Mohammed Al-Bakri

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Saudi Arabia
Fellow since 2016

Muhammad aims to prevent the re-production of poverty in the Saudi Arabian society by shifting the mindset of Saudi philanthropy from charity to social entrepreneurship. He is promoting the philosophy of sustainable development that not only ends the near total reliance on charity but also incentivizes social entrepreneurship and the teaching of empathy, teamwork, leadership and change making to the country’s youth.

This description of Mohammed Al-Bakri's work was prepared when Mohammed Al-Bakri was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016 .


Muhammad aims to prevent the re-production of poverty in the Saudi Arabian society by shifting the mindset of Saudi philanthropy from charity to social entrepreneurship. He is promoting the philosophy of sustainable development that not only ends the near total reliance on charity but also incentivizes social entrepreneurship and the teaching of empathy, teamwork, leadership and change making to the country’s youth.

The New Idea

Muhammad has led a nationwide effort to professionalize volunteerism in Saudi Arabia since 2009, called YIG. Through this, he is encouraging professionals and the youth to participate in community-led initiatives through customizing sustainable development frameworks such as Theory of Change and Design Thinking. He trains the volunteers on these frameworks and enables them to execute their initiatives in partnership with local NGOs. These initiatives included un-used food re-distribution initiatives (such as Iftar Sayem) an Arabic word that means feeding those who fast in English”) as well as renovation of old weary houses owned by the poor (such as Mofta7 “an Arabic word that means key in English”) which was carried out under Majid Society’s Volunteering Program which was in turn designed by YIG

A key component of Muhammad’s work is how he empowers children to tackle communi-ty/societal level problems. He sees them as young, responsible citizens who are able to naturally mobilize resources to tackle these issues. Children from the YIG work in this program as YIG ambassadors who help Muhammed in the logistics and operations of this program. Muhammad’s work plays out two fold. On one hand, he has a “Young Volunteer Program” where he works with children from relatively high socioeconomic backgrounds in order to teach principles of volunteerism, leadership, and teamwork. He as well raises their awareness of their rights as volunteers for a sustainable community mobilization. These children then serve as ambassadors to his organization to promote the sense of community mobilization towards solving pressing socioeconomic problems. He has also developed a “community development program” where he works with “unprivileged children” to learn the principles of human centered design. This approach empowers the children to address their community problems by developing scalable prototypes/ solutions. In YIG’s community development program, children from poor neighborhoods design their own prototypes to solve their own problems

The third element of Muhammad’s idea is to bring about long term social change through shifting the Saudi mindset towards philanthropy. Currently, it is geared towards charity to social entrepreneurship. Muhammad is directing the financial and human resources of the Saudis that are sporadically put in use towards systematized approach in order to solve pressing social problems such as poverty. The latter takes place by connecting youth, the government, and grant making foundations through legislative frameworks.

The Problem

In Saudi Arabia, young adults are not equipped with the necessary skills to facilitate so-cial change. This lack of skills training reflects unprofessionalism, especially during relief voluntary campaigns that require the volunteers to be empathetic.

The privileged youth in Saudi Arabia live in their own social bubbles that are segregated based on class, ethnicity and economic privilege. It is a rare occurrence for young and privileged Saudis to be associated with those who come from lower classes. Until Mu-hammad’s intervention, such segregation continued to reproduce poverty and dismantle the Saudi social fabric. Muhammad is enabling the collaboration between different social sects from a very young age in order to nurture young citizens who appreciate empathy as a core value in life.

Prior to the law enabling citizens to create NGOs in 2013, there was no formal legal framework for “civic society”. The only recognized resolution to social problems was the charity world. According to the Saudi Arabian government, it spends 2.5 billion Saudi Riyal’s a year on charity. Over time this created a situation where many people became dependent on charity while having no interest in changing their lives, and additionally it enabled a vicious reproduction of poverty. 25% of Saudi Arabia’s population is below the poverty line earning less than 1.5 USD a day, according to the World Bank. On top of the 25 per cent, the native Saudi population is around 29 million.. According to Muhammad, 2 million of the impoverished are not Saudi Arabian citizens. Though most NGO’s prefer working with Saudi nationals, Muhammad is looking to target both categories of the poor in Saudi Arabia.

