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The Gulf States’ Approach with Respect to the Refugee Influx

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A new crisis makes the headlines in Europe and worldwide nowadays, opening up the door for new questions and big divisions. The European media has been flooded with apocalyptic scenarios, while some outlets put the emphasis on the humanistic aspect of any war tragedy. The bureaucrats in Brussels show little cohesion with respect to refugee policy in the near future. The refugees’ plight was pointed out on Wednesday (2nd of September) in the image of a drowned Syrian toddler, his small dead body lying on the Turkish shores, after a failed attempt to cross the sea (towards Europe) in a boat, together with his family. The world was appealed by one single photo, when in fact the drama in Syria has been around for some time. 

Some persons and/or organizations were quick to criticize the Western governments for a flawed policy and a failed response on the refugee crisis, as well as for failing to address the burden on Syria's neighboring countries. These countries have condensed the roughly four million Syrians forced out of the country by the war, rendering them as some of the countries that deal with highest ratio of refugees reported to the national populations.

The exodus or a new invasion to Europe, as fatalists like to claim, is not translated ad-litteram into the reality. When you make the calculus on incoming refugees versus the national inhabitants, there is not such a high rate related to Europe’s population. However, it represents the highest number of refugees since the World War Two and we should not under-estimate the dimensions of this tragedy. After all, Syria as a whole represents a humanitarian catastrophe.

But what is even more demoralizing is that the Gulf States, with a higher GDP per capita than many (most) of the European countries are doing little to alleviate the sufferance of a population located in their proximity. The question becomes even more poignant, since the Gulf States are not foreign of the situation in Syria and they have invested all kinds of support in the fall of President ASSAD, and the refugees are exactly the ones suffering at the hand of confrontation regime – anti-regime forces.

Over the past few years the world (and not only the Gulf) has witnessed that Syria is breaking apart. It started with the protests in tone with the other ones sweeping out the region (the so-called “Arab Spring”), but it soon descended into carnage, beyond a civic movement. As shown by the evolution of the war, the killing is not going to stop soon and the Syria of the 2000s is crumbling down.

Syrians who choose to flee the country are caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, they are most likely from area that stood against the Syrian regime and on the other hand they encounter the inhuman cruelty of mushroom terrorist groups that has raised the bar for rampant violence and looting towards humans and culture.

One might ask, what is their future looking like? Gloomy, if we take into account the Palestinian example and the neighboring Iraq, as well.

From an Emirati writer perspective making the apology of the Gulf States accepting refugees, “Syrian refugees don't want to live their lives in converted tent cities for generation after generation no more than Palestinians who have done so for 67 years.”[i]

As the situation was sinking in their home country, tens of thousands of Syrian have begun to embark on the infamous boats trips, boats, which often perish at the shores of Europe. Their destinies are often met by Libyans and persons coming from other fragmented countries.

As a result of the constant rise in the eventful crossings of the Mediterranean Sea towards Europe, criticism grew of the Gulf States, namely the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman, when it came to their attitude towards approval of resettlement for Syrian people.

First of all, the Gulf States do not have a policy referring to refugees; they do not acknowledge any legal category as such. The Gulf States are not signatories to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, defining who fall into the category of a refugee and governs rights and responsibilities in relation with dealing with the refugees. In addition, they strict visa policies and very restrictive citizenship laws, having in mind a precarious demographic balance. Thus, a Syrian would have to apply for a visa that requires fulfillment of certain conditions, which in the current circumstances are not likely to be fulfilled. Therefore visas for Syrians are rarely granted. In fact, according to the BBC, “the only Arab countries where a Syrian can travel without a visa are Algeria, Mauritania, Sudan and Yemen -- hardly choice or practical destinations”.[ii]

It is estimated that the Gulf region has the capacity to fix the housing problem/ sheltering for an influx of refugees, as they are on a construction spree. In addition, claims were made that Saudi Arabia has good practice in managing large numbers of arrivals, since it deals with annual millions of Hajj pilgrims to the holy city of Mecca.[iii] Shedding light on these aspects is not flattering towards the Gulf States actions until now.

It is true that at the moment, a large number of Palestinians, Lebanese and Yemenis live in the Gulf, as a reminder for the past and present conflicts encountered by the Arab world. These individuals came to the Gulf as a result of the conflicts in their own countries but were never referred to as refugees. They came under different circumstances, working in Gulf under sponsored visas (obtained through Gulf companies or nationals) or they have become entrepreneurs (business visas).

Until the first Gulf war that has crashed the idea of Arab nationalism forever, Kuwait (a more progressive Gulf State in terms of State building) had been doing well in hosting refugees, hosting a large number of Palestinian refugees. Once the invasion of Kuwait took place, hundreds of thousands of Kuwaitis were given refuge in the Gulf themselves. Some governments rented out places for free, in order to accommodate Kuwaitis.[iv]

The global influence that the six Gulf States hold at the moment is in no doubt. The bloc gathers a vast amount of wealth and increased global visibility. As a matter of fact, they are notorious for investing a lot in the security pillar, Gulf countries having some of the largest military budgets in the world, spending close to $100bnin 2012 alone, as a bloc.[v] In addition, the Gulf States have emerged as important players in mediation, media production, commerce, sports and tourism, stockpiling soft power.

The media has a powerhouse in the Doha-based Al Jazeera, despite audience despite setbacks in the recent years. Other media concerns in the Gulf bring notoriety, such as the Saudi MBC group or the Dubai-based Al Arabiya. These news media outlets enjoy a lot of State funding cover the Syrian civil war incessantly.

