Gulf countries: growing aid powers

Gulf countries are ramping up their overseas aid spending by providing hundreds of millions of dollars to emergencies both in the Middle East and further afield while at the same time broadening multilateral engagement and joining global debates on aid effectiveness.

Saudi Arabia's US$500million July donation to support the UN's ongoing displacement in Iraq accounts for 70 percent of all funding received for the appeal to date, according to data from the online Financial Tracking Service (FTS), run by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

This has taken the oil-rich kingdom's total humanitarian funding year to date to $634million, making it the fourth-largest donor after the USA, the European Commission and the UK.

FTS data accessed by IRIN also reveals that in 2013 and 2014 Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar together accounted for around 15 percent of all aid money going to Syria, around half of the amount that came from the US, but still more than what was provided by countries giving under the umbrella of the European Commission.

The 2014 Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) report published this month (11 September) by UK-based think tank Development Initiatives, which uses FTS data along with other government and agency sources, highlights the rise in Gulf aid spending, as part of a wider trend that saw record aid spending of $22billion in 2013.

The 150-page interactive report points out that Kuwait, which has staged several high profile donor conferences to raise cash for Syrian refugees, upped its assistance by over 2,300 percent from 2012 to 2013 (from $14million to $327million), becoming the largest Gulf donor that year and accounting for 2 percent of all global humanitarian funding. For 2014, FTS data shows Kuwait has already allocated $326million and pledged a further $211million.

According to the GHA study, the leading Gulf humanitarian donor over the 2009-2013 five-year period was the UAE, providing $809million of humanitarian assistance, making it the 18th largest government donor overall, while Saudi Arabia was the second largest, and the 19th globally, with $709 million.

Only Qatar reflected a dip in its humanitarian allocations over the reporting period, with its spend declining from $105 million in 2012 to $69 million in 2013.

Power players

The decision by Gulf states to increase funding has been partly provoked by the geographic proximity of the humanitarian crises, Gulf governance expert Habiba Hamid told IRIN. The crises in Syria and Iraq have increased fears of knock-on effects across the Middle East that could reach the Gulf. "The scale of Syria's crisis is unprecedented and it has provoked a Gulf humanitarian response in contrast with Western inertia," Hamid said.

Charlotte Lattimer, a senior humanitarian adviser at Development Initiatives and a contributor to the GHA report, said Saudi Arabia's Iraq donation was particularly noteworthy. "It's an extremely large donation and I think a lot of people were surprised to hear about it when it was announced, especially given the context of how little funding Iraq had received up until that point."

UN agencies in Iraq, which had been struggling to attract donors for months, putting relief programmes at risk, are now in the unique position of being 183 percent funded, according to FTS.

This is because the $500million from Saudi Arabia, which has already been dispersed to different agencies, far exceeds the $312million the UN had initially asked for in its Strategic Response Plan (SRP).

"The size of the donation does draw new attention to the importance of Saudi Arabia as a donor," Lattimer said, adding: "Though I would say it is in line with the trend that we've been seeing over the past few years - of all the Gulf states, with the exception of Qatar, significantly increasing their humanitarian spending."

One other factor potentially increasing Gulf support for Syria and Iraq is a keenness to refute allegations of supporting - either tacitly or explicitly - the extremist Sunni groups that have gained power. In recent months several reports have alleged that Gulf states have been covertly funding some groups inside Syria and Iraq, most prominently the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

As such, Gulf states are keen to show their commitment to humanitarian missions, Hamid said. "Following Syria, the Islamic State and charges against certain actors for funding terrorism, Gulf donors are concerned with overtly demonstrating that they are in step with internationally agreed norms and goals," she said.

"Following Syria, the Islamic State and charges against certain actors for funding terrorism, Gulf donors are concerned with overtly demonstrating that they are in step with internationally agreed norms and goals."

Yet the focus has not been purely local. Lattimer pointed out that while much Gulf aid has been directed to Middle Eastern countries, they have also given generously to natural disasters in Haiti, the Philippines and Pakistan, something also reflected in FTS tables.

Hamid stressed that Saudi Arabia was not a stranger to large aid gestures, having in 2008 given the UN's World Food Programme $500million to plug gaps caused by rising costs of fuel and food.

"It's not that the scale of Gulf funding has necessarily increased, because the Gulf has consistently exceeded other regional groupings, it is perhaps that scrutiny on the part of monitors such as the OECD is improving," she said, referring to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OEDC) Development Assistance Committee (DAC), a grouping of so-called traditional aid donors.

Formalizing agreements

As Gulf states become increasingly well-known as influential humanitarian donors, their position in the international humanitarian world is becoming more formalized.

In 2013 the UAE was, according to DAC, the world's largest donor of Official Development Assistance (ODA) in proportion to Gross National Income (GNI), and in July this year it became the first non-OECD country to join the committee, though only as a non-voting participant.

The UAE's recently-formed Ministry for International Co-operation and Development (MICAD), which is due to publish its aid spending for 2013 next month, said the DAC membership: "affirm(ed) the active and effective role of the UAE in the international development" and would "help to utilize the best practices in the development and humanitarian field".

The country, whose Red Crescent runs a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, will in October this year co-host with the UN Refugee Agency a global conference about the plight of refugee children.

Erik Solheim, a former Norwegian government minister who has chaired DAC since January 2013, welcomed the UAE to the grouping.

"I think it's an important change for the DAC to have a new member like the UAE because it did have an image of being an exclusive club, and on the UAE's side, they can benefit from some of the standards and systems that we have established over time," he told IRIN.

Solheim acknowledged that sometimes Gulf donors were perceived to have different approaches to aid - in terms of delivery, reporting and evaluation - but he said: "If you want to run around the world looking for differences, you will always find them.

"But, if you want to bring the world together, there is also an opportunity to do that. We need a pragmatic discussion on what works and what does not work, when it comes to aid," he said.

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