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Saudi donates $20m to Harvard

Money will fund Islamic studies

A Saudi Arabian prince who is one of the world's richest people is giving $20 million to Harvard to establish a university-wide program in Islamic studies, Harvard officials said yesterday.

Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, whose net worth was estimated by Forbes magazine this year as $23.7 billion, is also donating $20 million to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to promote Muslim-Christian dialogue and understanding.

The Harvard gift, which officials said was one of the 25 largest in the university's history, will pay for four new senior professors, one of whom will hold an endowed chair named for Prince Alwaleed. It will also provide start-up funding for a project to preserve and digitize significant Islamic documents that are in Harvard's possession and make them available on the Internet.

''We are very grateful to Prince Alwaleed for his generous gift to Harvard," university president Lawrence H. Summers said in a statement announcing the gift. ''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."

In the statement, Alwaleed said ''I am pleased to support Islamic studies at Harvard, and I hope that this program will enable generations of students and scholars to gain a thorough understanding of Islam and its role both in the past and in today's world. Bridging the understanding between East and West is important for peace and tolerance."

The gift to Georgetown will be used to expand its existing Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. In addition to his donations to American universities for Islamic studies, Alwaleed is backing the development of American studies centers at universities in Cairo and Beirut.

Alwaleed, who is in his late 40s, is a professional investor who has made billions buying into blue-chip companies while they were in trouble and their stock prices were depressed. A $590 million purchase of Citicorp stock in 1991, now valued at around $10 billion, is the cornerstone of his fortune.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, in which 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudis, Alwaleed tried to donate $10 million to the Twin Towers Fund for victims. Former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani rejected the gift because of an accompanying press release in which Alwaleed urged the United States to reexamine its Middle East policies ''and adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause."

Gifts to Harvard from wealthy Arabs also have been controversial in the post-9/11 environment.

Donations during the 1990s to the schools of law and design from relatives of Osama bin Laden were criticized after 9/11. But the money had no known ties to bin Laden or terrorism, and Harvard kept the gifts. Last year, Harvard Divinity School returned a $2.5 million gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates because of the president's ties to an Arab League think tank with alleged anti-American and anti-Jewish leanings.

But problems with the Alwaleed donation do not seem probable. The prince, who is a nephew of Saudi King Abdullah, is widely known for his pro-American views and for his major investments in the United States.

Donella Rapier, Harvard's vice president for alumni affairs and development, said last night that the donation had been reviewed by the Harvard Corporation, the seven-member board that runs the university.

Officials said they could not determine last night where the gift ranked among all donations to Harvard.

Rapier said Harvard has 13 senior faculty and 29 junior faculty and visiting scholars in various areas of Islamic studies, including faculty in Near Eastern languages, a program at the law school, and several programs at the school of government. The university, which does not have a separate Islamic studies department, said it has the largest group of Islamic specialists in the English-speaking world.

New faculty funded through the prince's gift will also be located in a variety of departments, rather than in an Islamic studies department, Rapier said. ''They will interrelate through this program," she said.

Steven E. Hyman, the university provost, added in the statement, ''For a university with global aspirations, it is critical that Harvard have a strong program on Islam that is worldwide and interdisciplinary in scope."

Alwaleed received a bachelor's degree from Menlo College, near Palo Alto, Calif., and a master's degree from Syracuse University.

His only prior connection to Harvard was a recent donation to the Dubai Harvard Foundation for Medical Research, the amount of which was not disclosed. The foundation is striving to develop a medical and academic research center in the Persian Gulf region. He also recently agreed to finance construction of a new Islamic wing for The Louvre in Paris.

He is involved in construction of 10,000 housing units for the poor in Saudi Arabia and made large donations to help victims of the South Asian tsunami and the recent earthquake in Pakistan.

He also is a major player in attempts to save EuroDisney, having invested about $330 million to keep the financially troubled development afloat.

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.

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