x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 September 2017

Saudi Arabia almost doubles aid to war-torn Syria with US $72m donation

The funds will nearly double the money now available to provide basic services such as food, shelter, clean water and health care inside Syria and to the 120,252 Syrian refugees who have been registered by the United Nations in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia is poised to become the largest single donor of humanitarian aid to Syria after raising US$72.3 million (Dh265.5m) in a special nationwide fund-raising drive last week.

The funds will nearly double the money now available to provide basic services such as food, shelter, clean water and health care inside Syria and to the 120,252 Syrian refugees who have been registered by the United Nations in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Khaled Khalifa, regional head for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Abu Dhabi, said he expected Saudi authorities to announce within days that they will be turning over the full amount raised last week to aid organisations participating in UN-coordinated operations in Syria. They will then decide what aid agencies will receive the funds and how they will be used, he said.

Mr Khalifa said the Saudi fund-raising drive, which was launched by King Abdullah on July 22, was particularly valuable because the money had already been collected, which meant help could reach the needy more quickly.

"This is actual money collected in the street," he said.

The relief aid raised last week is not the only Saudi aid moving towards Syria. The Riyadh government is said to be already channelling funds to rebels fighting to overthrow the government in Damascus.

Last week's fund-raiser for humanitarian aid was fuelled by hours of nightly television coverage that featured Saudi children in queues waiting to turn over their families' cash donations to volunteer tellers and SUVs lined up bumper-to-bumper at Riyadh's Prince Faisal bin Fahd Malaz Stadium waiting to unload blankets, rice, dates and other donations.

Saudi Telecom Company, Zain, and other mobile telephone companies opened special lines that allowed users to their contributions by text message. The National Commercial Bank allowed customers to donate through their usual phone banking services or through an online portal.

Other Saudi businesses rallied, too. "In solidarity with our brothers in Syria . . . We will donate [all of what we take in] on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday," one restaurant in Riyadh announced on its Twitter.

Elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf, the UAE has already donated $3.25m to the UN's Syria aid effort. On Saturday, Qatar launched a telethon under the slogan "We all are for Syria."

The United States, meanwhile, gave $100m last week to Jordan to help it care for Syrian refugees.

Despite the amount of money raised during the Saudi fund-raising campaign, the logistical task of reaching needy Syrians with the money remains daunting.

Conditions in Syria have deteriorated drastically in recent months as fighting between government forces and rebels opposed to the government of Bashar Al Assad has escalated. More than 20,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Syria since the anti-Assad revolt began in Marchlast year, according to theLondon-based Observatory for Human Rights.

Strapped for resources, local aid groups have sometimes been forced to choose between needy areas, transferring resources to those places with the heaviest fighting, said Raefah Makki, a spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Lebanon.

A six-point peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan, the UN special envoy, calls for the creation of a neutral corridor for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Until there is more safety for the aid groups delivering help in Syria, the need will soar. At the moment, any help would be welcome, said Ausama Monajed, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council.

Syrians "need any assistance they can get", he said.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae