between cultures.

You did a PhD at Cass Business School in London, was that on a subject linked to philanthropy?
My background was strategic management. That was my masters thesis and then I thought ‘what is missing in my country?’. We ranked very well in a lot of sectors, but not in corporate governance, so I based my thesis on corporate governance which sat well with the philanthropic activities I was involved in, because corporate governance plays a huge role in philanthropy. You hear about money in foundations going to administrative functions, rather than actually to the people who need it, and it’s all down to corporate governance, so I’m very happy that I was able to go into that discipline at the Cass Business School. I was also introduced to influential people in the field, like Professor Jenny Harrow and Professor Paul Palmer, with whom I’ve since worked on some of my philanthropic papers as well as on projects.

What gave you the idea to establish the World Congress for Muslim Philanthropists (WCMP)?
Actually, it was Tariq Cheema’s brainchild. He wanted to create a global network of donors and foundations around Muslim giving in order to address global issues and advance their efficiency. I was immediately convinced when he shared the vision with me and I’m lucky to have seen it grow to be an authority on Muslim giving.

So if we go back to our roots, Islam always promoted the endorsement of all parts of society, regardless of faith, and regardless of gender.

What was the vision and why were you convinced by it?
The aim was to strategize philanthropy in the Muslim world, which was plagued with secrecy. First and foremost, we wanted to address that issue and also raise awareness among everyone of the role of philanthropy in addressing challenges. That accorded with my religious beliefs as well.

HE Dr Sheikha Aisha Al-Thani at the WCMP.

HE Dr Sheikha Aisha Al-Thani at the WCMP.

The World Congress has been going for a decade now. What has its impact been?
The norm in the Muslim world used to be ad hoc giving and secrecy, with no strategic philanthropic vision. I’m happy to say that WCMP has helped to change that. Strategic philanthropy with an emphasis on transparency has now become a trend in the Muslim world. However, I still feel that some of our charities lack long-term impact and focus on short-term solutions, like building schools or supporting religious institutions. They still need to catch up with what’s happening in the international philanthropic arena. I can understand charities giving out food packages for immediate relief like in Syria and Yemen and after natural disasters, but sometimes I don’t understand the short-term focus on the part of the NGOs in some countries. To sum up, philanthropists in the Muslim world have risen to the challenge but our institutions have not caught up yet.

The Global Donors Forum will take place in London in September. Will this question of thinking about impact more strategically be discussed?
Yes, not only are we interested in strategizing, but also in keeping up with the West in measuring the impact of giving and aligning where we are as we go along. So impact is high on the agenda at the Forum. In fact, I will be speaking about it.

We always strive to think strategically and choose the countries where we feel our giving will do most good and is most needed.

You mentioned that the aims of the WCMP accorded well with your religious views. How has your faith in general underpinned your philanthropy?
My faith plays the biggest role in all my philanthropic activities. As our Prophet says, ‘he is not a believer who sleeps with a full stomach while he knows that his neighbour is hungry’. He also urges us to help the needy regardless of religious affiliation. This discipline shaped my strategic direction in philanthropy.

So your faith inspires a wider vision of helping humankind?
Absolutely. Our Prophet chose to live next to a Jew rather than a Muslim. And when he wanted to borrow something, he didn’t go to a Muslim, he chose to go to his neighbour just to assert that Muslims need to be open to people from different religions. So if we go back to our roots, Islam always promoted the endorsement of all parts of society, regardless of faith, and regardless of gender. In fact, our first university was built by a woman in Islam, Fatima al Fihri.

So your philanthropy flows from your faith, and what your faith teaches you?
This is a long discussion, but I will try to sum it up. The Prophet said, ‘Islam will not make you better or worse, it is your ethics that will make you better or worse. I came merely to polish your ethics.’ So it is my duty to help and Islam shows the way. It tells us, for example, that you need to give to those who are close to you and those who are far from you. It is an ethical duty first, and a Muslim duty second.

How does your ethical vision and religious duty inform where you give? You’re based in Qatar but you have a very international orientation. How do you decide when to give within your own country and when to give internationally?
I am a former member of the ROTA board – Reach Out to Asia – which gives education aid across Asia. But I also insisted that we helped people at home, striking a balance between giving to countries in Asia and to schools in Doha. We always strive to think strategically and choose the countries where we feel our giving will do most good and is most needed. We keep donors up to date on the progress of a project they were involved in and offer to take them on field visits to see how their contribution is helping that group. And what we do differently, is that after completion of a project, after building a school, for example, monitoring continues and we revisit the place and offer more help as we go along.

Throughout the Muslim world today, rights are being violated. Education maintains the voice through which rights can be claimed. If you have the education, you can make your case to the government to get your rights.

There’s a large Asian migrant population in Qatar so there are already links between Asia and Qatar. Did that also prompt your involvement in the ROTA programme?
One of the countries that was not on our radar at first was the Philippines, but because we had a lot of Filipino migrant workers, we decided to go to the Philippines and help out. We also helped the Filipino community in Qatar using what we called a moving school, where we would go to camps and teach them how to speak Arabic.

