POLITICS
08/29/2015 09:03 am ET

Qatar Really Wants You To Know How Much It Gave For Katrina Relief

ICYMI, Qatar's spent $100 million rebuilding education, housing and health care in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
<span>President Barack Obama shakes hands with Qatar Emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani after meeting with Gulf Cooperation
ASSOCIATED PRESS
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Qatar Emir Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani after meeting with Gulf Cooperation Council leaders at Camp David in Maryland on May 14, 2015.

WASHINGTON -- Here are some things you may know about Qatar: It's very, very small and it's very, very wealthy. With a GDP estimated at upwards of $320 billion, Qatar -- which controls 13 percent of global liquefied natural gas reserves -- is the richest country per capita in the world. 

You've likely also heard that the tiny statelet in the Gulf is hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is generating controversy because of concerns about abusive working conditions for the immigrant labor force building its infrastructure. If you're interested in foreign affairs, you may know Qatar is home to the U.S. Air Force's command center for Middle East operations, or that it's played a key role in questioning old-school authoritarianism and supporting political Islam in the region. 

That's all important. But for this week, Qatar would like Americans to treat these facts as footnotes and focus instead on its generosity toward the U.S. during a time of national crisis 10 years ago.

In a ceremony at the New Orleans Ritz Carlton on Thursday that attracted heavyweights like New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu and former Sen. Mary Landrieu, Qatari Ambassador Mohammed Jaham al Kuwari held "a celebration of recovery." The event, co-hosted by Habitat for Humanity and an array of corporate sponsors like ExxonMobil and Raytheon, commemorated Qatar's efforts to help the parts of the U.S. that were battered by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Kuwari this month also launched a book documenting those efforts. Over more than 200 glossy pages, it features statistics and personal stories from Katrina victims who have benefited from Qatar's $100 million gift.

Jauné Jackson is one example. "I'd never heard of Qatar," she told the book's author, Scott Steedman. "Now I know it's a very small country, and to hear that they just felt they had to do something to help us, it's amazing." The Loyola grad grew up in New Orleans East, leaving home with her parents the day before the levees broke and living in a "shotgun house" with her parents, sisters and grandparents once she returned. Months later, when she finished high school and was preparing to attend college, she received a Qatar grant. Today, she produces the 5 p.m. broadcast at the New Orleans NBC affiliate.

Among the narratives are tales of getting loans to buy a home for the first time and of establishing mobile medical units for mothers who might otherwise have had no access to prenatal care.

"As heartbreaking images of destruction and displacement unfolded before our eyes, we felt the urge to act and help," Kuwari wrote in an op-ed for the New Orleans Times-Picayune that ran on Thursday. "In the spirit of human solidarity, an Arab Gulf state was extending its hand to three American Gulf states. Eighteen projects were put in place in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi."

Qatar's then-ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, set up a $100 million Qatar Katrina Fund two weeks after he observed chaos unfold in Katrina-struck regions. It has since funded 18 projects. Of the funds, $38.2 million went to education -- in the form of financial aid and scholarships for students from low-income backgrounds and investments at schools like Tulane and Loyola -- and $34.4 million to Habitat for Humanity, services for the homeless and housing loans. It also provided $27.4 million for covering care for the uninsured, among other health projects.

"It was a mission of healing and revival, guided by a sense of duty, not charity. We believe that in every society, people have a right to live and prosper, not merely to survive," Kuwari wrote.

Sheikh Hamad personally visited New Orleans in April 2008 to examine the impact his gift had. "One of the world’s richest men toured one of America’s poorest cities on Tuesday," the New York Times reported at the time. "Two universes peered at each other through the dark smoked glass of his motorcade." 

During his visit, the former ruler stopped at Xavier University, the U.S.'s only historically black Catholic college. The Qatar Katrina Fund gave the university $17.5 million.

On the anniversary of its gift, Qatar is working to ensure that its contribution isn't forgotten -- but to commemorate it in a way that causes less spectacle and drama than a monarch's speeding around a still-hurting city in a motorcade.

Other countries, including Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the Qataris' regional rival, the United Arab Emirates, gave their share of support following Katrina too. Qatar says its contribution was the second-highest foreign donation. (The U.A.E. also gave $100 million, but its funds went straight to the federal government instead of to local partner organizations.)

These donations come out of a mix of motives: altruism, certainly, but also a desire to show the U.S. that its relationships with the Arab world aren't simply about security or U.S. support for trusted partners -- they can go both ways. That's not always been a welcome message, particularly at times when Islamophobia has been ticking up, like after Sept. 11 or following the widely publicized atrocities of the Islamic State group.

In packaging its legacy in New Orleans, then, Qatar is trying to hit the right notes: modesty, respect, compassion. The hope is that those themes will undercut skepticism about largely undemocratic Muslim countries with the level of wealth Qatar and other Arab states enjoy.

"While hailed as the second-highest international donation, the Qatari gift was relatively modest compared to the damage done," Kuwari noted. "Humanitarian aid is part and parcel of our culture and values. It is also a bridge for lasting friendship. Over the past decade, the Qatar–U.S. relations have only deepened."

Ten years on from Katrina, Qatar's ongoing focus on New Orleans is one part of making sure that continues.

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