JEDDAH: Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates on Tuesday said he was “optimistic” about the Middle East, a key reason being “the energy of the youth, their interest in doing new things, including embracing technology.”
The next generation in the region “is going to be responsible for incredible innovation,” Gates said in a video message, adding that “despite the challenges of instability and other regional problems, I do think the Middle East — both economically and in terms of contributing to innovation in the world — will surprise people with positive results.”
Microsoft co-founder and the world’s richest man said regional challenges, such as the Syrian conflict and the resultant refugee crisis, “shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the fact that we are making progress.”
He said childhood health in the Middle East and North Africa has improved “dramatically” over the last 25 years, but that amid the media’s focus on “tough events” in the region, awareness of progress in health and reducing poverty “is not widely known. We need to explain to people that a lot of things have been going well.”
Gates cited the halving of the number of children in the MENA region who do not reach their fifth birthday. “There is a lot to be proud of there,” said the philanthropist.
Another “great example” of progress is the polio eradication effort. “The number of cases is at its lowest point ever,” he said, adding that there were less than 50 cases in 2016.
“We are hoping that 2017 is the last year that we see polio at all… and with success there we can move on and tackle malaria and measles, that are still very big killers.”
He thanked governments and individuals in the region for their “incredible generosity” in their partnerships with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “The tradition of philanthropy that comes from wanting to help the poorest is very, very strong in the region.”
He said his foundation’s “biggest single effort” is via the Islamic Development Bank in partnership with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE.
Called the Lives and Livelihoods Fund, it will deploy up to $2.5 billion of grants and loans to improve health, agriculture and basic infrastructure in member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Gates said Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed “has been very generous on vaccination and polio eradication work. In fact, he has used his unique relationship with a lot of the key countries, including Pakistan, to help make (the foundation’s) work there very, very successful.”
Citing a partnership with the Saudi government, Gates said: “There are fellowships now where people that are interested in (philanthropy) can work at foundations and come and spend time at our foundation and really understand where philanthropy is working, how it can become better measured, so that’s a field that’s drawing in the best young people and really can have high impact.”
Hassan Al-Damluji, head of Middle East relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, cited examples of “inspirational” generosity from its Middle East partners, such as Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal’s commitment to give away most of his fortune to philanthropy; the Shefa Fund, which brings Saudi philanthropists together to eliminate neglected diseases in Muslim countries; and the philanthropic fellowship launched with the King Khalid Foundation in Saudi Arabia, “Shaghaf,” to train young Saudis in philanthropic work.
Gates said he expects his foundation’s alliances with key partners in the Middle East to “continue” and “grow.”