By Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
It was my first visit to the Qassim region. The media tour was organized by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. One of my favorite program highlights was the visit to two of the biggest palm tree farms in the world. One belongs to the family of the late Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, and the other to the Sulaiman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Rajhi Endowment. Both give all their products free to charity.
Sheikh Sulaiman’s son, Dr. Mohammed, joined us, as we toured their Al-Watania Poultry farm and factory, and met with a staff of highly-trained Saudi men and women.
During a visit to a family exhibition, the Sheikh showed us how his labs developed ways to eliminate the bad smell that comes from poultry farms, and to get rid of harmful insects that infect plants, by raising and spreading useful insects.
He also exhibited with pride his personal possessions from the humble beginnings of a long and successful career. It may be that he wanted to offer a lesson to his visitors, children and grandchildren, that the road to success is not covered with roses. Perhaps he was reminding himself to return some of Allah’s gifts to His underprivileged children.
During lunch, Alrajhi relayed his life story. He left elementary school after the second year, and worked as a porter who received half a halala a day, that was when the riyal was equivalent to 22 halalas. Then he worked as a cook in a company catering to the government. When they refused to increase his salary, he left to open a grocery store with capital of SR 400.
Five years later, he started his banking career in money exchange. Later, he joined forces with his brothers to form Al Rajhi Banking and Investment Corporation, which grew to be a public company – Al Rajhi Bank. Affiliated Al Rajhi companies were established in industry, agriculture, commerce, real estate and many other fields.
I had heard from Dr. Mohammed how his father divided half his fortune among his heirs, and put the other half in an endowment worth $10 billion. Sheikh Sulaiman explained: “My first goal was to put my house in order, on my watch. I feared the day heirs might fight over inheritance. Besides, why wait for that day? Let them enjoy it during my lifetime.
“The second goal was to establish a non-profit organization run on business bases. The income would cover all our charities, mosques, colleges, hospitals and relief projects, at home and around the world.”
I asked about the challenges family companies face after their founders pass away. “It is a chronic problem,” he stated with a sense of regret. “Many great companies have disintegrated at the hands of quarreling heirs. This is not healthy for our economy and society. Therefore, I have enlisted the help of a great team of specialists in every related field – Islamic law, administration, accounting, investment, etc.
“Years of studies produced a comprehensive, integrated solution for my family business that may work as well for similar companies. I offer it free of charge to those who might be interested. Some have called and I have furnished them with a complete dossier.”
“Does it include the endowment part?” I asked. “But of course!” he assured me. “It is important that one leaves enough for his heirs, and great to see them enjoy their shares in peace with each other! However, as important, one should return a part of his fortune to the nation and society. We owe our success to the country that nurtures us, and to the people who trusted us and bought our products. Besides, you owe yourself as much as you owe your family. Once you leave this life, the only investment that matters is what you saved for your other life.”
“So you gave half your wealth to your family and half to your endowment. What have you kept for your expenses? A house? A farm? A salary?” I wondered. “Simply, nothing!” he answered with a beautiful, calm and calming smile on his face. “I am in my eighties! What would I possibly need? The endowment pays my bills, provides me with accommodation, food, medical and transportation, which I try to keep at a minimum. I am well covered!”
A multi-billionaire with no money! “How does it feel?” I asked. He smiled again, his eyes misted, and said, “I feel light! I feel free! I feel like a bird … and when Allah calls on me, I can answer His call with no strings attached! What a relief!”