Report - Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center

Great Expectations: The Growth of Institutional Philanthropy in the United Arab Emirates

  • Paula D. Johnson
  • Taufiq Rahim
| Apr. 30, 2018

Executive Summary

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a pioneer in the Gulf region in building a modern philanthropic sector. Historically, many of the ruling families and business leaders have demonstrated a commitment to philanthropy directed at a variety of causes, in many instances guided by religious beliefs and cultural practices. Over the past 15 years, there has been a marked growth in institutional, organized philanthropy. This growth continues to be led by the ruling families, which have actively positioned the UAE as a globally-recognized center for giving and humanitarian aid. In fact, UAE leadership designated 2017 as the “Year of Giving.”

Institutional philanthropy in the UAE is influenced by several key factors including (1) long-standing religious beliefs and traditions; (2) strong leadership from the ruling families acting in both private and public capacities to encourage private giving and establish the UAE as a global hub of humanitarian aid; and (3) the Emirates’ continued economic development and wealth creation.

The recent growth in the number and scale of formal philanthropic institutions has made the philanthropic sector more visible and strategic, both nationally and internationally. There are currently over 40 formal foundations in the UAE, with almost half of these institutions established since 2006. These foundations work across a range of program areas, with priority areas including education, health, arts and culture, and religion. Many operate their own initiatives and deliver direct services and programs, while others provide support to external organizations. Most of the philanthropic institutions have close ties to government and members of the ruling families. Indeed, it is not always possible to distinguish between private philanthropic efforts and government programs.  

As the philanthropic sector continues to emerge and evolve, there are several key characteristics and trends that are likely to shape its contours and practices, and ultimately, its impact. Some of the most salient trends include increased global collaboration and engagement; a diversification of approaches to practicing philanthropy; involvement of the next generation;
participation of family businesses in social investments; and growing use of evaluation and assessment to shape programs.

The legal and policy environment for philanthropy in the UAE has not kept pace with the growth of the sector. Many observers believe the regulatory environment hinders the growth of the philanthropic sector, as the system of registration and regulation for charitable organizations and strict limitations on fundraising have proven burdensome for organizations to navigate and implement. There are signs that this situation is changing for the better, including growing government recognition that more robust legal frameworks and guidelines for philanthropic institutions in the UAE are needed.

Overall, philanthropic leaders and experts have great expectations for the continued growth of a vibrant, engaged, and globally active philanthropic sector. Given the leadership and commitment of the ruling families and the government, there is high potential for the philanthropic sector in the UAE to become a model in not only the Gulf region but also the wider Middle East, and to have demonstrable impact among local, regional, and global communities.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Johnson, Paula and Taufiq Rahim. “Great Expectations: The Growth of Institutional Philanthropy in the United Arab Emirates.” Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center, April 30, 2018.

The Authors