Joplin rebuilds with helping hand from Middle East

The UAE hopes its donations to Joplin, Mo., and other U.S. cities help sway Americans' opinions of the Middle East country in its favor.

Tornado-scarred Joplin, Mo., has new laptops for its high school students and is getting a new hospital wing. Poor neighborhoods in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago got new artificial turf soccer fields. New Jersey and New York state have been promised millions to help rebuild neighborhoods devastated by Superstorm Sandy.

The helping hand in all these cases comes from abroad — the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich Middle East country that ranks among the wealthiest in the world.

As The Washington Post reports, the desert nation, a key American ally, has become a major donor to the less fortunate in the United States. Along the way, it hopes to sway Americans' public opinion of the UAE.

The philanthropic approach emerged in the aftermath of a 2006 controversy that erupted over a bid by a UAE company to manage six major U.S. seaports, according to The Post. Members of Congress and others vehemently criticized the deal, citing national security concerns, and it eventually was scuttled.

Supporters of the deal blamed misperceptions about the UAE's relationship with the United States. A poll found that 30 percent of Americans had a negative view of the country in 2006, at a time when the war in Iraq was grinding into its fourth year, while 70 percent had no opinion. So Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, embarked on an effort to sway that 70 percent — and perhaps some of the 30 percent — to his side.

"We had a responsibility to educate Americans about who we are," Otaiba told The Post. "We have been in Afghanistan with you. We went into Libya. We’re the largest export market for the U.S. in the (Middle East) region."

The UAE, a federation of seven emirates, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, remains the United States' biggest trade market in the Middle East. U.S. exports to the country reached $22.5 billion in 2012, a 40 percent increase from 2011. More than 800 U.S. companies have a presence in the UAE, from Bechtel and ExxonMobil to Starbucks and Cold Stone Creamery.

Among the UAE's recent donations to the United States, according to The Post:

  • $1 million to help equip high school students in Joplin with MacBook laptop computers after a tornado tore through the area, killing 160 people and destroying the only high school, in May 2011. Last May, a few days before the one-year anniversary of the disaster, Otaiba visited the southwestern Missouri city to view rebuilding efforts firsthand.
  • $5 million to Mercy Hospital in Joplin for a pediatric section and the development of a 12-bed neonatal intensive care unit. Mercy was one of the thousands of buildings destroyed in the twister.
  • Grants of varying amounts to build construction of all-weather artificial turf soccer fields in low-income parts of New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago.
  • A pledge of about $5 million apiece to New Jersey and New York to help rebuild their jurisdictions after Sandy.

Other notable gifts, according to The Post: donations to several hospitals, a Baltimore food bank, the New York Police Foundation and a nonprofit group that helps Washington high schoolers pay for university tuition.

"These efforts further understanding and collaboration among nations and help promote social and economic development — both of which are pillars of the UAE's foreign policy," Otaiba, who holds a degree in international relations from Georgetown University, recently told The Washington Diplomat, a monthly newspaper in Washington.

Not everyone is appreciative of the foreign handouts.

Conservative political commentator and radio talk-show host Debbie Schlussel accused the Joplin school system of trying to rebuild with "Islamic blood money," writing: "the United Arab Emirates can pay for all the propaganda money can buy."

But Joplin school chief C.J. Huff makes no apologies for accepting the foreign aid.

"I can live with the hate mail," he told The Post. "It's the right thing for the kids."

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