JOPLIN, Mo. — Two weeks after a mile-wide tornado tore through this city, killing 161 people and rendering a landscape of apocalyptic devastation, the public school system here received a telephone call from a man working for the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington.
“Tell me what you need,” the embassy staffer said.
Six schools, including the city’s sole high school, were destroyed in the May 2011 disaster. Insurance would cover the construction of new buildings, but administrators were scrambling to replace all of the books that had blown away.
Instead of focusing on books, the staffer wanted “to think big.” So the school system’s development director pitched the most ambitious plan that came to mind, a proposal to obviate the need for high school textbooks that had been shelved two years earlier because nobody — not the cash-strapped school system, not the state of Missouri, not even local charities — had the money for it: Give every student a computer.
Today, the nearly 2,200 high school students in Joplin each have their own UAE-funded MacBook laptop, which they use to absorb lessons, perform homework and take tests. Across the city, the UAE is spending $5 million to build a neonatal intensive-care unit at Mercy Hospital, which also was ripped apart by the tornado.
The gifts are part of an ambitious campaign by the UAE government to assist needy communities in the United States. Motivated by the same principal reasons that the U.S. government distributes foreign assistance — to help those less fortunate and to influence perceptions among the recipients — the handouts mark a small but remarkable shift in global economic power.
For decades, the United States has been the world’s largest provider of foreign aid, paying for the construction of schools, health clinics and vaccine programs in impoverished countries. It still is, but the level of donations has been increasing among nations with new financial clout, including China, India and oil-rich Persian Gulf states. And at least one of them now sees poor parts of the United States as worthy recipients for that same sort of assistance.
“We spot needs and we try to help,” said Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States.
During the past two years, the UAE government has paid for the construction of all-weather artificial turf soccer fields in low-income parts of New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. The embassy wants to build three more fields this year. Otaiba hopes to break ground on the first of them this spring in the Washington area, although the embassy is still in discussions with potential partners and has not settled on a location.
Otaiba said he also has promised New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) about $5 million apiece to help rebuild their jurisdictions in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Although U.S. hospitals and universities have long been recipients of Persian Gulf philanthropy, most of those gifts have come from the personal funds of royal family members, often to express gratitude for the education or medical care they received. Natural disasters also have prompted contributions: The UAE and Qatar, a fellow petro-wealthy Persian Gulf nation, both wrote $100 million checks to the State Department in 2005 to help with the reconstruction of the U.S. Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
Many other nations also spend money in the United States, but much of it is devoted to promoting their respective languages, traditions and national interests through educational grants, study-abroad programs and cultural centers, such as Germany’s Goethe-Institut and France’s Alliance Francaise.
Courting public opinion
The UAE’s unusual approach has its roots in the 2006 controversy that erupted when a firm based in Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, sought to take over the management of six U.S. ports. Intense congressional opposition, some of it resulting from misperceptions about the UAE’s relationship with the United States, scuttled the deal.
Afterward, the embassy commissioned a survey of American attitudes toward the UAE. Although 30 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view, 70 percent said they had no opinion. When Otaiba became ambassador in Washington in July 2008, the survey results provided him with a critical mission: to persuade Americans, particularly those with no opinion of his country, to develop a favorable view of the UAE.
Home to about 8 million people, the desert nation is among the world’s richest countries — and Dubai, with its gleaming skyline, has emerged as a global hub of trade and finance. The UAE is also a key Western ally in the region. Still, most Americans were unfamiliar with it.
“We had a responsibility to educate Americans about who we are,” he said. “We have been in Afghanistan with you. We went into Libya. We’re the largest export market for the U.S. in the [Middle East] region.”