Saudi Arabia’s $500 million pledge last month to bolster the global fight against COVID-19 made international news for its show of generosity. Soon after, the Kingdom participated in the high-level pledging conference hosted by the European Commission on May 4, where world powers raised more than €7 billion ($7.6 billion) to fund vaccine research and testing.
The Saudi government has also worked to shield the domestic public from COVID-19’s health and economic ripple effects by injecting billions of riyals into financial assistance programs and ensuring the payment of salaries to private sector workers. Through these “big picture” measures, the government is working to help citizens and residents survive this crisis.
Meeting the critical needs of the population, however, is a task that Saudi society has taken on with enthusiasm and a touching degree of care. Many have noted that under COVID-19, this year’s Ramadan is different from all others in modern history. Though the virus has changed daily habits and restricted freedom of movement, it cannot defeat the spirit of charity that has always defined the Saudi character.
An interesting cast of actors has come together to support efforts by the Saudi government to ensure that the public has adequate access to food, educational resources, and medicine. Semi-governmental bodies, charities, religious authorities, and the private sector have joined forces in a show of solidarity, reflecting the seriousness with which the country as a whole has treated this crisis.
Unsurprisingly, the Saudi private sector has seen a number of high-profile entities making their own contributions. Recently, ACWA Power teamed up with the Saudi Ministry of Health to pledge more than $13 million to build a mobile hospital and strengthen critical infrastructure to ensure continuity in water and power services. PepsiCo, which maintains a hub in Saudi Arabia and is a notable employer of Saudi nationals, has donated $5 million to regional COVID-19 relief to provide emergency meals to families and distribute protective equipment to healthcare workers. Dettol has also partnered with the Kingdom’s Health Endowment Fund to offer $1 million in sanitary and health products to frontline medical workers. For the corporate entities that operate from Saudi Arabia, such donations are not only a matter of good publicity — they’re also a way of giving back to the communities that have granted their business a home.
Some unexpected entities have also stepped in to mobilize their audiences to boost charitable giving in creative ways. The Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports recently announced the “Gamers Without Borders by Saudi” initiative to raise $10 million for charities working to soften the social and economic impact of COVID-19. The seven-week event, broadcast to participants around the world in eight languages, will make a major contribution to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. This will help the organization to equip frontline health care workers with the necessary personal protective equipment and accelerate vaccine research and development.
At a local level, women have led civil society efforts to provide families with the tools they need to enable remote education and meet their children’s immediate needs. Organizations such as Al-Oula and Al-Nahda have put together food baskets, provided hygiene awareness programs and even distributed laptops to students in Jeddah whose education might otherwise be disrupted. As the country confronts the broader implications of COVID-19, nongovernmental organizations are ensuring that the most vulnerable members of society are not forgotten.
It is heartening to hear of the many ways in which Saudi Arabia’s culture of giving has come into focus. Fostering a shared sense of social responsibility will be increasingly important as the crisis continues long after Ramadan. This month especially, the public has taken the government’s lead in prioritizing people over profit and community over individualism. As a result, various segments of society are doing their part to alleviate the daily uncertainty and anxiety that the pandemic has produced.
Truthfully, COVID-19 has not extinguished the values of Ramadan; instead, it has reinforced the urgency of aiding those in need. Traditional charitable projects have continued during Ramadan, such as the Kingdom’s donation of $1.3 million to fund the donation of meals in 18 countries — the only difference this year is that organizers are abiding by precautionary health and safety measures to prevent the virus’ spread.
So, too, may we think of all forms of aid to our neighbors during these difficult times. The circumstances in which we reach out to those in need may be unique, but the same spirit persists. For many Saudis, experiencing Ramadan — during a pandemic, no less — is simply one more reason to give without hesitation.
Madison Clough is a strategic communications professional residing in the Gulf. She holds a master’s degree in international security from George Mason University and specializes in communications on geopolitical and cultural issues.