A Ramadan lesson that no amount of money could buy
It's not often that newspaper readers in small towns and cities in the United States get the opportunity to read much about the UAE, unless of course they look at the major national papers published out of the country's leading cities.
And when small-town readers do learn about the Emirates, the news story is probably related to a tragic incident - like the murder of a UAE army officer in Houston, or to a titillating court case (and eventual acquittal) of a UAE naval officer in Rhode Island, both of which occurred during the last few days.
For the most part, the UAE remains a country very far away and of little relevance to the lives of ordinary Americans, bar news related to the price of oil.
Last week was an exception, and quite a remarkable one, too, thanks to an inspired initiative by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC. The story was the donation by the embassy of US$500,000 (Dh1.84 million) to buy new lap-tops for the 2,200 high school students in Joplin, Missouri, the small city of 50,000 people in the American heartland that was devastated by a 320 kilometre per hour tornado last May.
Provided matching funds are found, another half-million dollars will also be provided.
The story spread far and wide in the US media, not just in Missouri and neighbouring Kansas but as far away as Alaska, where it was published by the Juneau Empire. Several Juneau students are studying in Joplin and survived the tornado, giving the story a local angle in the Alaskan capital. Dozens of other local papers and television stations also ran with the news, as well as major national media like the New York Times, ABC News and the San Francisco Examiner.
My daughter, a public relations executive in Dubai, tells me that public relations companies work out for their clients the Average Editorial Value, or AEV, of news stories, which means that they calculate how much a story that appears in a paper would have cost if the same amount of space had been bought as advertising.
I don't have a full list of the US publications in which the computers-for-students story appeared, let alone their advertising rates, but I'm prepared to wager that the AEV of this particular story was much greater than the US$1 million dollars that has been promised to Joplin High.
Since the story came out, a steady flow of messages has been arriving at the UAE's National Media Council (and, I assume, many more to our Embassy in Washington) expressing thanks, not just from the people of Joplin but from others, too.
Let me quote a few, to give the flavour of positive sentiments this single act inspired:
"We just wanted to say thank you for the generous gift from the UAE to the citizens of Joplin, Missouri," one letter read. "Would it not be wonderful if more nations treated other nations the way you have treated the USA? Again, thank you."
And another: "I was not sure how to contact a government official in the UAE but I want to thank them for being so kind to the people of Joplin. Their generous gift greatly helps the people there recover in a time of great hardship. It is so good to see friends and neighbours in the world that can be counted on and who are so generous. Thank you, people of the UAE and the kind government of the UAE."
And finally: "My husband and I heard of the UAE's generous gift to the Joplin High School. Although we do not live in Missouri, we are Americans who want to thank you very much from the bottom of our hearts for your generous donation.
"It is not too often that we encounter other countries offering assistance to us. All seem to assume we can do it all, but, alas, we cannot."
I am sure that this small donation to Joplin High has done more to tell the people of the American Midwest about the real nature of the UAE than the billions of dollars that the Government has provided in aid for development programmes in many of the world's poorest countries, of which they probably know nothing.
Those responsible for the decision to provide the donation deserve praise. What a fine example not only of what real friendship means but also of the spirit of giving that should characterise Ramadan.
Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in Emirati culture and heritage
Published: August 16, 2011 04:00 AM