Why aren’t the Gulf states taking more Syrian refugees?

The five Gulf countries, the majority of which have significant wealth, have taken zero refugees.

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Saudi Arabia does a great job of exporting Wahhabism, but not such a great job of dealing with one of its most dire consequences: millions of Syrian refugees. Saudi and Qatar in particular have been accused of spending billions to fund militants groups in Iraq and Syria, yet the Arab Gulf States have done little to open their doors to Syrian refugees. As Europeans rightly question whether their governments are doing enough to help refugees, those across the Gulf are also demanding that their governments take in people.

For the Arab World, the brunt of this responsibility has fallen to poorer or less stable nations. The statistics are startling. According to Amnesty International, as of December 2014, 3.8 million of Syria’s refugees (95 per cent) are in just five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The five Gulf countries, the majority of which have significant wealth, have taken zero refugees. While they might be happy to throw money at the problem, this is not enough.  As Sharif Elsayed-Al of Amnesty International said:”Countries cannot ease their consciences with cash pay-outs, then simply wash their hands of the matter.” Certainly in the Arab Gulf States, the refugee crisis has been defined by a crisis of refuge, that is to say, an absence of safe havens for Syrian refugees. Commentators such as Mahmood Yousif lamented this lack of Arab solidarity, calling it “the death of Arab consciousness”.

But why is this so? The reasons for the Gulf accepting more refugees is ostensibly compelling. They are wealthy and, as Arab nations, they have more linguistically and culturally in common with Syria than many countries in Europe. This Arab commonality was stressed by Sultan Al Qassemi, who noted recently that the Gulf states were now the “nerve centres of Arab diplomacy, culture, media production, commerce and tourism”. The same sentiment was emphasised by Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at UAE university, who said the “Arab Gulf moment” was here to stay. Yet why does a region clearly touting itself as riding the forefront of the crest of Arabness, fail so miserably to help its Arab neighbours?

Well, while these sentiments imply some sort of deference to a notion of Arabness unity or brotherhood, couched within them lies undertones of Gulf primacy in the Arab world, of “Gulfanisation”. As Abdulla notes “What distinguishes the Arab Gulf States at this moment in history is their noticeable political stability, almost incredible engine of prosperity, consistent moderate ideology”. These, Abdulla continues, are “reshaping the region’s geo-economics and geo-politics and setting in motion a process for the Gulfanisation of the Arab world”.

And reshaping the region they are. Inextricable from this Gulfanization is the support, tacit or explicit, given by these Gulf regimes for radical groups who are contributing to destabilising the region, promoting radicalism, and fuelling conflict. The Gulf states are, according to Gregory Gause, involved in a new Cold War, with Tehran and Riyadh locked in a balance of power thats consequences can be seen in the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Yet while happy to wield power, and throw money at a problem, willingness to pick up the “collateral” damage of refugees has not been forthcoming.

Yet Gulf prosperity and ascendency is not only an inevitable by product of being surrounded by crippled and failing states such as Iraq and Syria (indeed, it is all relative). Such prosperity comes from a cautious internal security policy, one that actually places key emphasis on who is allowed in and out of the country. As Abdulla notes himself, the Arab Gulf States most salient weakness is the demographic issue. In the Gulf Countries, the majority of the population of foreign, but get no privileges, while the small minority get a hugely disproportionate amount. This has negative implications for the “social longevity as well as the political sustainability” of these current regimes, one that could reach critical levels with the influence of thousands of refugees. Indeed, the refugee crisis cuts right to the heart of the Gulf States most salient weakness. Furthermore, you cannot pick and choose refugees, and the possibility of pro-Assad refugees, or infiltrators, has made Gulf states wary. Indeed, given that the Gulf are, for all intents and purposes, at war with Assad’s government, accepting all Syrian refugees in a non discriminatory fashion poses an unacceptable security risk.

In countries like Saudi and Bahrain, sectarian problems also influence these demographic issues. Openly welcoming thousands of refugees, especially when those refugees cannot be disposed of should they prove to be politically unreliable or disloyal, threatens this Gulf ascendency. While some may point to the fact that countries like Bahrain naturalise many Arab Sunnis from all across the Gulf, from Jordan to Yemen and Syria, those granted Bahraini citizenship may be denaturalised and imprisoned or deported should they indulge in anything remotely seditious. The protection afforded to refugees, on the other hand, negates this, potentially burdening the Gulf states with similar problems faced by states like Lebanon and Jordan, who have had historically tense relationships with their own Palestinian refugees. In a very twisted way, refugees in the Gulf states may have more rights than its citizens.

Ultimately, realism, self interest, and regional imperatives trump issues of Arab identity in the Gulf. Let’s not forget that examples of Arab co-operation have also been matched with examples of Arab self interest, for example, Iraq’s invasion of its neighbour Kuwait in 1990, or Saudi’s expulsion of 800,000 Yemenis in 1991 for not agreeing to the first Gulf War. As the late Fouad Ajami wrote back in 1978, “slowly and grimly, with a great deal of anguish and of outright violence, a ‘normal’ state system is becoming a fact of life”. So rather than the death of Arab Consciousness, which does still exist in the minds of the Arabs living in the Gulf States, the ambitions of Gulf primacy have put the power elites in the Gulf States apart from their fellow Arabs. The operative word then in the Arab Gulf Moment is “gulf”, one that is opening up wider by the day, swallowing in it thousands of Syrian migrants, and pushing the Gulf further away from its Arab brothers.

Marc Owen Jones is co-editor, with Ala'a Shehabi, of “Bahrain’s Uprising: Resistance and Repression in the Gulf”, published this month by Zed Books