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Arab Gulf turns down Syrian refugees

Chase WinterJanuary 25, 2016

As Europe struggles with a massive refugee influx, Arab Gulf states have come under scrutiny for taking in few refugees. Don't expect the oil-rich monarchies to change their course anytime soon, experts told DW.

IS-Kämpfer verlassen Palästinenserlager Jarmuk in Damaskus
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/UNRWA

The oil-rich Arab Gulf states have high per capita incomes, need labor and share a common language and culture with Syrians, making them in the eyes of many an ideal location for refugees fleeing conflict in Syria.

Yet, while Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt have taken in around 5 million refugees, and boatloads of the destitute are making their way to Europe, the Gulf states have taken only a few hundred refugees, according to data from the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR).

In part, the low numbers are due to a technicality, as the Gulf states are non-signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, the governing international convention defining refugees and their rights.

To be sure, there are hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the Gulf, just not as "refugees." The Saudis refer them as "Arab brothers and sisters in distress."

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Before the Syrian uprising, more than 100,000 Syrians were in Saudi Arabia working, for example, and the government allowed many to bring their families with the onset of the conflict, giving them the right to education and work. The UNHCR said late last year that there are about 500,000 Syrians in Saudi Arabia out of a population of 28 million.

But for others fleeing war in Syria, the doors are closed to the Gulf states, despite the latters' declared concern over the plight of refugees. Syrians must have a visa and passport to enter the Gulf monarchies.

Oil pocketbooks

However, the six Gulf states are major donors to international humanitarian agencies and NGOs.

"They prefer to share their responsibility with financial donations," Metin Corabatir, who served for 18 years as the spokesperson of the UNHCR and is currently the president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara, told DW.

However, the issue is not only the oil-rich monarchies' pocketbook humanitarianism, but rather burden sharing to take in more refugees. But Corabatir said the Gulf states shouldn't be singled out.

"Criticism should go toward not only Gulf countries but all countries if we are dealing with a global humanitarian crisis," he said. "All countries, including rich Gulf countries, should take in refugees."

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Led by the Saudis and Qatar, the Gulf states push the line that the refugee crisis is the outcome of Western inaction and the Syrian regime's brutality, even as they throw billions of dollars in supplies and weaponry into the Syrian jihadist cauldron to oust Assad at all costs.

"The Saudis have invested in the Syrian war; now they must invest in refugees," Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi scholar at the Institute for Gulf Affairs (IGA), told DW.

Labor or security threat?

By the estimates of IGA, given factors of space, demographics and wealth, the Gulf states could take in 3 million refugees, he added

More than 15 million foreign workers - largely from the Indian subcontinent - live and work in the labor-hungry Gulf kingdoms. Locals are a minority in Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait, while in Saudi Arabia and Oman foreigners make up about a quarter of the population. The Gulf states have been widely criticized over the treatment of migrant workers.

The kingdoms' need for labor presents a potentially win-win situation for both Syrians and the Gulf states. However, the monarchies prefer to bring in labor from Asia rather than from other Arab states due to the perceived threat to security and the status quo, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Despite the fact that the Gulf states could take it refugees, they will not, Corabatir said. "In reality, if you look at political structure and demographics of the countries, they will never take in a million refugees," he said, noting that Syrians were perceived as a "destabilizing element."

Infografik Verteilung syrischer Flüchtlinge 2011-2015 Englisch

Al-Ahmed also confirmed that Syrians were thought by the conservative Gulf monarchies to pose a cultural and political risk.

"The Saudis worry that Syrians are a security threat," he said. "They have ideas of revolution."