Two weeks after a mile-wide tornado tore through this city [Joplin, MO], killing 161 people and rendering a landscape of apocalyptic devastation, the public school district 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, had been destroyed in the May 2011 disaster. Insurance would cover the construction of new buildings, but administrators were scrambling to replace all the books that had blown away.
Instead of focusing on books, the staffer wanted “to think big.” So the district’s development director pitched the most ambitious plan that came to mind, a proposal to obviate the need for 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 high-school student a computer.
Today, the nearly 2,200 students at Joplin High each have their own U.A.E-funded MacBook laptop, which they use to absorb lessons, do homework and take tests. Across the city, the U.A.E. is spending $5 million to build a neonatal intensive-care unit at Mercy Hospital, which the tornado hit.
The gifts are part of an ambitious campaign by the U.A.E. government to assist needy communities in the United States. Motivated by the same reasons 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.
“We spot needs and we try to help,” said Yousef al Otaiba, the U.A.E. ambassador to the United States.
During the past two years, the U.A.E. 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.
Otaiba said he also has promised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie about $5 million apiece to help rebuild 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 U.A.E. and Qatar, a fellow petro-wealthy Persian Gulf nation, both wrote $100 million checks to the State Department in 2005 to help after Hurricane Katrina.