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Under Pressure, Some Oil-Rich States Boost Tsunami Aid

by Thalif Deen

Gulf Arabs Debate Aid For Tsunami Victims

(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- The oil-blessed nations of the Middle East and North Africa, whose national revenues have skyrocketed in the aftermath of last year's rising oil prices, have come under fire for their relatively tightfisted response to the tsunami tragedy in Asia.

Stung by mounting criticism, the government of Kuwait has increased its contribution ten-fold: from $10 million to $100 million within less than a week.

And Saudi Arabia, whose government pledged $30 million, has raized an additional $82 million from a nationwide telethon.

But there is rising pressure on countries such as Qatar ($25 million), the United Arab Emirates ($20 million), Bahrain, Libya and Algeria ($2 million each), to bolster their contributions.

Asked about "the relative lack of aid from Muslim countries," UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland told reporters Thursday: "There is now a discussion in several Muslim countries, including several Gulf states, that they should do more both with regard to the tsunami disaster and to other humanitarian needs."

"I would say the Gulf countries have provided very well for the tsunami relief efforts, but I'd like to see them give more elsewhere," he added.

As of Thursday, some of the major traditional donors to the tsunami relief fund included Australia (about $812 million), Germany ($650 million), Japan ($500 million) and the United States ($350 million). But these numbers are expected to keep rising.

In an interview with IPS, Mouin Rabbani, a contributing editor to the Washington-based Middle East Report, posed several questions.

"Could oil exporting states have been more generous in their response to the humanitarian catastrophe? Definitely. Have they in fact been disproportionately miserly in comparison with other (donor) states -- or have the latter been disproportionately magnanimous if standard criteria such as gross national product (GNP) and population are applied? No."

In 1970, the world's rich nations agreed to give 0.7 percent of their GNP as official development assistance (ODA) to poorer nations. But so far, only five countries have consistently met -- and gone beyond -- the 0.7 target set by the UN General Assembly.

The five countries are: Denmark (1.06 percent), the Netherlands (0.82 percent), Sweden (0.81 percent), Norway (0.80 percent) and Luxembourg (0.7 percent).

The percentage of national incomes given to the poor has always been the test of generosity of nations, but countries have consistently failed to match promises with action.

"In other words," says Rabbani, "the criticisms that are being levelled here are at least as valid for other regions -- and we would do well to ask why certain states appear to be bearing a disproportionate level of criticism in this respect."

Prof. As'ad Abukhalil of the Department of Politics at California State University rejects the premise that Western donors are more generous than oil-rich Gulf states.

"Qatar (with a population of half a million) has contributed the highest amount of aid per capita worldwide," he told IPS.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the U.S. government's pledge of $350 million represents about $1.20 per person (in relation to its population) while Kuwait's contribution represents over $44 per person and Qatar's about $30 per person.

Although Gulf states are rich, Abukhalil pointed out, they are not as rich as the United States or Europe. "And the American contribution is certainly small, especially when measured against not only the exorbitant war expenditure, but even last year's federal government contribution of $3.3 billion to Florida after the hurricanes," Abukhalil said.

"Now it is certainly true that the oil-rich countries (all of them) should give more, especially as they squander billions of their people's wealth on arms purchases (that they do not need given their hospitality to U.S. troops) and personal frivolous expenditure," he added.

The Gulf states -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- have also been criticized for being less than generous to their co-religionists. Indonesia, which took a severe beating in the aftermath of the tsunami, is the world's most populous Islamic nation.

At the same time, most of the Gulf states have depended on countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh -- three other countries hit by the tsunami -- for skilled and unskilled expatriate labor.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times last week, Peter Bergen, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, lambasted Muslim Arab states for contributing "a relative pittance."

But Rabbani disagrees. "If we accept that states such as Saudi Arabia are under a moral obligation to provide mountains of aid because they are Muslim and also recruit millions of migrant workers from the affected regions -- a valid conclusion on the face of it -- we cannot at the same time reject the premise that states such as the United States and UK are under an at least equal moral obligation to provide at least as much aid because they are the world's richest states and have benefited grandly from unequal trade relationships with these regions," he argued.

"Where are voices demanding that the Netherlands take the lead in the aid effort because of its 350-year colonization of Indonesia, without which it would be a considerably less developed state today?" Rabbani asked.

Richard W. Baker, an Indonesia specialist at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, says Muslim Arabs have a long and honourable tradition of charitable and institutional giving.

"But they don't really have the reach that Western philanthropy (governmental or private) has, and don't have the experience of supporting major operational undertakings," Baker told IPS.

And despite popular images of wealthy potentates and Sheiks of Araby, most of the current wealth of the Middle East is basically pretty new money, he added.

"So it might be better to compare today's Gulf Arabs with the second-generation American 'Robber Barons' in their Newport mansions or perhaps our own Sheik of Zanadu than with relief agencies (such as CARE and Red Cross) or even latter-day Rockefellers and Fords and Gateses -- all of whom come out of a U.S. multi-generational cultural tradition of cause-oriented philanthropy."

Also, rather than just focusing on what the oil rich Muslims are not doing, it might be interesting to look at what they are doing -- where Gulf and other Islamic money is going.

Baker cited the Washington mosque and the Georgetown Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding as two examples of Arab-Muslim philanthropy.

Rabban said references in the western media and by western commentators to the significant rise in oil prices during 2004 as creating a moral obligation upon oil exporting states (as opposed to an opportunity for increased generosity) also raises pertinent questions.

"It seems the underlying attitude is often one that the states belonging to the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) are somehow not really entitled to their wealth, that in contrast to other countries their income is somehow illegitimate, and that somehow it's in contrast to other countries -- not their money to do with as they damn well please."

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Albion Monitor January 14, 2005 (

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