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Qatar Pledges $100 Million to Help Katrina Victims

HOWARD BERKES, host:

This week, New Orleans plays host to the Ambassador from the small Persian Gulf nation of Qatar. After Hurricane Katrina, Qatar offered the city 100 million dollars, one of the largest foreign grants for hurricane relief. Qatar is now starting to dole out the cash and the Ambassador will be scouting around to see how else his nation can help. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

Nasser al-Khalifa took up the job as Qatar's Ambassador to the United States shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck. Qatar joined more than a hundred nations around the world to make pledges of relief. But rather than just giving aid through organizations on the ground, the U.S. educated Ambassador Khalifa decided to get a high profile advisory board together to choose projects he felt were being overlooked.

Ambassador NASSER AL-KHALIFA (Qatar): My motto is every penny will go to this project. I want the money to help those who most needed it, and people came up with a lot of ideas but I had to choose. I said (unintelligible) I am going to do.

He choose education, health and housing. Qatar has announced the first 60 million dollars in grants. More than 17 million dollars of that will go to the historically black Catholic school Xavier University. University president Norman Frances plans to have 5 million dollars for scholarships and the rest to build what will likely be called the Qatar wing of the pharmaceutical school.

Mr. NORMAN FRANCES (President, Xavier University): We have just come through a unprecedented catastrophe and this particular grant for which we are eternally grateful for the government of Qatar comes at a very opportune time for us.

KELEMEN: He says it will help the school train much needed professionals to work in low-income areas of Louisiana. Frances expects that the Qatar ambassador will be met with lots of questions and praise for his country's benevolence when he goes to the region.

Mr. FRANCES: The stock for these countries rises for all of us because it showed such a human response to a tragedy.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Khalifa said this wasn't about improving Qatar's image in the U.S., but talking about the aid package is clearly a good break for the Ambassador whose country has often been lectured by the Bush administration every time something controversial airs on al Jazeera, the Arab language satellite television based in Qatar.

Ambassador KHALIFA: You know, we really didn't do it for public diplomacy. We did it because we thought that it was the right thing to do and we saw what happened. It was on our national TV and people were a little bit shocked.

KELEMEN: Asked whether his Persian Gulf country can provide some other relief for Americans this summer in the form of cheaper gas, Qatar's ambassador just chuckled.

Ambassador KHALIFA: Well, look. You should ask your American companies who are investing in the oil and gas business in my country.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.