BEIRUT (AFP) – On the edge of Beirut racetrack, a horseshoe-shaped field hospital is dispensing free medical care, as Saudi Arabia tries once again to bankroll a Lebanese revival with hundreds of millions of dollars.
“I like horse-racing but we barely have time to call our families,” said Saud al-Omani, a British-trained trauma surgeon from Riyadh who heads a team of 115 doctors and nurses as well as 40 Lebanese medical staff.
“We are all paid of course,” he said, from the petrodollars aplenty of the Saudi government.
Groups of patients waited in shaded areas complete with seats in front of 18 air-conditioned containers built as clinics on wheels, painted in white and with the sign of the Saudi Red Crescent Society.
The medics have been operational since August 5, three weeks into Israel’s 34-day war on the Shiite group Hezbollah that wrought destruction mostly in south Lebanon and the Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, barely a few kilometres (miles) from the hospital.
The Saudi kingdom has been the single biggest aid donor to Lebanon, comprising a one-billion-dollar deposit with the central bank to shore up the currency and a grant of 500 million dollars.
It also sponsored the 1989 Taif accord which ended Lebanon’s 15-year civil war and gave massive financial support for post-war reconstruction, especially during the five-time premiership of the late Rafiq Hariri, a dual Saudi-Lebanese national.
On Tuesday in Saudi Arabia, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Washington’s allies to help “young governments in places like Lebanon … against the extremist forces”, partly in reference to Hezbollah.
In a hearts and minds campaign open to all religions, the Saudi doctors in their fluorescent orange and turquoise outfits have seen more than 50,000 patients, with a maximum treatment time of 24 hours each that they aim to extend to three days.
“We don’t ask where they come from. We ask their name, age, and sex. Most of the time, we know, by looking at them, the last part,” said Omani, who was trained in Edinburgh and has also been involved in relief operations in Kosovo, Iran and Iraq.
“We have no time-limit on humanitarian care,” he said, asked when the operation would wind down.
“Our patients may be indirectly sick from the war, or it may be a follow-up. Don’t forget the infrastructure has gone in this country and medicine is expensive,” said Omani, 47, who wears a hearing aid due to a 1991 Gulf War injury.
But the team does face some problems in terms of local habits. “The trouble is convincing people to queue for registration and triage to be able to classify patients,” explained Omani.
“We also have psychiatric cases, especially for children, and illnesses due to the war,” said Omani.
The heaviest demand is for general practitioners but the clinic also provides orthopaedic care, obstetrics, cardiology, psychiatric treatment, paediatric, ultrasound and X-rays, as well as a laboratory.
It is equipped with an intensive care unit, recovery room, pharmacy, an area for Muslim prayers, five ambulances, a sterilisation unit, computers, in short all the latest in short-term medical care.
“We can handle 100 emergencies a day and more than 700 operations have been carried out,” said Omani, although the number of patients has eased from the normal 1,300-a-day, and hours have been curtailed for the dawn-to-dusk fasting month of Ramadan.
Alongside aging Druze men in their white caps, black clothes and traditional baggy pants, veiled Sunni and Shiite women milled around with their children in tow.
Others, untroubled by the Ramadan fast, helped themselves from cooled water dispensers.
“Thank God, they are looking after us, not like the government. Even if you are dying, our government will not let you in hospital for treatment if you don’t have the money,” said Majida Habash, 32, a Shiite woman from the bombed-out suburbs.
“We have also had no help from Hezbollah, maybe because our house was not damaged,” she said, referring to the 12,000-dollar cash handouts being offered by the Shiite group backed by Tehran and Damascus.
Others were also impressed by the largesse of the oil-rich Saudi government.
“I heard from the people that the Saudis have good doctors and are giving free medicine. The people are saying good things,” said Nazih Allwan, a Sunni from west Beirut, who had been waiting two hours to be seen for a stomach infection.
Berdjouhi Nazarian, 52, from the Armenian Christian district of Bourj Hammoud in east Beirut, said her husband needs heart surgery for a blocked artery.
“Bravo to them (the Saudis) for helping the people. We can’t even afford the medicine,” she said.
Saudi King Abdullah has also decided to pay all fees for state school students in Lebanon for the delayed academic year, while neighbouring United Arab Emirates is footing the bill to repair schools and provide textbooks.