In Islam there is a special provision called ''zakat,'' which calls for Muslims to contribute a percentage of their income to those less fortunate. In the United Arab Emirates this concept has been translated into the national and international level. The Emirates, officials say, gives about 15 percent of its gross national product to aid poorer countries.
According to the Central Bank, total foreign aid has averaged around $1.74 billion a year. This makes the U.A.E. one of the most generous aid givers per capita in the world.
Nasser al-Nuwais, director of the Abu Dhabi Fund for Arab Economic Development (ADFAED), which oversees most of the aid outflow, has been asked the same question so often that he begins his interviews with that question: ''Why give that much aid?'' And he answers: ''Fifteen years ago we were a very poor country. We had nothing, nothing at all. We think God gave us this wealth and that we should use it to help others.''
There is another reason. It is felt that by giving aid to countries geographically and ideologically close to the U.A.E., the country is contributing in a positive way to the security of the region by helping governments that support ''freedom and democracy.'' Mr. Nuwais said, ''When the government is poor or the nation is poor it is very easily influenced by communism. If the gap between rich and poor is too wide it is very dangerous.''
U.A.E. aid contributions, which are mainly from Abu Dhabi though coming through the federal government, are sent to organizations including the United Nations, Arab League, Islamic Bank, and the OPEC Fund for Development. Aid is generally channeled through the ADFAED, through government-to-government contributions, or through Sheikh Zayid, the President, himelf.
Since it was organized in 1975, the fund has committed $1.9 billion in soft loans for more than 80 projects in 40 countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Last year the fund disbursed $75.7 million.
The fund was basically established to ensure that aid contributions were actually used for the purposes they were intended. ''When we started we were very naive, and when a president of a country came here and asked for help, we just gave him a check for $5 or $10 million.''