Markus Schreiber / AP

Gulf countries face pressure to take in more Syrian refugees

Analysis: Some critics say Gulf Cooperation Council nations aren’t doing enough to help refugees fleeing conflict

More than 4 million Syrian refugees have fled their war-torn country, but the six wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have officially resettled none of them.

Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have instead allowed the refugee burden to fall mainly on Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan and, to a lesser degree, on Iraq and Egypt.

The GCC states have, of course, been making donations to Syria, with Kuwait among the top international check writers. Kuwait has hosted international pledging conferences for Syria, which have raised billions of dollars. And Qatar has given some $1.6 billion and regularly sends aid to Syrian refugees. 

While the Gulf’s financial contributions have been generous, the alliance's humanitarian admission for Syrians has been much less so.

Millions of migrant workers, including many from refugee-producing countries, live in GCC countries. Among them are hundreds of thousands of Syrians, with some unofficial estimates of 300,000 in Saudi Arabia, 150,000 in the UAE and 120,000 in Kuwait. Among them are professionals, low-skilled workers, family members and students.

At the start of the Syrian conflict, the Gulf states took in what Qatari-owned newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi referred to as "five star" refugees — businessmen and highly skilled professionals. 

Others got through different means. Many who entered the GCC countries from Syria with a work permit or a tourist visa — but whose legal rights to stay in the Gulf have expired — have been allowed to stay on, according to Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political scientist.

Exactly how many is unclear. He said, "Everyone should be doing more," including the UAE and the Gulf states. "It is a humanitarian crisis."

Kuwait has granted Syrians there "special residences" or "long-time visas," according to In 2013, Qatar took in a few dozen Syrians, designating them "special guests of the emir."

In addition to Syrians, others who have fled wars or were uprooted — such as Palestinians, Lebanese, Kuwaitis and Yemenis — have made their home in the region, as Emirati commentator Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi noted in The International Business Times. "These individuals were displaced following conflicts in their own countries but were never referred to as refugees. Many of these settlers are now naturalized citizens and have become successful entrepreneurs," he wrote.

In the Arabian Peninsula, only Yemen is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, which defines who is a refugee, their rights and the minimum standards for their treatment.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is pushing for more states, including those in the Gulf, to sign on and develop legal systems to process refugees, which may skirt U.N. recommendations.

The debate over what the Gulf countries can and should be doing has been a fierce one in the region — especially given the global focus on Europe’s struggles with an influx of hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees.

Resettling in the Gulf, as opposed to parts of Europe, might be easier for Syrians in the short term, given the common language and cultural similarities. However, few displaced Syrians — if any — will ever receive the benefits afforded to Gulf citizens. Migration of non–Gulf nationals is highly stratified and politicized in the region.

For the Gulf states, migration is temporary, though in many cases the situations of migrants and refugees become protracted, said Philippe Fargues, the founding director of Migration Policy Centre. "You remain forever a foreigner" if you’re not born a Gulf citizen. 

The GCC states for now seem to want to avoid the insecurity of allowing in refugees — in part for political reasons, he said. "They spend the money [on Syrians], but they don't want the people." They take in economic migrants, but they don't want refugees because "with refugees, you never know when they will go home."

Where would 11.7 million displaced Syrians fit? Click the image for answers.

Instead the Gulf countries make statements that the Syrians are guests, which means they are protected but do not have rights, Fargues said. 

With the war in Syria driving the greatest displacement of people in the world, many in the Gulf have taken to social media to call on Arabs and Muslims to do more for refugees.

Sheikh Aaidh ibn Abdullah al-Qarn, a Saudi Islamic scholar and activist, tweeted about recent photographs of a drowned Syrian refugee child who washed up on a Turkish beach. "The drowning of this Syrian toddler, trying to flee death, is the death certificate of the disgraceful world conscience," he posted.

And a saying that roughly translates to "Hosting Syrian refugees is every Gulf nation's duty" was trending on Twitter.

Meanwhile Arabic-language social media recently circulated memes falsely quoting German Chancellor Angela Merkel as saying versions of "One day, we will tell our children that Syrian refugees fled their land to ours on death boats, although Mecca was closer to them."

The meme — which appears to say Germany is doing more for displaced Syrians than their fellow Arabs are — revealed an already exposed truth, Al-Quds Al-Arabi said.

The newspaper said the Arabs are to blame for Syrian suffering. "The picture of the drowned Syrian child is an Arab scandal," it added. "By turning his back and rubber shoes and tiny body to the world, he is holding the powerful Arabs before the Europeans responsible for what he has endured."

Despite the unique implications for the Gulf, the Syrian refugee crisis remains a global problem. Syrians have applied for asylum in 109 countries and territories — "underscoring this population's global dimension," the UNHCR stated.

Nor is the Gulf alone in its failure to officially resettle a single one. Other wealthy countries, including Japan and Singapore, have not done so.

But the GCC's rising influence and financial clout sets it apart. Saudi Arabia, a rich and large state, with its Islamic symbolism, perhaps has the greatest obligation, activists and columnist have said.

The GCC because of its "great power" has a "great responsibility," said Qassemi, who has called on the Gulf nations to change their policies and accept refugees from Syria. "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. If the Gulf states were mired in a bloody conflict, would we want tents to be built for us in the desert, or would we want to lead normal lives in cities and towns?"

Saad Abedine contributed to this report.

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