Over the past few decades in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the number of philanthropic organizations focusing on the education sector has proliferated, increasing from just a few organizations in 1990 to more than 60 today. This sectoral growth has been driven by several factors, such as religious and cultural imperatives to give back to the community in addition to greater availability of resources to donate. Although in the early stages of development, philanthropic activity in the MENA region is still outpacing the collection of information about where programs are offered and their effectiveness. However, at the Al Qasimi Foundation, there has been greater effort to understand the work of philanthropy in the region, and to explore some key distinctions between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and non-GCC states’ philanthropic work in the education sector, namely in terms of their sources of funding, geographic reach, and points of focus.
In a recent study, the Foundation identified and examined the education activities of 65 philanthropic entities in the region to explore these differences. After collating the data, we found that by categorizing these organizations according to whether they were GCC or non-GCC foundations, we could more clearly establish some fundamental differences between the two. This yielded 38 foundations based in the GCC states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and 27 based in non-GCC states of Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Palestine.
Difference Number 1—Funding
While the majority of GCC foundations are state-funded (79%), their non-GCC counterparts are predominately funded by private families and individuals (56%). This is not surprising considering the different historical trajectories of states in both categories. The prevalence of state-funded foundations in the GCC might be expected as each GCC state is an absolute monarchy which has amassed great concentrations of wealth from the discovery of oil, and thus royalty has been notably active in philanthropic endeavors throughout the Gulf. Indeed, by law several countries within the GCC—such as Oman—do not officially recognize non-profits, meaning that their foundations are often established by royal decree or linked to the corporate social responsibility arm of a private company. By comparison, it is far more common in non-GCC states, such as Palestine and Egypt, for foundations to accrue their funding from non-government families and individuals. In these cases, philanthropic organizations are often established on someone’s behalf or in someone’s name.
Difference Number 2—Geographical Reach
GCC-based foundations focus their work far more on international issues and have a wider geographical reach than non-GCC foundations, whose foci are primarily domestic. While more than 60% of GCC philanthropic organizations in the study supported international issues and initiatives in education through their spending and activities, only 22% of non-GCC organizations reached other countries in the same way. This is likely linked to the fact that GCC states have far greater concentrations of wealth than many of the non-GCC states due to oil export revenue, making resources available for activities outside the home countries.
For the non-GCC foundations, over three quarters (78%) have a purely domestic focus. Existing research in philanthropy indicates that this tendency to focus domestically could indicate a need for foundations to fill gaps not currently addressed by governments and take on a role traditionally assigned to the ruling administrations in their countries.
 Hartnell, C. (2018). Philanthropy in the Arab region: A working paper. Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace, and Herrold, C. (2015). Giving in Egypt: Evolving charitable traditions in a changing political economy.
Difference Number 3—Focus
In terms of education infrastructural support and research output by foundations in MENA, there are further notable differences between the two groups.
The two predominant areas of infrastructural support favored by philanthropic organizations in education across the MENA region are (1) funding of schools and (2) funding of school facilities. However, when comparing the two, GCC foundations giving to infrastructure are more likely to fund construction of schools (60%) in comparison to non-GCC foundations (33%). Funding of school facilities, which 35% of GCC foundations and 40% of non-GCC foundations target, includes financing school-building additions or repairing facilities within existing schools (e.g., adding or renovating a library or installing solar panels). This distinction is most likely due to the recent push for development and expansion in the Gulf and their work in international contexts, compared to non-GCC regions.
In terms of research in education done by philanthropic organizations, the most common theme for GCC foundations is education systems and best practices in education, with 34% of their publications focusing on these compared to only 6% of non-GCC foundations. Indeed, with a more international focus—as outlined previously—this may be the case for GCC countries such as the UAE and Oman, who are aiming to increase their rankings on global education scales such as the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA). Alternatively, the most common thematic area for non-GCC foundation publications is curriculum and assessment with 36% of publications on this subject in comparison to 24% of GCC foundations’ publications.
Perhaps the most defined difference between the two in this area was that, while 33% of non-GCC foundation publications are focused on vulnerable populations (including refugees and those with disabilities), a sparse 4% of GCC foundation publications look at these populations. Nearly a third (29%) of the publications on vulnerable populations are focused, at least in part, on refugees, and all of these are available from foundations in Jordan. As one of the main places of asylum for Syrian refugees, this is an unsurprising finding for Jordan. Thus, the discrepancy between percentages of non-GCC and GCC foundations focused on vulnerable populations may reflect in-country issues and the sizable number of refugees currently living in the non-GCC states and, specifically, in Jordan.
Despite their numerous differences, foundations across both the GCC and non-GCC face a number of common institutional challenges, many of which follow current global trends. During interviews with foundation representatives, three key challenges emerged, specifically related to issues with funding, governmental relationships and regulations, and staffing. As such, there are many areas which can be focused on in order to strengthen philanthropic engagement throughout the region. In particular, more research on how to improve funding sustainability, develop and retain staff, and strengthen government policies and relationships related to philanthropy would further support philanthropy in the GCC and non-GCC states and allow it maximize its positive impact in the future.
For more information about the study and to learn more about the differences between GCC and non-GCC foundations, please see the Foundation’s forthcoming article: “Education and Philanthropy in the Middle East and North Africa: A Comparison of GCC and non-GCC States.”