Thursday, January 6, 2005

Saudi Arabia’s ruling royal family, stung by criticism of the kingdom’s relatively low aid commitments to tsunami-stricken nations, has ordered a telethon on state-controlled television today to raise money for the victims.

Phone numbers will be provided on-screen, in what looks like an effort to counter the impression that oil-rich Arab states throughout the Persian Gulf have been parsimonious about this tragedy, despite its terrible effects on the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia.

One leading Arab editor labeled the response as a “failure” in worldwide Arab diplomacy.

One factor holding back donations appears to be a widespread belief that vacationers were swept away as a form of divine retribution for their un-Islamic or immoral lifestyles. That argument was heard in televised Friday prayers across the Arab world.

“We know that at these resorts, which unfortunately exist in Islamic and other countries in South Asia, and especially at Christmas, fornication and sexual perversion of all kinds are rampant,” one cleric, Sheik Fawzan Al-Fawzan, was quoted as saying. “The fact that it happened at this particular time is a sign from Allah.”

There also is a reluctance in Arab culture to make charitable contributions public, viewing it as a form of boasting.

The Arab News, a publication mainly for expatriates based in the world’s richest desert kingdom, said many Saudi businessmen nevertheless had decided to announce their donations in reaction to “foreign news stories [that] accused Gulf states of being stingy.”

It said one leading industrialist had told the newspaper that he had chartered a plane to take tons of aid, disinfectants and detergents to affected areas. It also reported that schoolchildren had donated their pocket money to help the victims and that three Saudi youths from the city of Jubail are heading to Indonesia to help in the relief effort.

King Fahd announced this week that “in the light of the size of the tragedy and the losses,” the official level of Saudi assistance has been increased to $30 million — tripling what had been announced previously.

Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar bin Sultan said in Washington that his government will continue to “monitor the situation” and adjust their aid contribution as needed.

“Due to the extent of the disaster, we need to consider the long-term relief for the survivors of this terrible tragedy, and we continue to monitor the situation to enable the best support possible,” he said.

Efforts to reach ambassadors of other Islamic countries in Washington yesterday were not successful.

The boost in Saudi aid, which remains less than 5 percent of the $665 million German commitment, came after a controversial editorial in Kuwait’s Al Qabas newspaper accusing Gulf Arab leaders and particularly Kuwaitis of failing to live up to their obligations.

The paper said the low level of aid would add to the impression that Gulf Arabs were willing to use Asians — who as imported workers easily outnumber the native population — as menial employees within their oil-rich states, but were not able to view the Muslims among them as Islamic equals.

The bulk of the nannies, drivers, menial laborers and other servants who keep most households running in Kuwait come from Southeast Asia, the paper pointed out. It said “some Kuwaitis” felt this imposed an obligation to be seen to be generous.

The Arab News also reported that strong efforts were being made to send supplies to the affected areas, but it highlighted mercy missions funded and arranged by Asian expatriates working inside Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the Arab-dominated Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, through its Fund for International Development, has approved a humanitarian grant of $1.25 million to aid Asia’s relief efforts, the fund’s office in Vienna, Austria, announced.

Other Gulf states have tried to overcome criticism of their early aid offerings.

Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, raised his country’s pledge from $2 million to $20 million. And the Oman Charitable Organization has sent 1,200 tons of aid to Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the past two days and said an additional 12 chartered flights were scheduled.

The widely read Web site of Al Jazeera satellite television also has reflected the growing internal and external criticism of the Arab world’s relief efforts.

In a story attributed to “agencies,” it quoted an unidentified official of the United Arab Emirates and a member of the Saudi legislative council as insisting that their countries were “offering aid on a humanitarian basis that has nothing to do with race or religion.”

But, it added, the well-known Arab newspaper editor Abdul Bari Atwan was not convinced.

“We Arabs failed in peace as we did in war. We failed in all tests of democracy and human rights. Here we are, registering a new failure on the humanitarian front,” Mr. Atwan, who edits the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi, was quoted as saying.

The Al Jazeera Web site said the oil-rich Arab states so far had pledged $70 million to victims of the tsunami disaster, “despite reaping seven times as much in crude revenues daily.”

It quoted a Kuwaiti commentator as suggesting Wednesday: “All the Gulf states need to do is donate one day’s equivalent of their oil income.”

Kuwait’s pledge of $10 million “still is a humble amount compared to the magnitude of the catastrophe,” Shamlan al-Issa wrote in the daily As-Siyassah.

Added to Kuwait’s $10 million, the United Arab Emirates’ $20 million and gas-rich Qatar’s $10 million, the total pledges by the four oil producers reached $70 million, compared with about $500 million a day in oil revenues, Al Jazeera’s Web site reported.

It found at least some explanation by quoting a Bahraini, Jamal Marhun, who said, “The rich Gulf states usually don’t give big amounts to victims of natural disasters, perhaps because they have not gone through such plights themselves.”

• James Morrison in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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