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