Oil and water

Published January 7, 2005 9:57PM (EST)

The U.S. isn't the only nation that's come under fire in recent days for being "stingy" with the amount of aid pledged to countries ravaged by the tsunami. The Middle East's somewhat sluggish response to the disaster in South Asia -- whose ghastly death toll included far more Muslims than people of any other faith -- set off a wave of self-criticism from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait. The outcry is particularly striking given that internal criticism of the government in most countries of the region is frowned upon, to say the least.

UPI's Roland Flamini reported Wednesday that a number of Arab media outlets have been "scathing in their criticism of Arab lack of generosity and public concern," some of them pointing to the fact that combined pledges from the oil-rich Gulf and other Middle East nations, totaling around $100 million, amount to just a fifth of Japan's single pledge of $500 million. "Asian nations -- partly because of their proximity to the disaster zone -- were the first to provide logistical and emergency help," wrote Flamini. "Immediate aid on the ground from Arab nations, such as doctors, nurses, and engineers has been largely and conspicuously absent."

One Saudi television talk show host, according to the UPI piece, remarked, "Many Arab viewers have become racist. Unfortunately, the tragedy that befell Asians has no effect on many of them."

Others expressed anger given that much of the wealthier Middle East's labor force comes from the devastated South Asian region. "We have to give them more; we are rich," Waleed al-Nusif, editor in chief of the Kuwaiti paper Al Qabas, was quoted as saying in the New York Times Wednesday. "The price of oil doubled, so we have no excuse ... They built Kuwait, and they raised our children."

Such public soul-searching has left Arab governments scrambling -- as did the Bush administration last week -- to play catch-up with their relief packages.

"The Saudi government tripled its offering from $10 million to $30 million Tuesday," reported the L.A. Times. "The United Arab Emirates increased its aid from $2 million to $20 million and began airlifts of relief supplies. And Kuwait, after being blasted for stinginess on the front page of a prominent Sunday newspaper, upped its pledge from $2 million to $10 million."

Equally potent criticism in a Lebanese paper may have also helped light a fire under regional leaders.

"'Caricatures of white-robed sheiks sailing their luxury yachts on seas of oil and using $100 bills to light their Havana cigars will only be reinforced in the face of collective miserliness in this hour of human need,' warned an editorial in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. 'Especially if the petroleum-rich Gulf states do not dig a bit deeper into pockets that have become quite deep indeed over the last few years of high oil prices.'"

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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