Giving in focus as Middle East’s rich grow richer

New blood swells ranks of the world's billionaires; philanthropy named as top interest among the rich

Turbulent economic conditions in the Middle East last year failed to halt the growth of one exclusive group: billionaires.

The combined wealth of the region’s billionaires – defined as people with a net worth of $1bn or more – swelled by 9 per cent to $450bn in 2015, according to Wealth X’s 2015-2106 billionaire census. Their numbers rose by 7.8 per cent to 166, up from 154 in the previous 12-month period.

Globally, the billionaire population last year grew by 6.4 per cent to reach 2,473, boosted in part by baby boomers transferring their wealth to their heirs. Their combined assets increased by 5.4 per cent to a record $7.7 trillion – equivalent to 43 per cent of US gross domestic product.

“The impact of billionaires on the global economy is significant,” said Wealth X, which tracks the habits of the ultra-wealthy. “[They] controlled 3.9 per cent of the world’s total household wealth in 2015. When we compare billionaires' wealth to equity market capitalisations, it would trail only the New York Stock Exchange, at $17.7 trillion.”

As the ranks of the rich swell, so too does their urge to give back. As in 2014, philanthropy remained the primary passion of global billionaires, outranking interests such as travel, art and politics. More than half of billionaires (56.3 per cent) carry out - or are interested in pursuing - philanthropic activities, the census found.

It attributes this enthusiasm in part to the rising profile of global philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and campaigns such as the Giving Pledge, which encourages billionaires to commit to donating at least half their fortunes to charity.

In June, Saudi Arabian royal Prince Alwaleed bin Talal became the first Gulf Arab to sign the Giving Pledge, after promising to donate his $32bn wealth to charity. Other GCC-based signatories include education entrepreneur Sunny Varkey and PNC Menon, the founder of real estate conglomerate Sobha Group.

Globally, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa remain the regional group with the most billionaires (1,013), with the Americas taking second place with 782 billionaires. The Asia-Pacific region is poised to eventually overtake the Americas, the census noted. With 678 billionaires, Asia Pacific produced four times more billionaires than its rival last year."Inheritors are looking to make their own legacy and personal fortunes"

More than half of the world’s billionaires are self-made, the census found, with 55 per cent sourcing their wealth from business ventures or investments. This group represented 57 per cent of total billionaire wealth in 2015 - up from 50 per cent the previous year – due in part to a new wave of technology entrepreneurs, who have amassed considerable wealth in a short space of time.

Those whose wealth is entirely inherited comprise just 13 per cent of all global billionaires. Instead, heirs to fortunes are increasingly going on to grow it further. The census found 31 per cent of global billionaires use their inheritance to further their own business interests or grow existing family estates.

“They are looking to make their own legacy and personal fortunes, rather than living on their family’s existing reputation,” the report noted.