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Emerging humanitarian donors: the Gulf States
Véronique de Geoffroy and Alain Robyns

Saudi Arabia was the third biggest humanitarian donor after the United States and the European Commission in 2008. Yet the international aid system has been - and continues to be - structured in mainly Western forums. So-called “emerging” donors are rarely involved in coordination mechanisms. In order to involve them more, it is crucial to reach better understanding of their role, their values and their specific characteristics.

The Gulf States have recently become more active in the humanitarian domain, increasing the amount of funding that they give to humanitarian aid and becoming more involved in international debates. Governmental bodies for emergency relief have been created, the implementation of aid has been improved (e.g. creation of the Humanitarian City in Dubai), debate on humanitarian issues has been encouraged, donations to United Nations agencies have been increased and international conferences like the DIHAD [1] have been held. Saudi Arabia was the third biggest humanitarian donor after the United States and the European Commission in 2008 [2].

However, recent crises like the crisis in Lebanon in 2006 have highlighted how little Arab donors are integrated into international coordination mechanisms. In general, the international aid system has been and continues to be shaped principally in Western forums. This reinforces the perception that humanitarian aid is based on Western rather then universal values. It is therefore crucial to reach better understanding of the role, values and specific characteristics of these actors so that they can be integrated more into coordination mechanisms.

Data about funds allocated by the Gulf States and the types of aid supported is hard to come by. But, in order to monitor the humanitarian aid system and make dialogue easier, it is important to know about and take into account certain specific characteristics of humanitarian aid in the Gulf States, and more generally in the Muslim world.

Islam encourages the giving of charitable donations. A considerable amount is given by businesses and individuals to charitable works and Islamic aid. These funds go primarily to conflict or natural disaster contexts in the Middle East, such as Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. They are allocated on the basis of religious and geographical proximity, for aid programmes which target Muslim communities in nearby regions.

Certain actors provide humanitarian aid coupled with religious programmes for Muslim communities. It is not always easy to distinguish between relief, humanitarian aid and religious activities. Some believe that the origin of these funds needs to be clarified as it influences the content of aid. This question is currently one of the central issues being discussed by actors from the Muslim world. Having begun as charitable action, aid in the Gulf States is becoming increasingly professionalised, following the example of humanitarian organisations elsewhere, while preserving religious values.

[1] Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference and Exhibition» which takes place in Dubai every April.

[2] Global Humanitarian Assistance report 2009, available at http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/analyses-and-reports/gha-reports/gha-report-2009 .