Islam: Enter a new, improved Saudi philanthropist

You have probably never heard of Mohammed Jameel. He is president and chief executive of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, which in 2004 donated £5.4m to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for a display of Islamic art. The new Jameel Gallery, dedicated to the memory of his parents, is magnificent to behold. Housing the museum's distinguished collection of Islamic artefacts, it has to be seen to be believed. The Saudis are not renowned for being patrons of the arts, so Jameel's generosity comes as something of a surprise.

Over the past five decades, the Saudis' interest in art (which most of them think is un-Islamic) or literature (which leaves them cold) or science and research (which they want, but think can be bought) has been marginal at best. That is not to say they aren't exceptionally giving people - but their generosity has been expressed purely in religious terms.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Saudis gave astronomical sums to Islamic causes. The royal family, the government and individuals helped build countless mosques, seminaries (madrasas) and Islamic universities throughout the Muslim world, as well as in Europe. The Faisal Mosque that dominates the skyline of Islamabad, the International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur and the London Central Mosque in Regent's Park are all products of Saudi benevolence. The money came with a string attached, however: Saudi-funded institutions had to promote a literalist version of Islam, or Wahhabism.

The cause that attracted the most funds was, unsurprisingly, mosques, followed by Islamic schools, jihad in Afghanistan, Islamic universities and professorships, and conferences on Islamic themes. The Saudis never gave money to build hospitals or modern schools, for scientific research or museums, or to eradicate poverty.

The people who benefited also followed a strict hierarchy. I call it the Saudi Sandwich: it is, in fact, a large, multi-layered club sandwich. The top layer is occupied by the Saudis themselves - Saudis tend to be most generous to other Saudis. Immediately underneath this are the Americans. The Saudis have been very partial to America, and the bulk of their funding in the past has gone to prestigious projects at prestigious institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley (many Saudi ministers and businessmen studied at these institutions).

The third layer is occupied by white converts to Islam. The Saudis love converts because, as one sheikh told me, "they demonstrate the superiority of Islam". White converts also provide living proof that European civilisation is rotten to the core.

The fourth layer is occupied by other Arabs - because they speak Arabic. Beneath them, in strict order, come Pakistanis, Indians, Indonesians, Bangladeshis and Africans. At the bottom of the sandwich are the poor Saudi Bedouins - who, being nomads, have little allegiance to the state - and the even poorer Yemenis, who want to be Saudis.

I have witnessed this hierarchy at work. During the 1980s and 1990s, I was involved in raising money for a number of intellectual and cultural causes. I would see a white celebrity convert walk into a Saudi sheikh's office and walk out with millions, while British Pakistanis and Bangla deshis would be kept waiting for weeks, then sent away with peanuts.

All this changed after 9/11. Many Saudis have lost the will to make donations to Americans, and they, in turn, do not want money from the Saudis. The benefactors have also been forced to realise that many of the mosques and semi naries they helped build are doing more harm than good - and the rage of the fanatics they have nursed and nourished is as much directed against the kingdom as it is aimed at the west.

Enter Jameel, a new kind of Saudi philanthropist. He realises that science and culture serve as much-needed bridges between Islam and the west, and his cash is reaching parts that past Saudi generosity failed to reach. Apart from the V&A gallery, he has initiated the ALJ Arab Technology Start-Up Fund through the Arab Science and Technology Foundation, and is supporting the Poverty Action Lab at MIT (where he studied civil engineering).

Mohammed Jameel is a beacon. I hope other Saudis follow his guiding light.

The Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art opens at the V&A, London SW7 (020 7942 2000), on 20 July