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Saudi foreign aid reaches new heights

The kingdom seldom seeks the limelight to boast of its generosity. Yet it is one of the top donors in the world and has been so since the 1970s

Gulf News

The news on and about Saudi Arabia continues to fill the airwaves and otherwise preoccupies writers and editors everywhere. Most are enamoured with sensational items, including allegedly deliberate air strikes on a Yemeni hospital supported by Médecins Sans Frontières, or of arms sales by the United States and other countries that contribute to mayhem.

A few days ago, speculation was rampant about the sale of up to 153 tanks and other military equipment in a deal worth $1.15 billion (Dh4.22 billion), which led a few to opine that Washington contributed to Riyadh’s destruction of Yemen and that the time had come to shut the pipeline down.

Amid this negative fare bonanza, a report that the kingdom allocated $130 billion in foreign aid during the past three decades (1985-2015) received scant attention, which was not unusual even if it was unbecoming.

Of course, many countries provided and continue to allocate substantial sums in development assistance to needy nations, but that did not minimise what Saudi Arabia, along with other Gulf Cooperation Council states, including Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, have accomplished to date.

In fact, efforts to engage in humanitarian assistance and increase the level of social responsibility by distributing foreign aid are nothing new, as all Arab Gulf countries created development funds in the late 1960s and early 1970s for such purposes. What stood out were the linkages made between humanitarian and developmental efforts, especially in terms of religious obligations, with the implication that Arab financial support went to Muslim nations more or less exclusively.

This was true to a certain extent not because Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners did not disburse aid to non-Muslim countries but because there was so much need in Muslim countries to begin with. Equally important, and though the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental economic organisation with 35 wealthy member-countries displayed customary generosity. It would be safe to also state that some of their aid was linked to political agendas even if transparency was usually applied.

Still, and amazingly, little of what Saudi Arabia offered in terms of humanitarian assistance received coverage in mainstream media outlets. This was, at least in part, a sign of neglect by Riyadh. Indeed, Arab leaders in general and Saudi officials in particular, seldom sought the limelight to boast of their generosity, which some misinterpreted and continue to perceive as a sign of weakness or, even worse, that these individuals have something to hide. Regrettably, most play defence when winning public relations requires offensive moves.

Be that as it may, the kingdom is one of the top donors in the world and has been so since the 1970s. In fact, and according to the UN Statistical Report for 2014, Riyadh was the sixth largest donor worldwide. More than 90 countries benefited from this largesse, including Sri Lanka and India. In 2004, Saudi Arabia provided significant aid to Indonesia, following the Aceh Province earthquake/tsunami combination that devastated Sumatra. Similar aid was rushed to Pakistan and India after the Kashmir earthquake and, though most Iranians forgot about it, to the victims of the December 26, 2003 Bam earthquake that struck that hapless city and the surrounding Kerman province, and which killed more than 26,000 people.

An Iranian presidential adviser at the time, Mohammed Shariati, praised the aid provided by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, noting that the assistance was distinguished both in quality and quantity.

The list of Saudi aid is long and its pledges to assist various Arab countries, ranging from Lebanon — before during and after its civil war — to Egypt, speak for themselves. Billions have been given to the Palestinian people too as the latter survive Israeli occupation. Contributions to various UN organisations like the UN Relief and Works Agency that looks after Palestinian refugees and the UNHCR that now devotes attention to Syrian refugees throughout the region must also be added to the tally. Similar aid is disbursed through the League of Arab States as well as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Lest we overlook it, and though few seem to take notice, the kingdom welcomed around 2.5 million Syrians since the beginning of the conflict in that hapless country in 2011. Yet, because Riyadh chose not to treat them as refugees or place them in refugee camps — all were granted the freedom to move about the country, remain in the kingdom as they wish with “legal residency status”, or move to third countries — often-repeated but erroneous accusations were lobbed against it. Negligent reportage concluded that Saudi Arabia refused to provide assistance to Syrians. Few took notice that a 2012 royal decree instructed public schools to accept Syrian students gratis, where at least 100,000 were enrolled in 2015-2016.

World powers engaged in organised rivalries with the single goal of advancing one’s interests. As a general rule, those who have power try to deny it to others, which makes geopolitical sense, though it behoves others to mount concerted efforts to explain what it is they too are doing. Providing billions of dollars in foreign aid merits such attention.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of the just-published From Alliance to Union: Challenges Facing Gulf Cooperation Council States in the Twenty-First Century (Sussex: 2016).

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