Opinion

Arab charity is blooming – no thanks to America

Why doesn't the country that invented modern philanthropy do more to support it in the Middle East?

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Oil and conflict. These are the two topics that dominate news coverage of the Middle East.

But there are signs that amid headlines that scream of suicide bombings and surging energy costs, a quiet social movement is under way – one that could help alleviate some deep-rooted problems of the Arab world.

Last month, while much of the globe watched the oft-hyped World Economic Forum, a first-of-its-kind summit of Arab philanthropists was held in this Persian Gulf city. Middle East royalty and Egyptian businessmen mixed with Lebanese activists and other humanitarian do-gooders to find ways to aid their troubled region. And they carried a pointed message to the Bush administration: Stop making the war on terror a war on Arab goodwill.

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The charitable impulses of Arab billionaires and others are growing, according to a report released at the event by the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo.

Building on a long tradition of zakat, the Islamic version of tithing, philanthropy in the Mideast looks strikingly similar to that of Bill Gates and Andrew Carnegie and seeks to make profound social changes.

Consider the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum who pledged $10 billion last year to his own foundation. If this were an American grantmaker, it would be the third largest in the country, according to Chronicle of Philanthropy figures.

The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation will focus its largess on bolstering education, supporting entrepreneurship, and fostering cultural understanding by translating both classic and modern Arabic books into English and other languages.

But to get organized and be effective aren't easy tasks. Most Arabic nations have murky laws governing nonprofits and charitable giving; support for human rights and democracy is often a taboo subject, and, not least of all, American policy is an obstacle.

Since Sept. 11, the US has viewed Arab donors with a suspicious eye, accusing them of using their money to fund madrassahs or terrorist training camps. After the attacks, for example, US officials pressured Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to set up rules that restrict charitable giving.

During the Dubai conference, a Saudi businessman complained that American investigators met with him 11 times over the past several years to examine his donations. No explanation was given, he said, and there was no official framework to make complaints.

Such scrutiny causes donors to keep quiet about their giving, says the Gerhart report. And because people are more likely to donate if they have role models, below-the-radar efforts hurt philanthropy.

When Warren Buffett publicly pledged most of his fortune to The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006, he inspired other gifts to the fund, including the $35 "life savings" of a 7-year-old.

Aside from government scrutiny of giving, Arab philanthropy has also been criticized because it simply may come from a donor with a different viewpoint from the recipient's.

In 2001, Rudolph Giuliani rejected a $10 million gift from Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud to help victims of terrorist attacks.

We can debate Mr. Giuliani's reasons – he disliked the prince's suggestion that American policy in Israel spurred the Sept. 11 attack – but the message to Arab philanthropists was clear: Your money's no good here.

To be sure, safeguards are needed. Many terrorism experts say that Al Qaeda, Hizbullah and other militant groups use charities as a front to raise money for their operations.

But a focus only on cracking down on illegal gifts hurts the region, conference participants said.

Why doesn't the country that invented modern philanthropy do more to support it in the Middle East? Why not help Arab nations implement better nonprofit laws that promote, as well as regulate, giving?

The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, for instance, is providing college scholarships for Arab students to attend Ivy League schools in America. Speaking of Arab teenagers, Nabil Ali Alyousuf, acting chief executive of the Al Maktoum Foundation, put it best: "We either educate them or we leave them to poverty, no education, and potential extremism."

As a reporter, I have seen what philanthropy and charities can accomplish in disaster-ridden areas like Sri Lanka after the tsunami and in post-Katrina New Orleans. Perhaps a similar humanitarian spirit can generate home-grown solutions in the Arab world.

Ian Wilhelm is a writer living in Cologne, Germany. He has covered philanthropy and international aid for more than seven years.

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