JOPLIN, Mo. — Two weeks after a mile-wide tornado tore through this city, killing 161 people and rendering a landscape of apocalyptic devastation, the public school system here received a telephone call from a man working for the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington.
“Tell me what you need,” the embassy staffer said.
Today, the nearly 2,200 high school students in Joplin each have their own UAE-funded MacBook laptop, which they use to absorb lessons, perform homework and take tests. Across the city, the UAE is spending $5 million to build a neonatal intensive-care unit at Mercy Hospital, which also was ripped apart by the tornado.
The gifts are part of an ambitious campaign by the UAE government to assist needy communities in the United States. Motivated by the same principal reasons that the U.S. government distributes foreign assistance — to help those less fortunate and to influence perceptions among the recipients — the handouts mark a small but remarkable shift in global economic power.
Many other nations also spend money in the United States, but much of it is devoted to promoting their respective languages, traditions and national interests through educational grants, study-abroad programs and cultural centers, such as Germany’s Goethe-Institut and France’s Alliance Francaise.
Courting public opinion
The UAE’s unusual approach has its roots in the 2006 controversy that erupted when a firm based in Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, sought to take over the management of six U.S. ports. Intense congressional opposition, some of it resulting from misperceptions about the UAE’s relationship with the United States, scuttled the deal.
Afterward, the embassy commissioned a survey of American attitudes toward the UAE. Although 30 percent of respondents had an unfavorable view, 70 percent said they had no opinion. When Otaiba became ambassador in Washington in July 2008, the survey results provided him with a critical mission: to persuade Americans, particularly those with no opinion of his country, to develop a favorable view of the UAE.
In hallway conversations, students said they are happy to have the computers, but many of them did not know who provided the money to buy them. Unlike donations to other nations from the U.S. Agency for International Development, which often are emblazoned with stickers, there is nothing on the laptops that mentions the UAE.
But city leaders know. So do state officials and Missouri’s congressional delegation. Sen. Roy Blunt (R), who had opposed the Dubai firm’s ports deal in 2006, joined Otaiba on a trip to Joplin last May and expressed appreciation for the UAE’s financial contributions.
Huff said he sees no shame in accepting foreign aid to help his students. “Part of being a good neighbor is not just knowing how to give, but also how to receive,” he said. “It would be great if we had the money to pay for the laptops ourselves. But we didn’t. Sometimes you have to be willing to put pride in your pocket and accept gifts.”