Issue 29 - Article 15

Saudi Arabia's humanitarian aid: a political takeover?

November 19, 2004
Leo Barasi

Saudi Arabia has one of the largest humanitarian aid budgets in the world. This assistance is delivered through a range of public and private mechanisms. While the government has always had a close relationship with Saudi charities, most have generally been free to pursue their own aid priorities. However, recent developments may limit their independence. This article discusses the possible implications for the future of Saudi humanitarian aid of closer government involvement in the work of the country’s charities.

The attacks of 11 September and the ensuing ‘war on terror’ have prompted the Western media and policy-makers to examine the international activities of ostensibly humanitarian Saudi charities. Following accusations that these charities supported terrorist groups, the Saudi Ministry of Information announced in July 2003 that it had banned them from sending any funds abroad. Seven months later, it declared the establishment of a National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad. Precise details of how the National Commission will function have yet to be published; some of the Ministry’s announcements suggest that it may take over all aspects of private aid operations, while others indicate that private Saudi charities will continue to function. Whatever the scope of the National Commission’s activities, it is clear that it will facilitate greater government involvement in overseas charity. Given the scale and scope of the work of Saudi charities like the International Islamic Relief Organisation (IIRO), any such change will have important consequences for humanitarian relief in the Islamic world.

This is not the first time the ruling al Saud dynasty has been involved in overseas humanitarian work. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 prompted many Islamic NGOs to begin relief work in the region, particularly with refugees in northern Pakistan. Within a year of the Soviet invasion, a General Donation Committee for Afghanistan had been established in Saudi Arabia, with Prince Salman – the governor of Riyadh Province and a full brother of King Fahd – as its head. This seems to have been the first close royal involvement with overseas humanitarian work. Since then, this association has continued to the extent that it is now unusual to find any instance of Saudi aid that is not in some way connected to senior members of the al Saud family.

The three most prominent Saudi charities, the Saudi Red Crescent (SRC), the IIRO and al Haramain, are closely linked to the royal family. In some ways, the SRC appears to function as a branch of the Ministry of Health: it is financed by the government, runs the kingdom’s main ambulance network and is responsible for the welfare of pilgrims on hajj. When it carries out overseas relief work, senior royals including King Fahd are frequently credited with funding or calling for such assistance.

Other charities have greater financial independence, but still remain associated with the royal family. Although much of the funding for the IIRO and al Haramain comes from zakat (compulsory Islamic charity) donations, collected by their regional branches, both the IIRO and al Haramain have often collaborated with the royal family in carrying out overseas work. This collaboration is frequently conducted through Relief Committees, which focus on Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kosovo and the Palestinians. The General Supervisor of each of these committees is Prince Naif, the Interior Minister and another full brother of King Fahd. Even when a Relief Committee is not involved, the King himself is often credited with providing the humanitarian supplies distributed by these charities.

This level of cooperation is not surprising given the structure of the Saudi economy. Since oil revenues flow directly to the royal family, its senior members control the national distribution of wealth and privileges. Any Saudi enterprise on the scale of international humanitarian aid relies on the support of a member of the royal family. There is no reason why a Saudi charity would want to demonstrate its independence from the al Sauds when a close association would be a sign of important influence. Nevertheless, from the scope of their activities it is clear that, until the closure of overseas charity work in July 2003, the largest Saudi charities remained capable of acting according to their own priorities.

The scope and distribution of Saudi aid

The full scope of the work of Saudi charities is difficult to trace accurately since they do not have a tradition of formally reporting their activities. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that both IIRO and al Haramain were active throughout Africa and Asia until 2003. At least until the mid-1990s, the IIRO was seeking to be impartial in its aid provision. More recently, it has worked principally in Muslim-dominated countries, although it continued to provide aid in places with relatively small Muslim communities, such as Cameroon and Sri Lanka. In 2001, the charity claimed to be working in some 95 countries. Al Haramain also appears to have generally focused its activities on Muslim countries, although like the IIRO it has not restricted itself to working in Arab states. It reports that it has delivered food to Somalia, Indonesia and Burma among others, and was heavily involved in working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The SRC has an annual budget of around $8m and a staff of around 3,000. While its priority is domestic healthcare, it is also reported to have contributed around $1.6bn to international humanitarian projects. When the SRC has worked outside the kingdom, it has been most active in the Middle East and North Africa, where its humanitarian aid seems to have largely been limited to Muslims. Its overseas activities have not been stopped by the royal decree against the international transfer of charitable funds: it recently dispensed $10.7m of basic humanitarian aid to Sudan and has provided relief aid following the Indian Ocean tsunami.

