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Gulf Arabs Debate Aid For Tsunami Victims

by Neil MacFarquhar

Bush Defensive as Aid Effort Lumbers Into Action

The newspaper Al Qabas in Kuwait set off a debate spreading throughout the country and beyond on Monday by suggesting that Kuwait deserves its reputation for being cheap and oblivious to people who go there to work as servants, given the relatively low level of aid it has donated to the tsunami victims at a time when the state treasury is bursting with an oil bonanza.

Noting that the bulk of the nannies, drivers, menial laborers and other servants who keep most households running in the emirate come from Southeast Asia -- imported workers easily outnumber the native population -- some Kuwaitis agree that the country and its Persian Gulf neighbors need to be doing much more.

But the campaign to shut down Islamic charities accused of financing terrorism has left many people confused about where to turn when they do want to donate money. And a few extremist Friday Prayer leaders and other religious commentators fueled the uncertainty by suggesting that the tsunami destruction was the wrath of God.

Gauging the extent of private donations for the region proved difficult because nobody seems to be collecting the information.

Many donations are channeled through the government-backed Red Crescent societies, but senior officials either did not return phone calls or said they were too busy to make a tally. There were random charitable acts around the region.

In an echo of the debate about skinflints that occurred in the United States over the government's level of aid, though, a front-page editorial in Al Qabas on Sunday said gulf Arabs had an obligation to dig deeper in their pockets for the people of Southeast Asia because of the longstanding ties between the two regions.

"We have to give them more; we are rich," Waleed al-Nusif, the editor in chief of Al Qabas, said in a telephone interview. "The price of oil doubled, so we have no excuse."

After the paper's editorial appeared, the Kuwaiti cabinet raised its announced donation on Sunday to $10 million, from $2 million, having previously doubled it.

Kuwait is expected to run a budget surplus this year of roughly $10 billion, and Mr. Nusif noted that the government had just distributed an estimated $700 million to the Kuwaiti people themselves, the public share of the unanticipated revenue.

He said Kuwait should give a minimum of $100 million, not least because many of the country's 1.29 million foreigners of a total population of 2.25 million come from the devastated regions.

"They built Kuwait, and they raised our children," said Mr. Nusif, noting that before successive oil booms, India and other countries opened their doors to Kuwaitis, who were then relatively poor. The paper also advised Kuwaitis to check with their housemaids to see if they wanted to phone home in case family members were dead or missing.

It was not the kind of reminder necessary for an older generation of Kuwaitis, Mr. Nusif said. "Our fathers were more generous than we are," he said. "They had suffered more."

The editorial became the hot topic in diwaniyas, the nightly salons where men gather to chew over the issues of the day.

"We should show more sympathy, especially since we have a budget surplus and these are our neighbors in Southeast Asia," said Saad al-Ajmi, a former Kuwaiti minister of information. He believes more private donations will be coming.

The Qabas editorial did not cite Kuwait alone in seeking to fatten donations. It said all the Arab gulf countries benefiting from huge oil revenues should give more.

Qatar and Saudi Arabia have each pledged $10 million, while Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, raised his country's cash contribution tenfold, to $20 million, on Monday night. [Editor's note: Saudi Arabia increased its pledge to $30 million, Qatar to $25 million Jan. 5]

Most pledges from the gulf Arab nations were made in the first hours after the earthquake, and as the scale becomes apparent, more money will be pledged, officials said.

The Islamic Development Bank in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, said it would distribute $10 million in emergency aid to Indonesia, the Maldives, Somalia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. The Thai Embassy in Kuwait said some people were dropping by to give money, with one business phoning to say it wanted to bring $14,000.

The Kuwaiti Embassy in Jakarta announced that it was chartering a ship to deliver aid to devastated Aceh Province in Indonesia.

In Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Dr. Saleh al-Tuwaijri, vice president of the Saudi Red Crescent Society, said the government's $10 million donation would go directly to sister organizations in the affected countries.

He said that per capita giving in the gulf was generally high, but that ordinary citizens faced obstacles to making donations because so many private charities had been closed under American pressure on suspicion of helping finance terrorism. No replacement mechanism has been established, which makes public fund-raising difficult, he said.

In Kuwait, some charities drew fire by advertising that they were collecting money for Muslim victims. Indonesia, the hardest-hit country, is the most populous Muslim nation.

"I don't know why only Muslims, when disasters do not differentiate between religions in choosing their victims," Muhammad Mousaed al-Saleh, a columnist, wrote in Al Qabas. The daily paper published a religious ruling, saying donating to non-Muslims is permissible.

The view that wanton behavior provoked the quake was the subject of Friday sermons in Saudi Arabia and of other religious commentaries.

"Asia's earthquake, which hit the beaches of prostitution, tourism, immorality and nudity," one commentator said on an Islamist Web site, "is a sign that God is warning mankind from persisting in injustice and immorality before he destroys the ground beneath them."

Walid Tabtabai, a member of the Kuwaiti Parliament, said the earthquake was a message.

"We believe that what occurs in terms of disasters and afflictions is a test for believers and punishment for the unjust," he wrote in a column in the newspaper Al Watan.

© 2004 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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Albion Monitor January 3, 2005 (

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