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Humanitarian Aid on the move # 17, special issue: The World Humanitarian Summit

The funding of humanitarian action by the Gulf States: a long-term commitment
Céline Billat

Non-western donors fund humanitarian aid more and more and, of these, the Gulf States are the biggest donors. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar are the four members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf who contribute the most. Whereas the Gulf States contributed 1% of global humanitarian funding in 2000, their contribution reached 7% in 2014. This article looks at the reasons why this is likely to continue in the years ahead.


Humanitarian aid is principally funded by the member states of the OCDE’s Development Aid Committee (DAC) which currently includes the European Union and 28 states, most of them from the West. These donors financed 94% of humanitarian aid during the last decade and 90% ($16.8 million) in 2014 [1].

However, among the contributing governments, non-Western donors are playing an increasingly important role. This essentially concerns two groups of countries: the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Gulf States, which is understood as the six member states of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC): Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

The Gulf States currently contribute the most humanitarian aid among non-Western donors. Saudi Arabia was the biggest non-Western donor between 2000 and 2010, except in 2004 and 2009 when it was the United Arab Emirates. During that decade, the United Arab Emirates were the third biggest non-Western donor, Kuwait the fourth biggest, and Qatar the eighth biggest. Thus, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar are the four members of the GCC who are among the ten biggest non-Western donors who provide significant funding for humanitarian action [2]. It is interesting to consider these four countries as a group, as they are all members of the GCC, and they share geographical, political, economic, cultural and religious features that give their way of operating and funding humanitarian aid common characteristics. They are all conservative monarchies, they share the same Arab and Sunni identity and their economic development is based on the exploitation of natural resources (petrol and gas).

And yet, the Gulf States are not per se emerging donors as they have been active donors since the discovery of oil and the establishment of their states in the 1960s and 70s, once they had gained independence from the British Empire. A World Bank report [3] shows that between 1973 and 2008, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates contributed 1.5% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to external aid.

The first estimation of the financial contribution by CCG states to humanitarian aid [4] (as opposed to development aid) since the 1970s is 120 billion dollars [5]. No disaggregated estimation existed for humanitarian aid before 2000 when the FTS (Financial Tracking System) data base was established by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The contributions from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait have grown from 1% of total global humanitarian contributions in 2000 to 7% in 2014. Over this period, the Gulf States have contributed 6.6 billion dollars, with Saudi Arabia the biggest contributor of the four, responsible for 55% of this figure (3.6 billion dollars), followed by the United Arab Emirates at 24% (1.5 billion dollars), Kuwait at 14% (922 million dollars) and Qatar at 7% (458 million dollars) (source: FTS).

This major contribution by the Gulf States to humanitarian action looks likely to continue in the medium and long term for a number of reasons. The first of these is that their motivation for funding humanitarian aid, which is both deeply rooted in Islam and strongly dependent on strategic interests linked to foreign policy, is durable in nature. Also, their desire to become involved in humanitarian aid in the long term has led to the implementation of two parallel strategies: on the one hand, taking part in the traditional humanitarian system (understood to be the Western system coordinated by the United Nations) by becoming involved in its institutions, establishing partnerships with Western organisations and increasing its funding to the United Nations; and on the other hand, creating their own institutional and operational system at the national and regional levels.

[1] Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2015. Development Initiative.

[2] Oman and Bahrain are also members of the GCC but have not yet emerged as major donors on the humanitarian scene. They are therefore not included in the analysis in this article.

[3] Tabor et al., « Arab Development Assistance : Four Decades of Cooperation ». The World Bank (2010)

[4] External aid specifically dedicated to funding humanitarian aid.

[5] IRIN. 2012. « Analysis: A faith-based aid revolution in the Muslim world? » http://www.irinnews.org/report/95564/analysis-a-faith-based-aid-revolution-in-the-muslim-world