Fundamentally Freund: Do the Arab states really care about the Palestinians?

Fundamentally Freund Do

For all their talk of standing by the Palestinians, the Arab regimes sure have a strange way of showing it. Despite reaping an oil-driven windfall last year of unprecedented proportions, few Arab states seem willing to dig very deep into their own pockets to back up their concern with cash. Indeed, the hollowness of their pro-Palestinian pronouncements was unambiguously on display last week in Amman, at a meeting of the Advisory Commission of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, better known by its acronym of UNRWA. Among the central topics discussed at the gathering was the growing financial crisis confronting the organization, which relies on voluntary contributions from governments to fund its activities on behalf of Palestinian refugees. In her remarks, Karen Abu Zayd, UNRWA's commissioner-general, bemoaned the group's financial state, describing it as "my most worrying preoccupation." She told those assembled that the agency is facing a deficit of $84 million this year, and that it projects a budget shortfall of $140m. in 2010. "UNRWA's weak financial situation," Abu Zayd said, "hinders our ability to discharge our responsibilities to the standards Palestinian refugees deserve." FOR THE past several years, it seems, UNRWA has been in increasingly dire straits. Indeed, on Tuesday of last week, the group's 16,000 employees in Judea, Samaria and Gaza held a one-day strike to demand better pay. Why, you might be wondering, have the UN agency's troubles been mounting of late? After all, fuel prices surged last year, with oil peaking in July 2008 at a high of $150 a barrel, so the coffers of Arab treasuries throughout the region were hardly lacking for funds with which to aid their Palestinian brethren. I wondered too, so I did some research and discovered a few surprising facts about the colossal gap between Arab rhetoric and Palestinian reality. Consider the following: In 2008, 19 of the top 20 donors to UNRWA's general fund were from the West, with the EU contributing over $116m., and the US more than $94m. Others, such as Sweden and the UK, each gave over $35m. Just one Arab country - Kuwait - appeared among UNRWA's top 20 benefactors. The Kuwaitis came in last on the list, having coughed up just $2.5m. Given that Kuwait's oil revenues last year surged by 44 percent to nearly $78 billion, you would think that if they really, truly cared about the Palestinians, this would have been reflected in the size of their donation to UNRWA. Nonetheless, when compared to the other five Arab states that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - the Kuwaitis come out looking generous. In 2008, the combined revenues of the GCC states from oil production amounted to a whopping $575b. Yet their joint contribution to UNRWA's regular budget was a little more than $3.6m., signifying less than one one-thousandth of a percent of their total petroleum income! Bahrain gave a miserly $50,000, Oman forked over just $25,000, while Saudi Arabia coughed up zero. I've been to Hadassah dinners where more money was raised in an hour than the Arab states seem willing to part with in an entire year. In fact, over the past two decades, Arab regimes have been providing a steadily decreasing percentage of UNRWA's funding. In the 1980s, their contributions amounted to 8% of the group's annual budget, whereas now they comprise barely 3%. As a result, Western states are currently providing more than 95% of the funds behind UNRWA's ongoing programs. Now don't get me wrong - I am not shedding any tears over UNRWA's difficulties. The organization has long been a vehicle for perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem as a lever for pressuring Israel, and it has not shied away from working closely with Hamas in Gaza, or serving as a vehicle for anti-Israel and anti-Western indoctrination. But UNRWA's woes lay bare the breathtaking hypocrisy of the Arab states. They lambaste Israel at every opportunity over the condition of the Palestinians, even as they themselves do very little to alleviate the problem. Sure, some Arab countries have kicked in funds to various UNRWA emergency appeals, while others provide aid to Palestinians via other channels. But the numbers above lead one to wonder: do the Arab states really care about the Palestinians? If UNRWA's ledger is any guide, the answer is a clear and resounding "no."