Their stance vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis has been noticed for the last four - five years. The power of the bloc was exerted over the decisional process of the Arab League. For example, in 2011 they lobbied for Syria's suspension from the league and for the UN intervention in Libya. The amount of involvement in the regional events has led to interrogate over how they would deal with the effects of the crises.

SULTAN AL QASSEMI, a Sharjah analyst, has made claim that it is of the Gulf States moral obligation to proceed with the next steps in favor of the refugees’ cause. He advocates for the acceptance and resettlement of Syrian refugees. “It is the moral, ethical and responsible step to take”, he added.[vi]

The social media has been intently circulating lately the same image highlighting the low of Gulf States when it comes to refugees’ intake, and also the passivity of the Gulf leaders.

Of course, the European governments have not been exempted from criticism. The social media fervent claims go hand in hand with criticizing some European countries for accepting very few of the refugees, or for discriminating between Muslims and Christians refugees, like Slovakia’s request was formulated. Also, a lot has been debated on the European on the future of immigration and asylum policies.

However, after a period of silent ire, the world is increasing pointing out at the wealthy Gulf States with raised eyebrows, inquiring their closed door policy with respect to the refugees.[vii]

The Amnesty International’s reporting has come up to front, in which it is mentioned that the “six Gulf countries - Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain - have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.”[viii] The same claim was echoed by Kenneth ROTH, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.[ix]

These discoveries fuelled the criticism, given these countries’ connection with Syria, as well as the vast resources at their disposal.

Moreover, these countries are not exactly neutral. Once their financial and military power was augmented, their role in regional crises was amplified at its own end. Beyond the upper hand within the Arab League, (previously mentioned) there is indication that most Gulf States, except for Oman, have invested in the Syrian conflict, having a word to say in funding and arming rebels and Islamist factions fighting the regime of the President ASSAD.[x] And one has to observe that most of the refugees came from the areas where the toughest battles between the regime and rebels factions are fought.

Iran, the arch foe of Saudi Arabia, the other powerhouse of the Gulf (the non-Arab one) and a supporter of President ASSAD regime, has not made direct accusations or raised any claim. Nonetheless, the Iranian English Language Channel, Press TV, has reported the matter from a different lens. In one of the reports reiterates the declaration of a Syrian official, where the blame is on Turkey: “A senior Syrian official has blamed Turkey for the flood of Syrian refugees heading toward Europe amid growing concerns over the failure of the international community to do enough to protect stranded Syrian asylum-seekers.”[xi] On the other hand, the Saudi Arabian analysts rushed to blame Iran once again, a Saudi Arabian professor “acknowledged that the Gulf could do more, but directed the blame toward Iran and Russia, which have heavily backed Mr. ASSAD and his military while also refusing to resettle Syrian refugees.”[xii]

The yo-yo effect of shifting responsibility from one to another and/or finding scapegoats certainly does not help or come up with practical solutions for the people in cause. Notwithstanding, it is interesting to observe that Gulf States policies were publicly examined, and not received with the same warmth as their quest for investment is. In the words of Mr. Michael STEPHENS, the head of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar“ The Gulf Arabs are used to a paradigm in which the West is continuously stepping in to solve the problem, and this time it hasn’t”.[xiii] The sobering reality is that the battles continue and people continue to be displaced. There is more action needed than being horrified over one picture, then followed-up by some silent ire or some back lashing in the social media. A helping hand from the Gulf, a sensible approach from their side, would be much appreciated by burdened smaller Arab States or by European governments preoccupied by their own division.



[i]Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi,Syria crisis: Gulf States should open their doors to Syrian refugees,

 3rd September 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/syria-crisis-wealthy-gulf-states-deny-famed-arab-hospitality-refugees-1518310

[ii] BBC, Migrant crisis: Why Syrians do not flee to Gulf states, 2nd September 2015,

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34132308

[iii] The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor, The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees, 4th September 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/09/04/the-arab-worlds-wealthiest-nations-are-doing-next-to-nothing-for-syrias-refugees/?tid=sm_tw

[iv]Idem i.

[v] CSIS Report preview, Anthony H. Cordesman, Military Spending and Arms Sales in the Gulf , 28th April 2015,http://csis.org/publication/military-spending-and-arms-sales-gulf

[vi] Idem iii.

[vii] Radio France International Report, Migrants: les monarchies du Golfe et la politique de la porte close, 5th September 2015, http://www.rfi.fr/moyen-orient/20150905-monarchies-arabes-pas-accueil-migrants?ns_campaign=reseaux_sociaux&ns_source=twitter&ns_mchannel=social&ns_linkname=editorial&aef_campaign_ref=partage_user&aef_campaign_date=2015-09-05

[viii] Amnesty International, Facts & Figures: Syria refugee crisis & international resettlement, 5th December 2014,https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2014/12/facts-figures-syria-refugee-crisis-international-resettlement/

[ix]Idem iii.

[x]Idem iii.

[xi] Press TV, Syria blames Turkey for pushing refugees to Europe, 3rd of September 2015,

http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/09/03/427583/Syrian-UN-Iran-Miqdad-Turkey-

[xii] The New York Times, Ben Hubbard,Wealthy Gulf Nations Are Criticized for Tepid Response to Syrian Refugee Crisis, 5th September 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/world/gulf-monarchies-bristle-at-criticism-over-response-to-syrian-refugee-crisis.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

[xiii]Idem.

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