Philanthropy and the Saudi Experience

by Michael Saba
30 May 2006
Washington, D.C. - Try googling “Saudi” and “charity” together. Almost all of the hits tell you stories of alleged illicit activities by Saudi charities funding terrorism and almost every other dastardly activity that you can imagine, supposedly being performed with Saudi charitable funds. You have to go way down on the list before you find anything even vaguely positive about Saudis and charitable activities. This week, however, a news article did make the papers about Saudi benevolence. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was acknowledged by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) for having recently given $10 million for draught relief in the Horn of Africa. And that act is not unusual for the Saudis.

According to a WFP spokesperson, "Saudi Arabia has become a significant donor to WFP operations worldwide. Since 2005, the Saudi government and private sector have given over $20 million in contributions. Most recently, Saudi Arabia has provided funds for WFP operations in Cambodia, the occupied Palestinian territory and Pakistan."

They go on, "Providing assistance to over 50 countries across the globe, Saudi Arabia plays a leading role in humanitarian and relief activities. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has donated billions of dollars bilaterally or multilaterally to relief and development projects over the last 30 years and the recent donations to WFP are examples of its ongoing commitment to help humanity."

According to various sources, Saudi Arabia, on a per capita basis, is the largest donor of foreign aid in the world, yet the major international media continue to cast Saudi Arabia's charitable activities in a negative light. Also, although frequently missed by the international media, there are uncountable acts of individual and private and public institutional charity carried on throughout the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

During the last couple of weeks, this writer and a group of American visitors have seen firsthand numerous charitable activities in all parts of Saudi Arabia. From disabled children's programmes in Riyadh and special schools for the handicapped in the Eastern Province, we observed scores of dedicated staff and volunteers caring for the less fortunate. But the highlight of the trip was a visit to Hope Center for Exceptional Needs in Jeddah.

The Hope Center is a multilingual, multicultural centre for children with exceptional needs. They rehabilitate children with disorders such as Down’s syndrome, autism, attention deficit disorders, and learning disabilities. Their services include skill training in the areas of cognition, self-help, socialisation, behaviour modification and fine and gross motor skills. Parents of these children are offered training and support through the institute. The Hope Center is an exceptional place.

We met children of various races, faiths and nationalities and saw great love and care being given to each and every child. One lovely little girl was deaf and yet she could read lips in both English and Arabic. One little boy with a learning disorder hugged each one of us warmly as we entered his classroom. Another young man with Down's syndrome proudly showed us his skills on a classroom computer and beamed when we were told that he would be taking a job bagging groceries at a local supermarket.

As we were standing at the bottom of the stairs, a tiny six-year-old girl was helped down the steps in an agonisingly slow manner. She had thick glasses and moved ever so slowly. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she smiled and reached her hand out to greet us all. We each hugged her and with tears in our eyes we were told that she couldn't walk or talk or even swallow when she was brought to the Hope Center. She turned and smiled one more time as she ambled into her classroom for her morning lessons.

I met another sweet young girl who also had a lovely smile. When I was told the name of her family, I asked her if by chance she was related to an old friend of mine. She told me that my friend was her grandfather. She then said that she would see her grandfather soon and greet him for me. The staff told me that this young lady was advancing in her studies very rapidly and looked forward to her classes every day.

When we asked the staff about their needs they told us that since they were a charity, they were dependent on private donations. They also stated that a very high priority for the Hope Center was to place their students back in normal life situations and to help them obtain real jobs. The Hope Center staff said that they were looking for roles models in the Kingdom who had made the jump from institutional care to the world of work. We all pledged our support for their efforts.

That same afternoon, our group was invited to a meeting at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. I arrived early and asked an official there if I could get access to a computer to check my email while I was waiting for the rest of the group to arrive. I was taken to two or three different places which had computers that were not turned on before I finally ended up, totally by chance, standing in front of a young Saudi man with the biggest smile that I have ever seen. As this young man greeted me and offered me the use of his computer, I took note of the fact that he was disabled and had to move from his desk with the use of crutches.

I asked this young man, who was a secretary at the Chamber, how he had progressed from his disability to this job at the Chamber of Commerce. He said that he decided that he just couldn’t sit at home feeling sorry for himself and that he had taken training and found a sensitive work environment for his situation at the Chamber. When I told him about the Hope Center, he immediately volunteered to meet the staff there and spend as much time as he could with the children. The next day this gentleman and the director of the Hope Center were already in contact with one another and planning program time together.

It was a teary day for me. Oh how I wish that this story would appear at the top of the list when one entered charity and Saudi on Google.

*Dr. Michael Saba is an international relations consultant.

Source: Arab News, May 24, 2006

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