What’s your view of women’s entrepreneurship and women’s role in philanthropy?
I dedicate some of my efforts to raising awareness about women’s issues, to encouraging entrepreneurs in general, and women entrepreneurs specifically. I tell entrepreneurs in my country to put in the hours in whatever passion drives them – no shortcuts. I believe executive education affects entrepreneurship. I founded Al Faleh Educational Group (AFG) because I understand that education is the key to success, and executive education particularly. Entrepreneurship is our focus in the AFG College with the University of Aberdeen, which provides undergraduate programmes in accounting and finance and business management from a campus in Qatar. We now have a few entrepreneurs studying with us who have already started their own successful businesses. One of them started a coffee shop, another provides home medical services, supporting medical professionals. Education is not solely a women’s issue, but its role in community development and the potential for change through philanthropy is often spearheaded by women as well as focused on women.

Our aim with WCMP is also to raise awareness about giving, and to persuade people to give willingly again. I believe that you really need to show people where their money is going in order for them to buy in, and this is also what we promote.

My own motivation for joining ROTA was to contribute as a philanthropist in this area, because the potential of education to change lives and make a difference over the longer term is tremendous. Throughout the Muslim world today, rights are being violated. Education maintains the voice through which rights can be claimed. If you have the education, you can make your case to the government to get your rights. In my years doing site visits to camps in Indonesia as a board member of ROTA, the families would always ask us for schools for their children. Even if there was a lack of clinics, of drinking water and other basic needs, they always identified education as a priority.

If you see funding for education as a way to enable citizens to claim their human rights and to challenge rights violations, do you think philanthropy ultimately can be a way of making society more open and free?
Yes, of course. As I mentioned, philanthropy is a way to bridge cultural differences. If we strategize well and channel philanthropic activities well in the Muslim world and create links between the Muslim and the western worlds, a lot of misunderstandings would be cleared up. 

Does a changing regional diplomatic landscape influence your thinking about philanthropy? Does that give it added importance?
Yes, and especially in the western world, the area in which I would like to work more is women’s impact. Internationally, women have done extraordinary things. But we know there is much more to come. Women increasingly control work around the world and are moving beyond the traditional confines of home and family but the structure is not there yet. We don’t network enough. Men network wherever they go. We don’t yet have the structures which support women. I think it’s time for more coordinated efforts from women everywhere. A surge in women’s philanthropy is the next thing to think about. Women are too often treated solely as the recipients of philanthropy. In my opinion they should be perceived as partners critical to every part of the value chain.

Do you think we are set to see more female philanthropists, including female Muslim philanthropists, emerging in the next few years?
Definitely. Just before I came to Europe this time, I had a call from a woman I know who wanted guidance on a major project. Her first thought was to insist on sustainability and she doesn’t come from a philanthropic background. In my view, for her to ask that means that all this effort to raise awareness is sinking in. Basically, her plan involves dealing with all the corporations in Qatar and then strategizing their giving through a sustainable model. I think it’s a good idea and if I can, I will do a paper with her on it.

Is Qatar more or less advanced than its neighbours in terms of the role of women in society?
Women all over the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries play a major role in community development. NGOs for the welfare of children and the poor, and the elderly and those with special needs, have been organized mainly by women. However, of course more measures should be adopted to guide women philanthropists in the region. But in the context of the GCC, Qatar is doing well.

You mentioned ROTA as a vehicle for some of your philanthropy. Do you or your family have a foundation of your own or do you use an LLC or some other structure?
I have close ties with ROTA, so I always channel my strategic giving through them, just because I know where the money is going and I know how strategic they are in giving.

Fatima al Fihri, credited as founder of the world’s oldest university.

Fatima al Fihri, credited as founder of the world’s oldest university.

My understanding is that Islam prescribes not only a responsibility to give, but also indicates the amounts that one should give. How have you interpreted that?
Islam goes into the very minute detail about giving, so originally it was not left to the person themselves to decide – if it’s gold, this is the percentage, if it’s money this is the percentage, etc. Over time, though, people did not adhere to these percentages as it was not meant to be compulsory, but something you give willingly. And at the time of the Prophet, they were giving willingly.

Our aim with WCMP is also to raise awareness about giving, and to persuade people to give willingly again. I believe that you really need to show people where their money is going in order for them to buy in, and this is also what we promote. I have resigned from most of the boards I am on because I am letting younger people do it, but I stayed on with WCMP because I see the effect my work has on the international arena. But WCMP is merely a vehicle. We don’t take money. We take the philanthropists to those who are doing the projects.

There is the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge which originated in the US, a secular pledge, which is about giving the majority of your wealth in your lifetime. What’s your view on how much should be given or does it depend on the circumstances?
As I said, in Islam, you give your zakat, it’s not compulsory, it’s something you give willingly, but there’s a lot of evidence now in the Muslim world that individuals give large amounts of money during their lifetime. We have a dinner gala for ROTA, where we suggest projects, like a sort of silent auction and individual philanthropists give out huge amounts, like $5 million towards projects in Pakistan or Iraq. They are anonymous. It’s something that they feel the need to do and they get satisfaction from it.


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