A Saudi prince has donated $20 million each to Harvard University and Georgetown University to advance Islamic studies and further understanding of the Muslim world.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Alsaud -- whom Forbes magazine ranks as the fifth wealthiest person in the world, with assets worth $23.7 billion -- is the nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.
"Bridging the understanding between East and West is important for peace and tolerance," Alwaleed said in a statement released by Harvard.
At Harvard, the money will fund four new senior staff professorships as well as an endowed chair in the name of the 48-year-old billionaire. Harvard will also use the funds to begin digitizing historically significant Islamic texts and materials, and make them available for research on the Internet.
"We are very grateful to Prince Alwaleed for his generous gift to Harvard," President Lawrence H. Summers said. The gift is considered one of the 25th largest in university history.
At Georgetown, the money will allow the university to expand its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, which will be renamed "The HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding." The center describes itself as the only program of its kind "to build stronger bridges between the Muslim world and the West."
"This gift will deepen Georgetown's ability to advance education in the fields of Islamic civilization and Muslim-Christian understanding, and strengthen its presence as a world leader in facilitating cross-cultural and inter-religious dialogue," said Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia.
The gift, which is the second largest in the university's history, will endow three faculty chairs in Alwaleed's name, provide scholarships, broaden research, increase policy discussions, and develop better library facilities.
This is not the first time Alwaleed has donated money to American causes. It has not always been without controversy.
Alwaleed tried to donate $10 million to the Twin Towers Fund shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but it was denied by then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani after Alwaleed released a statement where he suggested the United States "should reexamine its policies in the Middle East and adopt a more balanced stand toward the Palestinian cause."
"The check has not been deposited. The Twin Towers Fund has not accepted it," Giuliani said in October of 2001.
Still, Alwaleed is a known powerbroker and influential philanthropist worldwide. He recently agreed to fund an Islamic wing at the Louvre Museum in Paris and gave $19 million to victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia as well as about $5 million to Pakistani earthquake victims. In 2003, Alwaleed announced he would build 10,000 housing units for poor families in Saudi Arabia.
The current university gifts, however, are not expected to cause a stir. Harvard's gift policy committee has already approved the prince's gift. At Georgetown University, spokesman Erik Smulson says the check has already been received.