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Islamic Studies Gets $20M Gift

Mayor Giuliani once spurned Saudi prince’s altruism, but Harvard embraces billionaire

By Samuel P. Jacobs, Contributing Writer

The world’s fifth wealthiest man, Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud, is donating $20 million to Harvard to expand Islamic studies, the University announced yesterday.

The donation will be used to launch a University-wide Islamic studies program and to endow four senior professorships, according to a press release. The gift will also fund a new initiative, the Islamic Heritage Project, which will digitize classic Islamic texts and make them available via the internet.

Alwaleed, who is the nephew of the late King Fahd, became the center of controversy shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks, when he pledged $10 million to the Twin Towers Fund. The mayor of New York City at the time, Rudolph W. Giuliani, rejected the donation because of the politically-charged pro-Palestinian message that Alwaleed attached to his gift.

In that statement, Alwaleed called for the United States to “re-examine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause,” CNN reported.

“While the U.N. passed clear resolutions numbered 242 and 338 calling for the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip decades ago, our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek,” the prince said in his statement, according to CNN.

Alwaleed’s donation follows the University’s return of a controversial $2.5 million gift from United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan in 2004. Harvard gave the money, which was originally earmarked for an endowed professorship at the Divinity School, back to the UAE after the Abu Dhabi-based Zayed Center came under fire for promoting an anti-Semitic agenda.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Alwaleed said he hopes the donation to Harvard and a second $20 million gift to Georgetown also announced yesterday will help connect the Middle East with the West. “As you know,” the prince told the Post, “since the 9/11 events, the image of Islam has been tarnished in the West.”  

In addition to the $40 million he is giving to Harvard and Georgetown, Alwaleed also pledged yesterday to donate an additional $15 million to create and expand American studies programs at  American University campuses in Beirut and Cairo.

“We are very grateful to Prince Alwaleed for his generous gift to Harvard,” said University President Lawrence H. Summers in a statement. “This program will enable us to recruit additional faculty of the highest caliber, adding to our strong team of professors who are focusing on this important area of scholarship.”

The Saudi businessman and philanthropist, who is the chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company in Riyadh, has donated $19 million to the Southeast Asia tsunami relief effort and, in an unrelated act, also plans to fund the construction of 10,000 housing units for poor Saudi Arabian families.

According to a March 2005 issue of Forbes Magazine, the Saudi prince has a net worth of $23.7 billion, and—until last year—owned half of New York’s Plaza Hotel.

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