Sunday, 8 March 2009

Charity, the best Gulf lobby of them all

I took part last week in a panel discussion during the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai. The session was entitled The New Gulf: How Modern Arabia is Changing the World for Good. I was asked, and not for the first time: “Why don’t the Arab Gulf countries finance a lobbying group in the US to influence American politicians?”

There is no doubt that the GCC countries have been working under the radar in the past few decades, providing assistance to needy countries in the region and around the world. But it is no secret that we lack a consolidated pan-GCC effort to highlight our contributions and remind the world of how much financial assistance we give and to whom we give it. The absence of this consolidated effort prompted The Washington Post to ask: “Is the Arab World Stingy?” in the wake of our fragmented and unplanned reactions to the devastating Asian tsunami, compared with western aid (much of which, incidentally, never arrived).

The truth is that the GCC happens to be the most generous group of countries in the world; some might even say too generous, if there is such a thing. In the 1970s, the decade in which most of the Gulf countries gained independence, they maintained an unprecedented aid to Gross National Product ratio in double digits, while developed western states were giving less than 1 per cent. This somewhat exorbitant rate of charity continues discreetly to this day, albeit on a smaller scale.

So why do the Gulf states shy away from highlighting their aid and assistance? The traditional Muslim Arabs of the Gulf keep close to heart Verse 264 from Al Baqara Chapter of the Quran: “O ye who believe! Annul not your charity by reminders of your generosity or by injury”, which echoes Matthew 6:2 in the King James Bible: “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you.” Similarly, Middle Eastern Muslims and Jews use the same word, tzedakah, to stress the importance of anonymity when giving to charity.

Stories abound in the Gulf of the pre-Islam era Arab Christian poet Hatim al Tai, who was so generous he would pay ransom to free prisoners and slaves. In an example of how the migration of older religions to the newer religion of the Gulf has helped to form our unique culture, Gulf people recite a saying that is identical, word for word, to the teachings of the Bible: “When you give to the poor, let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

However not all charity in the Gulf is an individual effort. In 1961, the year that Kuwait gained its independence and realised that immense wealth lay within its grasp, it immediately established the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development. The Fund’s headquarters were looted and pillaged during Saddam’s invasion in 1990, but in a perfect example of the Gulf States model of forgiveness and generosity Kuwait was one of the first and largest donors to post-US invasion Iraq in 2004, pledging $500 million. The Riyadh-based Arab Gulf Programme for UN Development Organisations has financed more than 1,000 projects in 131 countries, including the groundbreaking Arab Open University, which has more than 22,000 students enrolled at moderate fees, 50 per cent of them women.

Today, Gulf states and nationals are starting to understand the importance of non-anonymous charity in combating xenophobic sentiments towards Arabs and Muslims as a result of the actions of some misguided terrorists. Recently, Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia publicly endowed $20 million to Harvard University and $32 million to Cambridge and Edinburgh universities in Britain, and the American University of Beirut’s Business School now carries the name of the Saudi Olayan family in a multimillion dollar deal.

But the mother of all endowments was in 2007, when Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, launched an unprecedented $10 billion fund bearing his name to promote education in the Arab world.

According to Saudi Arabian estimates its government and people have donated a staggering $83 billion over the past three decades, including $500 million to the World Food Programme last May. The US, a very generous donor by any standards, spends 0.15 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on development aid; far short of the UN’s target of 0.7 percent of GDP. This target is exceeded by the Gulf countries’ giving rate, which is closer to 0.85 percent.

So what exactly is our problem? Basically, it’s bad PR. The forces of religion, negligence, tradition and legends combine to make it taboo for us to remind the world of our financial contributions. Creating a lobby such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), that most powerful of groups, to gently coerce politicians such as Barack Obama into ignorantly, passionately and unjustly declaring Jerusalem to be the eternal undivided capital of Israel is the sort of nadir I hope we never arrive at.
As I said on that Gulf States panel, we’ll stick to charity; it’s the best form of lobbying.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a Sharjah-based businessman and graduate of the American University of Paris. He is the founder of Barjeel Securities in Dubai.

This article first appeared in The National newspaper on Sunday, March 8th 2009

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