UAE to the aid of Yemeni friends in need

Amost a third of the Dh9 billion the UAE gave in foreign aid last year went to Yemen to help in their rebuilding process, but some of it provides a lifeline to people who would otherwise sink without trace.

Life has never been easy for Gharisa Ali al Marhabi, a mother of eight in her fifties. Seven years ago she was forced to move from her home in the Yemeni province of al Maheet after her husband was convicted and jailed for a murder committed in his village. He was sentenced to death but the execution has yet to be carried out.

Abandoned by her brothers, the only way she has been able to feed and clothe her children and provide shelter for them has been via a lifeline thrown by the UAE Red Crescent in Yemen. For five years she has received US$300 (Dh1,100) every three months, a sum that has enabled her to pay the 7,000 Yemen riyal (Dh114) rent for a small house in Madhbah, a poor area in the west of the capital. "I have nothing and no support except the money we get from the Red Crescent," she says, her eyes were full of tears.

"It helps me pay the rent and we spend the rest on our food. If this money comes late, we are in big trouble; the house owner threatens to kick us out and we have to deposit anything to get some flour from a nearby shop. "They [the Red Crescent staff] are better than my brothers who abandoned me? they give us blankets, rice, sugar, wheat and dates in Ramadan? they visit us also during the Eid occasions and give us meat while my brothers do not."

The UAE Government and Emirati donor organisations gave nearly Dh9 billion (US$2.4bn) in foreign aid in 2009. Almost 32 per cent of this, some Dh2.84bn ($770m), was devoted to Yemen. Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories were also among the main beneficiaries. The figures were disclosed in the first UAE Foreign Aid Report, presented by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, last week.

The money went to projects to help "the poor and the weak", and the amount demonstrated "the generous giving traditions that are well established in our country and deeply rooted in Islam and the Arab culture", he said. The UAE Red Crescent is one of the main channels for this aid, distributing Dh136.5 million in the Yemen last year for humanitarian aid and improvements to infrastructure. It started operating in Yemen in 1996 and has programmes supporting poor families, orphans and the disabled, and includes the distribution of food during festivals, and providing support for students.

According to Amer al Dumaini, its orphans progamme officer, the UAE Red Crescent provides $49 a month for each registered orphan, more than any other charitable body. The number of orphans it supports has grown to 8,990. The figure has risen by about 50 per cent during the past four years alone, says al Dumaini. The organisation also provides 352 of the poorest families with $100 (Dh370) income support each month, which makes a tremendous difference in a country where more than 40 per cent of the 23 million population survives on less than $2 (Dh7) a day.

Hasan Mohammed al Asri, a disabled man in his 60s, is one of the people to benefit from this largesse. He used to work in Saudi Arabia before the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Like many Yemeni expatriate workers in the Gulf states, al Asri was forced to leave Saudi Arabia in the disruption following the invasion. Soon after his return his right leg became paralysed and he has been unable to walk without a crutch since.

Al Asri supports his five children and wife from the $300 he gets from the UAE Red Crescent every three months. His wife suffers from heart problems and hepatitis and his daughter is epileptic. They live in a tiny brick house in al Sunainah, an area west of Sana'a populated mostly by poor people. "The money they give me is a big help as it helps me pay back my loans and without it, I will get lost. My situation was really difficult before they started granting me this regular aid 14 years ago," says al Asri, holding prayer beads which he uses to pray for God's blessing on his supporters.

The UAE Red Crescent also supports 32 blind women with $54 (Dh200) each per month; 60 disabled people with $49 (Dh180) a month and 65 students with $27 (Dh100) a month. These people also get food stuff and clothes during festivals such as Ramadan and the Eids. But it isn't just individuals and families who benefit from the generosity of the UEA. Money raised is also used to build schools, clinics and mosques and aid is provided to run health centres and water projects.

Yemen's recent troubles, with hostilities between the government and the al Houthi rebels in the north, have led to a number of people being forced to leave their homes. The number of displaced people has risen to about 250,000 since the sporadic fight flared up in 2004. The UAE Red Crescent responded to the latest round of fighting by establishing al Mezraq II camp in November, which houses some 7,000 refugees. Conditions are so good it is known by some as the "five stars camp".

According to Khalfan al Kindi, the UAE Red Crescent general director, the number of refugees has now fallen to 5,407 following the February truce between the warring parties. "We are providing the best services we can that include fresh food, water, electricity and even fans; we have directives from the heads of the state to provide the refugees whatever they need," he says. "Yemen is a priority for us due to the good relationship between Yemen and the UAE; there is a significant interest from the UAE in Yemen and there are always plans to increase our projects here."

Another big project is Khalifa City, to be built in the eastern province of Hadramaut, an area hit by heavy flooding in October 2008 which killed dozens of people, destroyed hundreds of houses, and left thousands homeless. A thousand homes are to be built in Hadramaut, helping an estimated 10,000 people, says Nabil al Selwi, the projects manager. Building of the first 172 houses will start within two weeks, while a tender has gone out to build 200 more.

"The cost of this strategic project is Dh100 million but it is expected to increase," he adds. Dubai Cares has also contributed more than Dh5.5 million ($1.5m) to a large scale primary education programme in Yemen, in partnership with Unicef, the UN's children fund. When donor countries met to discuss Yemen in 2006, the UAE pledged $500 million (Dh1.8 billion), making it the second largest donor after Saudi Arbia. Altogether, the conference pledged $5.5 billion (Dh20bn), of which about 85 per cent was allocated to various projects. Delays and technical problems have meant only 10 per cent of the money has actually been spent, however.

Hisham Sharaf, the Yemeni vice minister of planning and international co-operation, said the UAE's $500 million contribution has been allocated to key development projects and that tenders would be announced soon. "Our relations with the UAE is strong and strategic. The UAE has been supporting Yemen with strategic projects and their money pledged in the London conference will be used in key developments projects including water, roads and health and other areas," he said.

The UAE took an active role in the Friends of Yemen group that grew out of the London meeting. The UAE and Germany serve as joint chairs of its economics and governance working group. Mr Sharaf said Yemen hopes that the presence of the UAE in this important group would push for more developmental support to Yemen, which is facing a myriad of economic challenges. "We are confident that the UAE presence in the economics and governance group will be the voice of Yemen at the donors meetings," he added.