In the near future, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman) could become a new and influential new source of international philanthropic activity. In all of these countries, a strong culture of giving exists alongside rapidly expanding wealth. Some of the GCC’s most affluent citizens are already realizing this philanthropic potential. But in order for all segments of these societies to effectively engage in philanthropy, the governments of the GCC need to create a more conducive environment for giving.
The Islamic tradition of philanthropy provides a strong foundation for such an environment. Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, requires Muslims to give 2.5% of their annual income to charitable causes. Sadaqa, voluntary giving above the level of Zakat, is also considered one of the foremost virtues in Islam. The influence of these religious practices on giving is reflected in the data, which estimates that Muslims worldwide give between $200 billion and $1 trillion in Zakat and Sadaqa annually, though most of this money is given locally through unofficial channels. The six countries of the GCC account for a substantial share of this giving, and as they continue to grow wealthy through oil, their impact on global philanthropy could also grow accordingly.
Among political and business elites, the GCC already gives on a level comparable to the elites of similarly sized developed nations. In 2013, donations of over $1 million in the GCC totaled $1.84 billion, compared to $2.24 billion from the United Kingdom. Furthermore, most of these philanthropic activities are international in nature, with $1.75 billion of these large donations going to overseas charities. Although the GCC still lags behind developed nations in the number of donations per capita over $1million, wealthy citizens of the GCC clearly don’t face significant restraints to their charitable giving.
But the real potential for philanthropic growth comes from the growing middle class of the GCC countries. Although there is no data on philanthropic flows for each country, economic data suggests a huge potential for middle class giving. According to the IMF, Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Oman all have per capita GDPs comparable to those of countries in the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee.
Yet philanthropic data would probably show that the countries of the GCC lag behind the DAC in terms of international giving, largely due to the governmental obstacles to philanthropy that non-elites face. The Center for Global Prosperity recently surveyed the giving environments in Saudi Arabia and Qatar as part of its new Index of Philanthropic Freedom. Of the sixty-four countries surveyed for the index, none scored lower than Saudi Arabia and Qatar, ranking 64th and 63rd respectively. In both countries, and most likely in the other countries of the GCC, civil society organizations face an intimidating legal environment, in which government regulators have complete authority to shut down any CSO they view as subversive. CSOs are a primary destination for donations from middle class citizens looking to give, and so environments like those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar diminish the giving potential of these citizens.
The philanthropic potential of the GCC should not be underestimated. These six countries have the resources to make a significant humanitarian impact, thanks to their growing wealth and charitable culture. However, while the wealthiest citizens in the GCC are already supporting philanthropy with billions of dollars in donations, the rest of the region’s citizens need their governments to provide better support for the development of CSOs before they can give with the same freedom as those at the top.