Saudi Arabia as a Humanitarian Donor

High Potential, Little Institutionalization

09 Mar 2011, 
published in


Saudi Arabia has emerged as the world’s largest donor of humanitarian assistance outside the Western states, traditionally the members of OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC). In many recent natural disasters, the country’s contributions far exceeded those of any traditional donors. In 2007, in response to Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh, which killed more than 3,000 people and left millions homeless, Saudi Arabia gave Bangladesh $158 million for humanitarian purposes, compared to $20 million from the United States and less from the United Kingdom (Smith 2010). Following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the Saudi Kingdom made $50 million available to the Emergency Response Fund, a pooled funding mechanism set up by the United Nations. Saudi pledges for the ongoing response to the f loods that ravaged huge swathes of Pakistan in 2010 amount to $220 million — surpassing the pledges of all European donors taken together ($209 million) (Saudi Ministry of Interior 2010 and Smith 2010). In 2008, Saudi Arabia provided $500 million in cash to the World Food Program, the largest contribution in the Program’s history.

For development and humanitarian aid to the Arab and Muslim world, Saudi Arabia is the undisputed leader. Between 1975 and 2005, total Saudi aid to developing countries amounted to $90 billion or 3.7% of its annual gross domestic product (GDP), far higher than the UN 0.7% of GDP target for development assistance and four times the average achieved by OECD-DAC countries. Saudi Arabia also helps finance many key regional development funds and instruments.

The Kingdom’s munificence notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia’s record in international humanitarian assistance leaves much to be desired. The country’s actual capacities hardly match its growing roles and commitments. It lacks a coherent and organized humanitarian aid framework and there is no central agency to coordinate and supervise relief operations. Instead, we find a multiplicity of actors often working chaotically and at times at cross-purposes. There is a dearth of permanent and professional staff able to respond swiftly and effectively to natural or manmade disasters. The modalities for monitoring and evaluation remain nascent. Moreover, cooperation and coordination with other actors in the international humanitarian assistance network – other donor governments, global bodies, and non-governmental organizations – is weak. Saudi Arabia has yet to put its stamp on this network. Aside from its financial contributions and assistance in kind, it is widely seen by many of these actors as a laggard, not a leader.

Saudi Arabia has yet to develop a clear policy or strategy for humanitarian assistance. Saudi conceptions of and motivations for humanitarian aid remainpoorly understood – in no small part because little effort has been made to communicate them to the outside world. The country has hesitated to seize numerous opportunities to enhance its international reputation by publicizing its efforts to succor the world’s aff licted. Whether intended as such or not, Saudi humanitarian assistance is a formidable source of soft power” – a means of winning hearts and minds – that would be the envy of any other country. Yet, ironically, for the numerous reasons underscored in this study, it is a power that the Kingdom has not adequately comprehended, let alone fully exploited.

The present study is part of a research project on non-Western donors of humanitarian assistance at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). The objective of this study is to develop an in-depth understanding of the norms, foreign policy priorities, modalities and operational procedures that characterize Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian assistance. More specifically, the study aims to address the following broad questions:

  • How does Saudi Arabia see its humanitarian role? What norms, ideas and foreign policy interests form the basis of its humanitarian engagement?
  • How does Saudi Arabia conduct its humanitarian activities? What approach, thematic and regional focus has the country chosen and how does it participate in the traditional international humanitarian system?
  • What are the enabling factors and obstacles to enhanced cooperation in international humanitarian aid efforts?

Due to a lack of scholarly research on Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian aid and poor access to data, the authors have relied on three sources of information to prepare this paper. First, they conducted more than 40 in-depth interviews with policy makers, academics, and international humanitarian and development practitioners inside and outside of Saudi Arabia (in person in Riyadh and Kuweit). Second, they drew on reports by international organizations, Saudi governmental organizations and NGOs. In the absence of a central system to formally report Saudi humanitarian contributions, they used OCHA’s financial tracking service (FTS) for quantitative data on Saudi aid, complemented by data from interviews and media reports. This data, however, is incomplete because Saudi Arabia does not report all its contributions to the financial tracking service.

The study faced further limitations. Results and findings of this study are based on preliminary, inconclusive evidence that must be substantiated by additional research. Accessing data from official sources – if existent – was difficult. Moreover, the study was based mostly on small samples of respondents’ perceptions andattitudes and might thus be subject to problems of selection bias and social desirability.

This report is organized into six sections. The first part introduces the study’s scope and objectives. The second provides a glimpse of the Saudi humanitarian aid record and the country’s conception of humanitarianism and aid modalities. The third part identifies the key actors and institutions involved in aid decision-making and implementation, including an assessment of the various factors that have inhibited effective aid implementation so far. The fourth section seeks to describe the nature of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the multilateral humanitarian system. The fifth chapter attempts to explain the motives and considerations that inform Saudi humanitarian aid decisions and programs. In conclusion, the last section discusses measures that international multilateral organizations, Western donors, and Saudi Arabia might consider enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of aid implementation and foster better cooperation.

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