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Interview with top Saudi UN official on humanitarian aid

Abdul Aziz Muhammad Arrukban, the special humanitarian envoy of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon.

On 10 July 2007 a Saudi national, Abdul Aziz Muhammad Arrukban, became the special humanitarian envoy of UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. The secretary-general tasked him with ensuring strengthened linkages between UN humanitarian efforts and humanitarian aid provided by governments and organisations in the Middle East and North Africa. Part of his brief was also to focus on building partnerships for disaster response.

Arrukban, whose family runs an oil transportation and storage business, was educated in the USA and has worked closely with various Saudi charitable organisations and Saudi committees for Palestine, Iraq and Sudan. In March 2006 he arranged Saudi Arabia’s first aid to a non-Muslim country, Cambodia. Earlier, Arrukban spent two years as special international ambassador to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the first Saudi national to volunteer for such a task. Here he talks to IRIN.

IRIN: Why is there a sudden upsurge of interest in the Muslim world in humanitarian work?

AMA: We in the Muslim world did not start our humanitarian work today. We have been doing humanitarian work for a long time but in Islam we are taught that one’s left hand should not know what one’s right hand is giving. That is why we have not been publicising our humanitarian work and the assistance we provide. But this is now changing: With the new media the world is becoming very small. If you do anything in Riyadh or Dubai it will get noticed in South America or Africa, for example. What I see now is that people think there is an agenda behind the donations of humanitarians from the Muslim world. And let’s be honest, after 11 September [9/11] things have changed a lot. I am really gratified to see Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa working very closely with UN agencies because the UN system is the largest. If we take as examples WFP or the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) - WFP has 82 offices around the world; UNICEF has 140 offices around the world. I believe through them we can reach those in need. Usually when a crisis happens you find us from the UN system to be the first on the scene in the first hours of a crisis.

Aid regardless of religion, colour

IRIN: Most of the recipients of humanitarian aid are Muslim; is this the motivating factor for people like you to engage in humanitarian work?

AMA: The beauty of the humanitarians is that when we do humanitarian work we do that without regard to colour, language or religion. We try to reach everybody who needs assistance around the world. But let me give you an example from Saudi Arabia where I know of a project in which Saudi humanitarians worked very well to reach the children of Cambodia, who are not Muslim.

IRIN: How much money do you reckon has gone from the Muslim world or the Arab world to the UN system in terms of humanitarian assistance?

AMA: From the figures I have seen it is not a lot in terms of direct disbursement of funds from the Arab world to the UN system but again Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, appointed me to build the partnership, to build the bridges between UN agencies and Muslim governments in the Middle East and Africa and also between UN agencies and NGOs [non-governmental organisations] here in the Arab world. And I am trying to build those bridges now, as I am visiting different countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]. People in the Arab world sometimes misunderstand the UN and the UN agencies. My job is to convince them that when we in the UN do humanitarian work in any crisis we do not take sides, because we are honest people; we try to help as humanitarians; we do not get involved in any country’s politics.

IRIN: When you talk about building bridges you are assuming that these two worlds, the Muslim world and the Western world, are equal. But they are not. Some would say the Muslim world is weak, fragmented and the majority of its people are poor.

Muslim aid not channelled through UN

AMA: Yes, but then look at it this way: 40 percent (or about US$11 billion) of donations targeted for humanitarian and relief operations since 1992 that were provided through UN agencies went to member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), mostly in Africa and Asia. The OIC countries have themselves donated more than that but on a bilateral basis and [they] did not receive the kind of international recognition that UN donations receive. I can give you the example of Saudi Arabia, which according to official statistics of its Ministry of Finance donated over $85 billion in the past 30 years to 87 countries around the world. This easily makes it one of the - if not the - world’s top humanitarian donor country on a per capita basis. Yet there are some who ask if the Kingdom is responding to humanitarian needs, and I would say that when countries work multilaterally, such questions need not be asked.

Building trust

IRIN: But in the Arab world in particular, the UN is seen as a tool of the West.

AMA: Yes from time to time I hear about that during my official meetings in the region. But it is part of my job to build trust, to show them the true picture. We do not take sides. But let us be honest, it is the Western world that supports more the UN agencies, and I wish to see Muslim countries or GCC countries become partners with the West to make the lives of other people better in Asia and Africa and South America. For example, I am from Saudi Arabia and I always talk to GCC people about this because at the end of the day I am a citizen of the GCC and I would like to see our flags fly in South America, in Africa, in Asia together with those of European countries, because we are partners in assisting the people.

GCC aid activities

IRIN: Does the GCC have a coordinating body for humanitarian activities?

AMA: At present each GCC country is doing its own thing separately, but as we speak I am working with the GCC countries under the organisation’s umbrella to help them, and importantly to help the UN agencies. I am talking to them to assist them. For example if something happens and there is a crisis in a Gulf country, we should assist them to set up emergency centres. This is what I am talking to them about. They should take advantage of the UN and of the UN system. We have done a lot of these things for many years in South Asia and Africa and we should do something in the Middle East, too.

IRIN: The Western concept of humanitarian aid is seen in some quarters as being one of self-interest - the West goes in to help those who are poor because they feel that if these people are poor they will breed terrorism and it will be a threat to the security of the West. So to arrest that, they go in to feed them and to help them. Do you see it this way as well?

AMA: Yes I do and I believe in that. Even some GCC countries have taken that road too, for example Saudi Arabia. They are doing a lot to help the poor people because if you do not help them now people will come maybe from the bad side and take advantage of those poor people. Today the West is booming, the Middle East is booming. Let us go and help those poor countries. Let them walk with us. I do not want to look at them and see them behind us. I also wish that we could set aside a portion of our budgets in the Middle East to help those countries which need some assistance.

Saudi, UAE should work more closely with UN

IRIN: What percentage of a budget of a country like Saudi Arabia or the UAE [United Arab Emirates] do you think should be donated as humanitarian assistance to the UN?

AMA: Well, let me say that I would like them to contribute more. Last year, we had over 450 crises around the world. We in the UN were able to assist 27 million people in 29 countries around the world. I would like countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to work even more closely with the UN because by working together we will reach more people and achieve our objectives quicker and faster.

Peace-making efforts

IRIN: What is being done in the Muslim and Arab world to prevent humanitarian crises in these areas?

AMA: If we achieve peace in Palestine, Darfur [in Sudan], Iraq and Afghanistan, you will see these countries develop faster. But if we lose peace and lose security - look at Iraq with all those refugees - they became refugees because they lost security. As the UN, our job is to help peace-making efforts, to give these efforts support because at the end of the day it will take the pressure away from us as humanitarians.

IRIN: There is a perception that aid agencies are sometimes slow to reach crisis areas. Are there new approaches for international humanitarian operators to deliver better and faster assistance?

AMA: Yes, one way is through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), for example at the UN. This is a club in which people donate money, and it helps to reach the people faster. To me it is wonderful when you can reach people in the first 72 hours of a crisis and this is what CERF is doing. I would like to see the Middle Eastern countries engaged with CERF because in this way we can walk very fast. A lot of people can be saved if we can reach them in the first 72 hours of a crisis.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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