After slow start, Arab countries crank up tsunami relief

Initially criticized for a weak response, Gulf states have increased giving as much as 100-fold.

When Saudi Arabia held a 12-hour telethon last week, it not only raised $82 million for the victims of the Asian tsunami disaster, but it also helped quell accusations that the oil-rich Gulf states have been indifferent to a tragedy that left more than 100,000 fellow Muslims dead in Indonesia alone.

Saudi schoolchildren handed over their daily allowances, and one woman dropped her gold bracelets into a collection box as religious clerics, businessmen, and sports personalities broadcast appeals for generosity.

Other Gulf states, also stung by criticism, have increased their contributions, with Kuwait over the weekend raising its $10 million pledge to $100 million.

While the tradition of donating funds to victims of international disasters is often well-entrenched in the West, for many Arabs, giving to worthy causes is a luxury they can ill afford given the poverty and conflicts roiling the region, say observers.

"This is not how things should be," says Abdullah al-Faqih, professor of politics at Sanaa University in Yemen. "But we have to keep in mind that the Arabs live these days in extraordinary circumstances. They lack the freedom to organize and to express opinions, and consequently the freedom to initiate positive responses to crises."

Two-thirds of the fatalities from the Dec. 26 tsunami were from Indonesia, a country with the world's largest Muslim population. The Indonesian government has refrained from public comment, but the slow response of their fellow Muslims in the Arab world has been noted.

"Generally speaking, people [here] are quite disappointed" about the Arab reaction, says Azyumardi Azra, rector of Indonesia's State Islamic University.

"The West responded quickly. They [the Arab world] have been pretty slow," says Nasrullah Djamaluddin, chief imam of Indonesia's Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, the largest in Southeast Asia. "But we happily accept all help," he adds.

Malaysia's opposition leader Lim Kit Siang was more forthright last week, slamming the Gulf states for their "cold and indifferent attitudes."

Of late, the tradition of zakat, the religious obligation on all Muslims to donate part of one's income to charity, has become harder to fulfill due to the closure or freezing of many Islamic charities as part of the campaign to block terrorist funding, experts say. The Saudi government in June announced plans to dismantle all international charities in the kingdom and place their funds in a state-controlled commission to thwart the funding of terrorists.

"Religious philanthropic organizations, which used to be the main vehicles for Middle Eastern societies responding to internal and external emergencies, are almost extinct," Mr. Faqih says.

Arab government and popular reaction to the Asian disaster picked up after the Kuwaiti media published some barbed editorials on the "paltry" initial response.

On Jan. 2 Al Qabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper, criticized the contributions of Gulf states, highlighting the Kuwaiti government's initial contribution of $2 million as a reflection of the disregard many Kuwaitis feel toward the thousands of Asians working in the country. Migrant workers from Asia represent the bulk of the estimated 12 million expatriates working in the Gulf, outnumbering the indigenous Arab population. While most of them earn livings as servants and construction workers, many have white-collar jobs as engineers and managers in the oil and gas industries.

"There is a structural link between the Asian laborers and the wealth of the Gulf states, and that's the moral responsibility we should have acted upon immediately," says Rami Khouri, editor of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper.

Initially Kuwait offered $1 million on the day of the tsunami, then doubled it. A few days later, the contribution increased to $10 million and has now soared to $100 million. Of the $100 million, 30 percent will be in cash and the rest will fund reconstruction projects managed by the Kuwaiti Fund for Economic Development.

Other Gulf countries have also stepped up their donations, partly in response to criticism and also as the magnitude of the disaster became clearer.

Saudi Arabia raised its contribution from $10 million to $30 million, with another $101 million from public donations. The Saudi-based Islamic Development Bank has allocated $10 million in emergency relief as part of a broader aid package.

The United Arab Emirates raised its donation from $2 million to $20 million last week, while Algeria, Bahrain, and Libya have pledged $2 million each. Other Arab countries without the Gulf's oil wealth such as Syria, Jordan, and Egypt have sent planeloads of food, medicine, drinking water, and blankets.

The public response has also accelerated as Arabs watch images of suffering and devastation on their television screens. Qatar's Al Jazeera satellite channel last week launched a campaign to encourage donations.

Record oil prices have swelled the coffers of the oil-producing Gulf states in recent months. Kuwait, which is running a $10 billion budget surplus, handed out $700 million to its citizens.

But some other Gulf countries cannot afford such generosity. Saudi Arabia, despite a reputation for ostentatious wealth, badly needs the additional revenues to lessen the kingdom's $163 billion public debt and provide jobs for the rapidly expanding population.

"The British economy is bigger than all the economies of the Muslim world, and the wealth of Israel exceeds all the wealth of the Gulf countries, yet the kingdom which has offered aid and collected donations gets criticized," Al-Riyadh, a Saudi newspaper, said in an editorial, one of several defensive commentaries in the Saudi press.

Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, says that the issue of donating to the tsunami disaster has "unfortunately, been politicized."

"In terms of GDP and population size, the contribution of [Gulf] countries is not insignificant," he says.

Indeed, on a per capita basis, the contribution of Gulf governments matches or is greater than that of many Western governments.

For example, the US's pledge of $350 million in public money represents about $1.20 per person. Meanwhile Kuwait's aid amounts to over $44 per person and Qatar's $25 million pledge is nearly $30 per person.

Furthermore, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have a history of providing humanitarian aid and funds, Mr. Sager says, citing the 2001 earthquake in the Indian state of Gujarat that killed 20,000 people, and last year's quake in Iran in which 26,000 residents perished.

Still, Professor Faqih takes a more skeptical view of the Arab aid effort.

"From my standpoint, a culture of giving is associated with a culture of tolerance, equality, openness, and respect for others' freedoms and rights," he says. "Therefore, a culture hospitable to giving is still largely missing in the Arab world."

Tom McCawley contributed to this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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