Skip to main content

Are Gulf states doing enough for Syrian refugees?

Qatar’s foreign minister says by size and population, the country is doing much more than the likes of Britain and France

In the midst of European wrangling over who should take in more refugees from the ongoing crisis, a question has continued to surface over what some of the Arab world’s wealthiest have been doing to shoulder their portion of responsibility.

Human rights organisations have accused the Gulf states in particular of standing by idly as Europe struggles with one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its history. Indeed, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), over 350,000 people crossed into Europe between the months of January to August this year alone.

In a report published last year, Sherif Elsayed-Ali, Amnesty International’s head of refugee and migrants’ rights described the response by Gulf states as “particularly shameful,” emphasising that “linguistic and religious ties should place the Gulf states at the forefront of those offering safe shelter to refugees fleeing persecution and war crimes in Syria”. Meanwhile Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, also lambasted  Gulf countries for having offered “zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees" and images satirising the seeming inaction of the Gulf states have hit the headlines.

The Arabic hashtag #Welcoming_Syria's_refugees_is_a_Gulf_duty was recently trending on Twitter where tens of thousands used it to question why the Gulf wasn’t doing more to ease visa restrictions for Syrian refugees,  while Saudi’s Makkah newspaper published a cartoon depicting a man in traditional Gulf clothing looking out of a door with barbed wire around it and pointing at a door adorned with the EU flag, saying "Why don't you let them in, you discourteous people?!"

While Germany remains the gold standard for European responses in its pledge to take in 800,000 asylum seekers, France has pledged a mere 24,000 and the UK a meagre 20,000 over five years, while Hungary has built a controversial 175km (110-mile) razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia to keep people out.

Spotlight on Gulf states

In light of current tensions within Europe, many have begun pointing the finger at the Gulf, whose wealth, relative geographical proximity, as well as linguistic and religious affinity to some of the countries of origin of the refugees would seem to make them prime candidates for receiving large numbers of refugees.

Indeed, while people are coming from a range of countries, 50 percent alone are from Syria (38 percent) and Afghanistan (12 percent). Others point to the states as key stakeholders in the Syrian conflict whose flow of financial support and weapons to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, means they have a particular responsibility to assist the refugees born out of the conflict.

The vast majority of refugees from Syria specifically, have crossed over into bordering countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, but these states are struggling to manage the influx - in some cases millions of refugees - while European nations have also argued that they cannot cope with the large numbers of people in need of resettlement.

In a recent interview, the Foreign Minister of Qatar HE Dr Khalid Al-Attiyah responded to allegations Qatar is failing in its responsibility to accommodate refugees: “Let me be clear” he affirmed “the State of Qatar is in no way falling short in its responsibilities when it comes to the Syrian crisis.” He pointed to the range of initiatives - humanitarian, economic, diplomatic and others - supported or directly launched by Qatar, while emphasising the need for an ultimately political solution to the crisis.

Money not enough - Syrians need refuge

According to Qatar, its official donation alone totals more than $1.6 billion in support for refugees. Indeed, Gulf states are recognised as the top donors to the United Nations. Support for Syrian refugees in terms of educational, medical and housing relief has not been lacking, but critics argue that, more than relief, what is required for refugees is a long-term safe place to live, not merely aid or temporary work visas. 

In response, Qatar in particular has emphasised the need to resolve the underlying crisis in Syria and the importance of not draining Syria of the very individuals whom will be required for its reconstruction, namely an educated middle class. For this wealthy Arab state, the solution to the current crisis should focus on its underlying causes and not on the redistribution of populations, which it ultimately regards as critical to the eventual post-conflict national reconstruction efforts.

One aspect of the challenge faced by Gulf states often emphasised by officials is their natural environment. “Qatar has a small population and not much land,” the foreign minister was quick to respond to accusations the state wasn’t meeting its humanitarian obligations. Indeed, the country imports about 93 percent of its food, with less than 15 percent of Qatari land arable and desalination required for virtually 100 percent of its water use.

Such policies many predict are not only unsustainable for its current population level, but also ecologically concerning. Given the geo-political implications of its location in a politically volatile region, its leaders are also undoubtedly concerned about the destabilising impact of a young, unemployed and potentially restless foreign population domestically.

'We are a small country'

In an exclusive interview, Dr Al-Attiyah emphasised the unique challenges faced by the small, rapidly developing nation - which, while among the wealthiest in the world, also faces significant logistical challenges related to its geographical and demographic make-up. The native Qatari population stands at less than 250,000 people for a total country estimate of 2.3 million: “Foreign workers here already outnumber Qataris by about six-to-one, and a massive influx of refugees would overwhelm our native population,” he said in an interview ahead of the UN General Assembly in New York. Compare this figure to the number of migrants to have arrived so far this year (200,000) in Europe, who constitutes just 0.027 percent of Europe’s total population of 740 million and the challenge facing the small states becomes more salient.

Despite this, Dr Al-Attiyah added that Qatar has, contrary to reports, opened its doors to Syrian refugees. “There are more than 54,000 Syrians living in Qatar(…)There are more than 2 million people living in Qatar, so the 54,000 Syrians represent a significant proportion of the population of our country.” Meanwhile, Qatar’s neighbour the UAE has announced it has 100,000 Syrians with work visas, while Saudi Arabia claims to have 2.5 million Syrians on work visas.

In a recent op-ed, Hossam Shaker called on the Gulf nations to shift their current policy of not receiving refugees and questioned the counter-claim by some Gulf states that they are unable to accommodate a greater number. Gulf countries currently allow Syrians to come on work visas, but do not recognise the legal concept of refugees, as they are not signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a historical fact linked to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

According to Qatar, it has in fact resettled more than 25,000 Syrians since fighting began, which represents slightly more than France, a country 46 times its size, and more than the UK, also significantly larger. But the figure of 25,000 is dwarfed when looking at the comparatively smaller country of Lebanon, which has taken in over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, despite much less bountiful economic resources.  What’s more, to its critics, work visas, which offer only temporary respite and which can be easily rescinded, are a pitiful offer of assistance

Others have suggested that the relatively small number of refugees being re-homed by Gulf states is less a product of domestic concerns over the accommodation of new arrivals and more the result of a policy of "nationalisation" in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in particular, where governments have, in recent years, been seeking to prioritise the employment of locals and where concerns over the preservation of local culture has long been a concern.

Whatever the truth motivating the Gulf states to continue to deny refugee status to those fleeing persecution in Syria and elsewhere, the reality remains stark for those Syrians in need of a temporary solace as they await a denouement of the Syrian conflict. And for Syrians who themselves have lived side by side with “temporary” Palestinian refugee camps – some dating back to 1948 -  the prospect of  generations of Syrian nationals doomed to reside in transient spaces is a bleak future to behold. 

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a Franco-British journalist, broadcaster and writer with a focus on current affairs, France and the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.   

Photo: A woman carries her baby near the Ayvacik District of Canakkale, Turkey, after being caught trying to take a boat to Lesbos on 25 September 2015. (AA)