A five-day telethon sponsored by the Saudi Arabian royal family to collect aid for people in Syria has generated an outpouring of emotion and raised millions of dollars, as the kingdom tried to channel public aid for Syria amid fears the money could end up in the hands of militants.
The telethon, which ended this weekend, generated SR271.47m ($72m) for Syrians affected by the crisis. King Abdullah opened the campaign with a SR20m donation.
State media showed Saudi Arabians and expatriates giving away money and goods, including medical equipment, cars and even camels. Donors used the country’s mobile phone operators to donate to government-approved bank accounts via text messages.
The government-organised telethon follows an interior ministry warning in May against unauthorised fundraising for Syria after hardliners and celebrity clerics used social media and internet forums to urge people to send money and goods for Syrian refugees.
Analysts said the clerics, who are not part of the religious establishment, had exploited the Syrian crisis to jockey for influence among a Saudi Arabian population horrified by a year of televised atrocities by the Syrian regime against its people.
Saudi Arabia is widely believed to be arming rebels in Syria, but is wary of unofficial donations that could end up in the hands of al-Qaeda jihadists in Syria.
“The government does not want to repeat mistakes of the past when money donated for good causes ended up in the wrong places,” said Hassan al-Mostafa, a Saudi Arabian writer. “They were concerned that extremists will use the month of Ramadan, when people prefer to give charity, to bolster extremists in Syria so they opened all official channels to provide an alternative.”
Saudi Arabia has closed unauthorised charities and tightened monetary policy to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, moves which created friction with anti-western conservative clerics who believe that charity should not be supervised by the government.
The Syrian crisis has energised Salafi clerics, who view the situation as a fight between an Iranian-backed brutal Shia government and its Sunni majority population. Local media have increasingly described it as a Sunni uprising, echoing the rhetoric of these radical clerics.
This depiction has made Saudi Arabia’s Shia population uneasy. “The government allowed and encouraged the clerics to use this kind of anti-Shia rhetoric and the Shia are not happy with it,” said a Saudi Shia.