From the destinations of the official humanitarian aid given by the Saudi government and recorded by the UN, it is clear that the royal family and Saudi charities have differing aid priorities. Saudi Arabia gives substantial quantities of humanitarian aid in multilateral UN contributions, which can be partially traced through the UN’s monitoring systems. It annually donates several million dollars to the World Food Programme, and hosts an office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Riyadh, to which it also provides substantial donations each year. The largest Saudi humanitarian donations, however, are bilateral provisions reported to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In the last four years, the kingdom has given $504m in 149 recorded humanitarian donations, sent to a total of 44 different countries. Of those, 92% went to countries where the Muslim populations accounted for more than 75% of the total, and 97% went to countries in the Middle East, North Africa or Central and South Asia. A single country or territory has generally been assigned as the aid priority for each year. In 2001, this was the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In 2002 it was Afghanistan, in 2003 Iraq and in 2004 Darfur.

At the base of the strong links between the Saudi state and charity lies Wahhabism, the national interpretation of Islam. This has been central to al Saud rule since the mid-eighteenth century. The ruling family relies on the support of the religious establishment, and so is constantly reminded of its religious duty to provide aid for those in need. Yet this alone does not explain why the al Sauds should be so determined to provide aid to crises involving Muslims in the Middle East and Central Asia at the expense of those in Sub-Saharan Africa. After all, the guidance on zakat does not indicate that geographical or political factors should influence the distribution of aid.

Some state aid reflects external security concerns: the peaks in Saudi donations to the UNHCR, for example, correspond with regional crises which created large numbers of refugees in neighbouring countries, notably the Iran–Iraq war during the 1980s and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. However, the bilateral aid recorded by OCHA cannot be explained in the same way. While it is possible that concerns about an influx of refugees may have encouraged the al Sauds to provide aid to the Palestinians, Afghans and Iraqis, this was not the only motivation; internal security was also a factor.

The other factor which may influence where the Saudi state directs its humanitarian aid is the build-up of pressure for social and political reform in the kingdom since 1979. During the 1980s, this pressure was limited and was largely dealt with by the state security apparatus. The 1990–91 Gulf war, however, prompted a new wave of discontent with the existing political structure. It has generally been possible to divide these discontents into two groups, liberals and Islamists, and the al Sauds’ responses have reflected the broad nature of the criticisms they have faced. The liberals came to be marginalised within the kingdom, and by the mid-1990s any remaining public criticism was largely Islamist. It is plausible that the government’s prioritising of aid to popular causes – Palestinians, Afghans and Iraqis – demonstrates a desire by the al Sauds to associate themselves with these causes. The publicity surrounding some donations is striking. A government-sponsored reply to one Islamist criticism detailed the state’s spending on foreign aid, while in April 2002 Prince Naif organised a telethon to raise money for the Palestinians; he personally donated nearly $1m. A similar telethon for Iraq in April 2003 raised around $12m, of which the al Sauds donated around $6m.

Possible futures for Saudi aid

If the National Commission does provide the al Sauds with complete control over previously independent charities, they may come to follow the rulers’ aid priorities. This would lead to a redistribution of humanitarian aid from the countries previously prioritised by Saudi charities to those prioritised by the national aid programmes. Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia would be adversely affected, as indeed they have already been by the closure of Saudi charities. However, the functions of the commission remain obscure, and responsibility for it remains unknown. The priorities and support bases of the senior princes vary considerably and their likely demands on private charities vary accordingly.

In addition to this uncertainty about the future priorities of Saudi charities, there are a number of other factors that may limit Saudi humanitarian aid within the next decade. A jump in oil prices at the end of the 1990s averted an economic crisis in Saudi Arabia that would have forced a cut in the foreign aid budget. Should oil prices return to the level of the late 1980s and 1990s, it is likely that Saudi humanitarian aid would decline. Further regional political instability may also encourage the government to prioritise security spending ahead of providing foreign aid. Equally, with rising unemployment and a young population (40% are under 15 years of age), domestic social spending is likely to capture a growing part of the budget. Should these developments occur, Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian aid will undergo profound changes.

Leo Barasi was recently a volunteer research assistant with the Humanitarian Policy Group. He is currently writing a thesis on Saudi Arabia’s foreign aid and will graduate from Oxford University in 2005. His email address is

References and further reading – Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information Resource – Saudi Embassy in Washington DC.

Jonathan Benthall and Jérôme Bellion-Jourdan, The Charitable Crescent: Politics of Aid in the Muslim World (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003).

Jonathan Benthall, ‘Humanitarianism and Islam after 11 September’, in Joanna Macrae and Adele Harmer (eds), ‘Humanitarian Action and the “Global War on Terror”: A Review of Trends and Issues’, HPG Report 14 (London: ODI, 2003).

Stéphane Lacroix, ‘Between Islamists and Liberals: Saudi Arabia’s New “Islamo-Liberal” Reformists’, in Middle East Journal, vol. 58, no. 3, Summer 2004, pp. 345–365.


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