After Slow Start, Arab Countries Crank Up Tsunami Relief ; Initially Criticized for a Weak Response, Gulf States Have Increased Giving as Much as 100-Fold

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When Saudi Arabia held a 12-hour telethon last week, it not only raised $82 million for the victims of the Asian tsunami disaster, but it also helped quell accusations that the oil-rich Gulf states have been indifferent to a tragedy that left more than 100,000 fellow Muslims dead in Indonesia alone.

Saudi schoolchildren handed over their daily allowances, and one woman dropped her gold bracelets into a collection box as religious clerics, businessmen, and sports personalities broadcast appeals for generosity.

Other Gulf states, also stung by criticism, have increased their contributions, with Kuwait over the weekend raising its $10 million pledge to $100 million.

While the tradition of donating funds to victims of international disasters is often well-entrenched in the West, for many Arabs, giving to worthy causes is a luxury they can ill afford given the poverty and conflicts roiling the region, say observers.

"This is not how things should be," says Abdullah al-Faqih, professor of politics at Sanaa University in Yemen. "But we have to keep in mind that the Arabs live these days in extraordinary circumstances. They lack the freedom to organize and to express opinions, and consequently the freedom to initiate positive responses to crises."

Two-thirds of the fatalities from the Dec. 26 tsunami were from Indonesia, a country with the world's largest Muslim population. The Indonesian government has refrained from public comment, but the slow response of their fellow Muslims in the Arab world has been noted.

"Generally speaking, people [here] are quite disappointed" about the Arab reaction, says Azyumardi Azra, rector of Indonesia's State Islamic University.

"The West responded quickly. They [the Arab world] have been pretty slow," says Nasrullah Djamaluddin, chief imam of Indonesia's Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, the largest in Southeast Asia. "But we happily accept all help," he adds.

Malaysia's opposition leader Lim Kit Siang was more forthright last week, slamming the Gulf states for their "cold and indifferent attitudes."

Of late, the tradition of zakat, the religious obligation on all Muslims to donate part of one's income to charity, has become harder to fulfill due to the closure or freezing of many Islamic charities as part of the campaign to block terrorist funding, experts say. The Saudi government in June announced plans to dismantle all international charities in the kingdom and place their funds in a state-controlled commission to thwart the funding of terrorists.

"Religious philanthropic organizations, which used to be the main vehicles for Middle Eastern societies responding to internal and external emergencies, are almost extinct," Mr. Faqih says.

Arab government and popular reaction to the Asian disaster picked up after the Kuwaiti media published some barbed editorials on the "paltry" initial response.

On Jan. 2 Al Qabas, a Kuwaiti newspaper, criticized the contributions of Gulf states, highlighting the Kuwaiti government's initial contribution of $2 million as a reflection of the disregard many Kuwaitis feel toward the thousands of Asians working in the country. Migrant workers from Asia represent the bulk of the estimated 12 million expatriates working in the Gulf, outnumbering the indigenous Arab population. While most of them earn livings as servants and construction workers, many have white-collar jobs as engineers and managers in the oil and gas industries.

"There is a structural link between the Asian laborers and the wealth of the Gulf states, and that's the moral responsibility we should have acted upon immediately," says Rami Khouri, editor of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. …