I am not sure my readers will find the following important. Certainly Arab attention is focused on the war in Gaza and its aftermath, and the crisis surrounding Ethiopia’s mega dam project. To the suspiciously minded, the media extravaganza devoted to the divorce of Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates might seem designed to distract from the crucial questions of life and death, and intellectuals might add that the scandals of the rich and famous have little to tell us. But this case is not your run-of-the-mill divorce which, in the US alone, happens more than 250 times per hour and which, as painful as the family breakups may be for those involved, seem more of a subject for sociologists and psychologists.
But nothing at all about the Gates family is ordinary – not when the head of the household, whose net worth is $150 billion, has ranked the richest person in the world four years running – not when the couple endowed one of the largest charitable foundations in the world, famed for its philanthropic work in Africa and especially for its contribution to malaria control. But what makes this so extraordinary is not just that Bill Gates is inconceivably wealthy, that he is the founder of Microsoft which has become a trademark of our contemporary world, or that he, together with Steve Jobs, spearheaded the world’s third and fourth technological revolutions. It is the fact that the Gates phenomenon is bigger than all that. He has truly become a global citizen, a representative of the community of mankind, with all their cares and sorrows.
He has been a globetrotter for decades. Queen Elizabeth II dubbed him a Knight of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), Barrack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and this is only the beginning of a long list of medals, awards and honours he has received from countries around the world. Last year, the founder of Microsoft reinvented himself as one of the US’s most outspoken and humanitarian voices on the fight against Covid-19, as well as one of the loudest soft-spoken voices on climate change. He has epitomised the very essence of the rational theoretical mind in his contemplations of our variegated, multiethnic, multi-denominational world.
He is simultaneously the applied technician and, at a larger level, he brings a practical, systematic approach to dealing with universal problems and dilemmas. He has never given the impression of having it in him to be like the loud, flamboyant types who also rank among the world’s super wealthy, such as Amazon CEO Jeffry Bezos who, with a net worth of $177 billion, inherited the title of richest person on earth, or Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and a close rival for the title. Gates strikes you as the type of guy who would patiently wait in the queue, just like normal folk, to place an order for his favourite food, burgers.
At first, when news of the Gates’ divorce broke, one felt - along with the sympathy one senses for these two famous figures - that the reasons they gave fitted their image. Their joint statement was calmly worded. It spoke of their achievements in raising three “incredible” children and in building a foundation that works around the world “to enable all people to lead healthy, productive lives.” It also sounded a note of reassurance to both the market and the intended recipients of their philanthropy, saying that they would continue their work together at the foundation.
But if they are going to sustain their relationship, or at least part of it, then why the separation? Their answer was complicated but, again, it seemed to suit them. They explained that they had given the matter a great deal of thought after having worked hard to sustain their relationship. Perhaps, as this suggests, they consulted others, or friends tried to intervene or, maybe they went to a marriage counsellor. In the end they made the decision to end their marriage.
The reason they gave was that they could “no longer grow together as a couple” as they navigated the next phase of their lives. This is not your customary cause for divorce. Yet, given how their self-consistency ruled out lying, one simply had to take them at their word. Maybe it was the nine year age gap between them. He was born in 1955 and she in 1964. The difference may not have been important when they married in 1994. But now it would weigh on them more, psychologically, emotionally and, more importantly, in terms of their personal growth at a later stage in lives.
The foregoing seemed quite reasonable at first glance. But not so much at second and third glance. Revelations since then have definitely brought Bill Gates down quite a few notches and made him look more like Bezos who not so long ago divorced his wife in order to marry the glamorous TV anchor and media personality Lauren Sanchez. There is nothing unusual about that. Even among multi-billionaires, a husband might grow bored with his life’s companion and need a new one. Bezos granted his wife a $37 billion settlement, and the divorce was finalised without great commotion.
As it turns out, the case of Gates is not so straightforward. Firstly, there was his acquaintance with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide in prison in New York. As we now know, Epstein, who was found guilty of trafficking in underage women, boasted many famous acquaintances such as Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and Prince Edward. One account has it that Gates’ acquaintance with him was connected to promoting a philanthropic activity. Another held that it had to do with obtaining a Nobel Prize, although it is hard to imagine how someone like Epstein could influence that decision. Secondly, there was evidence, from within the Microsoft firm itself, that Gates had a long-term affair with one of the company’s employees which eventually led the firm’s board of directors to force him to step down as chairman.
The “benevolent billionaire” and technological wizard who took it upon himself to shoulder some of the mankind’s gravest problems, dedicating his profits to making the planet a safer place, is now tainted with very human sins and frailties. Let him who is without sin throw the first stone, as they say. But generalising sin in this manner is not a sufficient answer to a problem that has perplexed mankind since it drove Adam out of paradise. And, no, we can not chalk all this up to Eve and the apple, not in a modern global environment that acquits women and equates them with men in rights and duties. In all events, the unfolding drama is still in Act I. Melinda might find solace in the charity work of the foundation while Bill might still find another way to change the world.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly