Syrian refugees: why won’t the oil-rich Gulf States take them in?

Valentine Ouaki, Translated by Kitty Bartlett
30 Janvier 2016

At a moment in time where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees are still attempting to flee to Europe, and where the European Union is trying to establish a consistent policy in the face of this unprecedented humanitarian crisis, the silence of the oil-rich Gulf countries and even their refusal to receive refugees on their land has stirred controversy. Let’s go back to the roots of this reluctance.

Syrian refugees: why won’t the oil-rich Gulf States take them in?
In response to those who consider that the humanitarian relief granted by the governments of Gulf countries is insufficient, they have defended themselves by showing that a considerable amount of financial aid is granted to the Syrian refugees through NGOs and donations from the United Nations. Since 2011, these countries have supplied them with 900 million dollars. A few days ago, a Lebanese newspaper revealed that Saudi Arabia had offered to fund the construction of 200 mosques in Germany to allow the new arrivals from Syria to practice their faith within the country. However, aside from this support and the linguistic and religious ties that these countries share with the refugees, they have not taken any of them in. Since 2011, the refugees have been forced into refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan and are starting to flock to Western Europe, particularly to Germany, England, France or Belgium.

No concept of refugeehood in Gulf States

One of the reasons that countries in the Persian Gulf - including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman - decided to shut the door on Syrian refugees is because the concept itself of refugees isn’t actually recognized in their politics. The Gulf Arab States are some of the very few countries that didn’t sign the United Nations Convention concerning the status of refugees in 1951, a key document that led to the establishment of refugees’ rights as well as the legal obligations of the signatory countries. This means that the monarchies of the Gulf countries have no legal obligation toward refugees; they make no distinction between the statuses of migrants, therefore give no preferential treatment toward those with a “refugee” status and consider them as mere “residents”.

Concerns for the demographic balance

Syrian refugees: why won’t the oil-rich Gulf States take them in?
The proportion of foreigners in Gulf countries has reached new levels compared to that in the rest of the world. The increase of oil revenues consequently led to a heavy reliance on work-related immigration. In some of these countries, the national population has become a minority. In Qatar and the United Arab Emirates for example, in 2010, almost 90% of the population was foreign; In Kuwait, this figure reached 70%. Gulf countries are already in an unstable demographic situation and are afraid to be overwhelmed by refugees.

This reluctance to welcome Syrian refugees into their countries is also due to the fear that this arrival of Arabs - politicised by the Syrian war - could also cause subversive ideas being brought into the States, as well as suffering from uprisings in less politicised countries such as those in the Persian Gulf. Gulf countries are in fact the most stable countries of the region, and getting involved in Syrian refugees could endanger this stability.

The involvement of Gulf countries in Syrian political affairs – with the funding and arming of rebellious Sunni groups in order to destabilize Bashar El-Assad’s regime – makes them supporters, and welcoming Syrian refugees could weaken their security balance. They could might fear that members of the Islamic State could sneak in among the Syrian refugees and provoke an increased risk of terrorist attacks in their countries.

The current migration management system is stirring controversy

Gulf states already have foreign workers – the majority from South Asia – and have also welcomed around 500,000 Syrians as immigrant workers since 2011. But some see the presence of Syrians within the immigrants as a purely economic immigration, and therefore seen as a choice. To get a chance to enter the country, the one condition is to own a tourist visa or a work permit, however, restrictions have made it very difficult for Syrians to get either. The protection of immigrant workers on site is also very poor, mostly due to the Kafala system, which puts these workers under the direct power of their employer, therefore preventing them from changing jobs at the end of their contract. Other kinds of abuse of power have also come to light, such as failure to pay the workers’ wages, confiscating their passports, or even forced labour.

However, the economic situation of Gulf countries is very positive, and taking in a greater number of immigrants wouldn’t affect their market in any way. According to a World Economic Forum report from 2014-2015, these States have worked their way up to the top of the ranks concerning innovation, the labour market, or in terms of health. The United Arab Emirates are in 12th place and Qatar ranks in 16th place. Hydrocarbon resources in Gulf countries allow them to support economic initiatives that stabilize the region. They have become key players in the global economy.

Oil-rich Gulf countries would be able to take in a great number of refugees. Saudi Arabia welcomes between 2 and 4 million pilgrims every year during the pilgrimage to Mecca. During this time, equipped tents are put up over 20 square kilometres in Mina, a neighbourhood of Mecca, for five days.

Tents put up in Mina in Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Credits to Akram S. Abahre
Tents put up in Mina in Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Credits to Akram S. Abahre
Despite the possibility of hindering the demographic balance in Gulf countries, there is no possibility of reaching bursting point. These countries are still the least populated in the world. Saudi Arabia is the most striking example with a very low density of population at around 14 people per km2, putting it in 169th place in the world ranking.

The reasons behind the reluctance of Gulf countries to take in Syrian refugees therefore seem weak considering their capacity to do so. Less wealthy Arab countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, have accepted the arrival of refugees. Given the current situation, it’s becoming more and more crucial for Gulf countries to fully involve themselves in helping Syrian refugees due to their proximity to Syria as well as their cultural ties, by providing them with more than just economic support.