by Jesse Schatz
This month at the second presidential debate Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump addressed the Syrian refugee crisis. Trump stated, “I believe in having other people pay for [Syrian refugees], as an example, the Gulf States who are not carrying their weight, but they have nothing but money.” The billionaire Republican White House hopeful is not alone in arguing that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have either failed to take adequate action or have completely ignored the issue altogether. Since last year, Western media outlets across the political spectrum have published articles with headlines such as “No, Arab Gulf Countries are not taking in refugees” (Huffington Post).
These articles from both the Left and Right overlook the fact that over a million Syrians currently live in the GCC countries. The majority of them came to the Gulf since Syria’s crisis erupted in 2011 (although without the protections provided by the ‘refugee’ designation). According to the World Bank, from 2011 to 2013 alone the number of Syrians living in the Gulf increased 470 percent from 241,000 to 1,375,000.
GCC members have also made significant financial contributions to humanitarian relief efforts in Syria. Specifically, Saudi sources have reportedly given over $700 million in humanitarian aid to fund refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. The UAE’s government, as of 2015, has reportedly provided $750 million in aid since the Syrian crisis erupted five and a half years ago. Kuwait has hosted three international humanitarian pledging conferences for Syria between January 2013 and March 2015 with a total of $1.3 billion pledged.
The discrepancy between the perceptions of Trump and others and the efforts of the Gulf to help Syrians in distress boils down to misunderstandings surrounding the legal category of “refugee.” Because GCC nations have not acceded to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, they do not recognize Syrians living in the Gulf Arab countries as such. Therefore, although Syrian refugees are entering the GCC in record numbers, they are not formally registered with the UN as refugees, and are not entitled to certain protections, including the ability to eventually gain the citizenship of the host country.
This “citizenship clause” within the 1951 Convention forms the basis of the GCC states’ objection to becoming signatories. By not acceding to the convention, the Gulf Arab states certainly open themselves up to international criticism. However, their motives are not surprising given that the GCC maintains highly regulated citizenship laws that virtually exclude all foreigners, including wealthy expatriates or migrant laborers, from obtaining citizenship. Lack of official protection as refugees, however, differs from no protection at all. In the case of Saudi Arabia, refugees may not receive UN protections, yet they do receive many protections from the Saudi welfare state such as free healthcare and free education.
One major danger of Trump’s argument is that it frames the Syrian refugee crisis as a Middle Eastern problem and thus an issue exclusively for Arab/Islamic countries. In truth, the West bears much responsibility for the carnage in Syria as a result of the U.S. and some European countries arming rebel groups to topple the regime in Damascus, as well as their own ongoing military campaigns in the war-torn region. To be clear, some GCC states—chiefly Saudi Arabia and Qatar—have fueled the violence in Syria by arming Sunni Islamist extremists, including the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). But the West, the GCC, and others share a moral responsibility to provide Syrian refugee crisis with a safe haven until their return to their home country is feasible.
This month, officials in the UAE announced plans to accept and resettle 15,000 Syrian refugees in the Emirates over the course of the next five years. Although the Emiratis did not provide details about this unprecedented resettlement, their announcement demonstrates a shift in refugee policy. The government’s plan did not signal a change in the UAE’s official policy towards the 1951 Refugee convention, nor did it explicitly state if formal refugee status would be extended to these 15,000 asylum seekers.
A number of questions remain. Will other GCC states follow the UAE’s lead in terms of accepting Syrian refugees? Which steps will the Emiratis take to ensure a smooth assimilation of Syrians in the Gulf Arab state? What are the security challenges associated with taking in an average of 3,000 Syrian refugees per year? The UAE has designated many armed factions in the Syrian Civil War as “terrorist organizations” (Hezbollah, IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Muslim Brotherhood, etc.), so it’s concerned that such groups will infiltrate the Emirates with “refugees,” opening up wider political and security risks in the lower Gulf states.
Prior to the UAE’s announcement, the GCC members played a crucial role in funding, aiding, and protecting Syrian refugees. Nevertheless, the UAE’s policy move provides another rebuttal to those who would use alleged Gulf Arab state indifference to justify their own rejection of refugees.
Jesse Schatz is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt). Photo: Syrian refugees in Lebanon.