DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, AP -With so much easy money coming in these days, oil-rich Arab countries are trying to prove they are just as good at giving it away.
U.N. officials confirm what Arab spokesmen say — that they are now among the world’s most generous, bankrolling relief efforts for Asian earthquakes, African famines — even American hurricanes.
As one example, about 60 percent of the relief for the Oct. 8 Pakistan earthquake came from the Muslim world, much of it from the Persian Gulf, said Omar Shehadeh, Dubai-based fundraising chief of UNICEF, the U.N. children’s fund.
Saudi Arabia’s annual emergency and development aid has ranged from $750 million to $1.1 billion annually over the past few years, said Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi government adviser. The kingdom also gives around $1.5 billion a year in the form of cheap or free oil to poor countries, Obaid said.
The United Arab Emirates gave about $544 million in development aid last year, its Foreign Ministry said.
Overall comparisons are hard to make, in part because the Arabs have tended to give money anonymously to non-U.N. charities or directly to countries in need, rather than funnel donations through the U.N., which has long been distrusted as tool of the West.
That view is changing as U.N. agencies open offices in the Gulf, and figures from one U.N. agency, the World Food Program, while small, show an unexpected picture.
Already this year, Saudi Arabia’s $15 million in donations to the U.N. World Food Program has surpassed the $12 million from France and Australia and is not far off Japan’s $21 million. The U.S. contribution is $486 million, 32 times bigger than Saudi Arabia’s, but its GDP is 38 times bigger. Much of the $486 million consists of bulk food deliveries, which are in effect a way of subsidizing U.S. farmers.
“If this momentum continues, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries could be among our top 10 donors in the next few years,” said Tarek Shayya, the WFP’s Dubai-based donor officer.
U.N. aid coordinators in the region say humanitarian giving is no longer a Western enterprise.
“There’s a lot of generosity in this region and we’re convinced it’s increasing,” said Ivo Freijsen, chief of the Dubai office of the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Charity — called zakkat — is an ancient Islamic imperative. The amount of money given is staggering: $250 billion to $1 trillion a year, according to a report last year from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
After 9/11 the giving became controversial, with the United States saying some charities were funneling donations to Islamic extremists in Afghanistan. The Saudi government shut some charities and began monitoring others, in a campaign the U.S. says has largely been effective.
Meanwhile, legitimate donations, private and governmental, keep coming.
In May, billionaire Saudi businessman Prince Al-Walid bin Talal gave $1 million to the WFP for drought relief in Kenya. Two weeks later the Saudi government donated $10 million in cash for East Africa famine relief to WFP, which handles more than half of the world’s food aid.
Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also were among first responders to last month’s Indonesian earthquake.
And when Hurricane Katrina slammed into America’s Gulf coast last summer, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar raided their treasuries for $100 million each.
The United States was the world’s largest donor in 2004, handing out around $13 billion in humanitarian and development aid, mostly tied to purchases of U.S. goods, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
Measured by percentage of national income, however, America is the smallest contributor among major donor governments, the Congressional Research Service found.
When private donations are factored in, Saudi Arabia is thought to be one of the world’s largest per-capita donors, giving more than the U.N.’s standard of 0.7 percent of gross domestic product that most developed countries have not reached, U.N. officials say.
The kingdom’s government and citizens have donated $83 billion over the past 30 years, said Abdulaziz Arrukban, WFP’s Riyadh-based special ambassador and a key U.N. liaison with the kingdom.
Across the Arab world, the overall giving rate in 2002 was 0.85 percent of GDP, said Saudi Prince Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, a U.N. donor liaison for the Gulf, speaking during a 2003 conference.
The U.S. government spends about 0.15 percent of its GDP on development aid, Japan 0.21 percent and Germany 0.32 percent.
U.N. relief agencies have recently opened several offices in Dubai, which subsidizes them heavily. And in May, the Emirates became the 18th member of the OCHA Donor Support Group, an elite organization of the United States and other wealthy countries.
“We weren’t aware of what they were doing and they weren’t aware of what we were doing,” WFP’s Shayya said. “Now we’re closer to them.”
U.N. relief agencies stress they have few ties with the powerful and unpopular U.N. Security Council.
“We try to clarify that there is a difference between the actions of the Security Council and the U.N. civil servants,” Freijsen said. “I belong to the U.A.E. and Sudan as much as I belong to the U.S. or the U.K.”