Doha, Qatar – A month after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the central Philippines, victims on the ground are slowly attempting to rebuild their lives with the help of foriegn aid from the international community. As the Philippine government is overwhelmed in their inability to provide for the millions of people who need food, shelter and medical assistance, foreign aid is becoming increasingly necessary to help those who need it most.
In recent times, countries like the Arab Gulf states have been increasing their political profile, and foreign aid has become an important tool for projecting soft power.
The UN has so far raised 29 percent of the requested $230mn in relief funds for the disaster-stricken Philippines with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain playing a significant part.
Qatar responded by sending in two shipments of aid to the Philippines, including 80 tons of immediate relief.
“It is significant as even though it may not be perceived as high in monetary value,” Philippine Ambassador to Qatar, Crescente Relacion, told Al Jazeera.
Qatar hosts several hundred thousand guest workers from the Philippines. Recent media reports have spotlighted alleged poor treatment of foreign workers in the GCC.
Ahmad al-Mureikhi, Acting Director of International Development at Qatar’s Foreign Ministry told Al Jazeera that: “The Qatari people support humanitarian efforts and global development, especially with our friends in the Philippines because of the close relationship between the two countries over the years.”
Silvia Pessoa, Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, who works with and teaches english to migrant labourers, said that it should have been a “no brainer” for GCC members, especially Qatar, when it came to sending aid in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
“When Qatar gave a lot to the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, it was great in terms of being humanitarian and getting their name out there but it wasn’t as meaningful as the donation to the Philippines as a lot of Filipinos here contribute to building Qatar whether in construction or looking after people’s babies here as nannies,” she told Al Jazeera.
About 10 percent of the Philippine’s population works abroad. Remittances account for nearly 13 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia alone sent home at least $1.7bn last year, according to government statistics.
Gulf states like Qatar and Kuwait are increasingly playing a bigger role in the region when it comes to foreign policy because of the resources available to them.
“It used to be only the big super power countries like the United States and the United Kingdom that gave out major contributions,” Alexis Antoniades, an Assistant Professor of Economics at Georgetown University in Qatar told Al Jazeera. “Part of it is purely humanitarian but they are trying to also serve their own self-interest.”
Christian Koch, Director of the Gulf Research Center in Geneva, agreed that both self-interest and humanitarian obligations went into the decision to give aid.
Koch said that Gulf states are aware that many labour exporting countries like the Philippines and India play a key part in their national development. “Many Filipinos have lived and stayed in GCC countries for prolonged periods and this has created some bonds which have brought the two sides closer together. In the end, I think the two aspects go hand in hand.”
If you want to bid for the Olympic Games, you need allies. Giving international aid strengthens the relationship with other countries and an opportunity for the state to establish relations so that will reward them down the road.
There may have been other reasons at play: The Gulf states have recently been in the international spotlight with the UAE winning the bid to host ‘Expo 2020’ and Qatar winning the 2022 FIFA World Cup bid.
“If you want to bid for the Olympic Games, you need allies. It is an opportunity that will reward them down the road,” Antoniades said.
Al-Mureikhi said that humanitarian aspects generally override political agendas as Qatar has been giving foreign aid regardless of which country needed it. “We gave foreign aid to the US when Hurricane Katrina struck as well as during the aftermaths of the tsunami and earthquakes that hit Japan in 2011,” he said.
He agreed, however, that there are political aspects of how countries use foreign aid. “It is clear that giving humanitarian assistance has become one of the priorities and strategies used by a lot of countries,” he said.
China, which is in the midst of a territorial dispute with the Philippines, for example, only pledged an initial $200,000 after the typhoon and then upped it to $1.6mn after heavy international scrutiny.
“Everyone was commenting that it was maybe their way of punishing the Philippines for the territorial dispute over islands in the South China sea … but thankfully China was quick to change its mind,” said Ambassador Relacion.
Possible political agendas “depend on the donors themselves” Relacion said, “but as long as aid is coming out of generosity and from the heart, it’s all that matters.”