The un-systematized and sporadic spending of nearly 0.7 billion dollars a year is not driven by identified long term objectives as well as nurturing stagnancy amongst the Saudi poor were the two fatal consequences to mindset of Saudi philanthropy that is geared towards charity.

The Strategy

Muhammad is building a national network of young people who reflect a work ethic that is professional and entrepreneurial, which is key for eradicating social problems. In 2013, he developed a program with Majid Society Foundation (an operation based foundation) to issue volunteer identity and insurance cards to young Saudis who complete an intensive training on the ethics of volunteerism. The training includes project management, leadership, conflict resolution, and the importance of empathy. In partnership with the Ministry of Labor, undergraduate hours at the university that are spent in professional volunteer activities have been counted as credit toward completing university degrees, since 2014. In 2015, Muhammad developed a plan for participation and evaluation for NGO initiatives to follow in applying for grants to King Khaled, Abdul Latif Jameel and Majid Bin Abdulaziz Charitable Society. In 2016, he has extended his efforts to the private sector where he established an agreement with The Body Shop and Unilever where employees will dedicate part of their working hours in order to commit themselves to community based activities.

In late 2015, the Ministry of Education decreed that schools must incorporate 25 community working hours as a part of their national curriculum. Early the following year, Muhamad developed a curriculum to nurture the development of empathy and professional volunteerism which is now being established in 5 schools in Jeddah. Through teaching training centers, Muhammad is promoting his curriculum in an aim to implement his program in 20 schools next year. In the second half of 2016 Muhammad will launch social enterprise training and incubation workshops in 5 marginalized communities in Jeddah (Karanteena, Ghulail, Bani Malik, Madaen, al-Fahad, University District).

Furthermore, children who graduate from these programs serve as ambassadors to programs in other cities (slums and schools). This broadens the education network in schools and slums in Saudi Arabia. Muhammad is also planning to reach out to urban disadvantaged youth centered in the South with the help of well-to-do trained young Saudis.

Through lobbying the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Commerce and investment through discussion panels sponsored by grant making foundations (such as King Khaled Foundation), Muhammad has successfully implemented NGOs’ law that enables the creation of non-governmental organizations for the first time in Saudi Arabia. In partnership with the Ministry of Social Affairs, he is now creating a federation of NGOs as a platform to address social problems. To sustain the movement towards a changing citizen sector, he is currently pushing for The System of Social Enterprises’ law that permits young Saudis to establish their own social enterprises.

The Person

Muhammad was born in 1983 to a wealthy family in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. His Mother raised Muhammad to identify the rights of the disenfranchised in a patriarchal society where a male figure is in absolute control of the family. As a teenager, Muhammad was sent by his parents to summer schools in Washington D.C. These experiences were very influential as they exposed him to new ideas from different cultures as well as taught him how to speak publicly and stand up for himself. This enabled him to always support his mother in the patriarchal setting of their extended family. He also went with his grandfather, who regularly gave zakat (Islamic charity) for mosques as well as orphans. He was heavily influenced by his grandfather’s charitable behavior, which further exposed him to impoverished conditions.

Muhammad attended the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. During a political science class, where the professor was discussing The Six Day War, he realized that he had no social, political or historical knowledge. He couldn't answer a question as simple as: “Why does your country have so much wealth and so much poverty at the same time?” He then decided to major in international relations to learn more about history and how the world works. At the same time, Muhammad was involved in extracurricular activities at his university where he participated in UNDP sponsored projects. Muhammad managed a team for 3 days to raise funds for the UNDP fund and managed to raise 25k dirhams as well as local community service projects such as charity relief services.

In 2009, after his graduation and while working in his family’s business, he co-founded a social welfare club focused on poor, marginalized areas in Jeddah. During one of his visits to install an air conditioning unit, he entered the house to find a mother with a 2 year old child with 3rd degree burns. The mother was a wax maker, and the child had tipped over a pot of boiling hot wax. He quickly took the child, went to the hospital, and told the doctor that he will pay anything so this child can get back to normal. It was a turning point for Muhammad, where a deeper purpose for his life began to reveal itself.