Why the Gulf States Aren't Accepting Syrian Refugees

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A Syrian refugee carries his child as he crosses the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, September 10, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev probably doesn’t know Dr. Fahd al-Shelaimi of Kuwait, but it sure seems like they attended the same school. In an interview with an Arab television station last week, Shelaimi’s statements about Syrian refugees sounded as if they were taken, with minor changes, from Regev’s lexicon on asylum seekers.

“Kuwait and the Gulf states are expensive countries that aren’t suitable for refugees to live in,” he said. “They’re suitable for workers. Life in Lebanon and Turkey is cheaper, and the money paid the refugees will go much farther there. Moreover, you can’t accept people from a different cultural environment. They include people with psychological problems, with nervous diseases or traumas; you can’t bring them into [our] societies.”

Granted, Shelaimi isn’t a minister – he’s a former senior officer and now political commentator with over 64,000 Twitter followers, most of whom think just like him. But he has also roused much discomfort among Arab politicians and intellectuals, who have trouble explaining why the Gulf states are “letting the refugees migrate to heretical Christian countries instead of clasping them to the Arab and Islamic breast,” as one commenter put it.

“The Syrians are skilled professionals; they’re Arabs and Muslim, like Gulf state citizens; they speak Arabic; and they aren’t like the millions of foreign workers who work in those countries, who warped and distorted our culture and threaten the identity of Gulf state societies,” argued columnist Fahd Khaitan.

The Saudi television network Al Arabiya belatedly published data Wednesday claiming that at least one million Syrians live in Saudi Arabia, including 100,000 students. It didn’t give a source for the figures, but since they were published simultaneously by other Saudi news outlets, it seems that the Kingdom is trying to defend itself against Arab and global accusations of being apathetic to the refugees even as Gulf states fund Syria’s civil war.

Social media activists are particularly aggressive. They're constantly opening new Facebook and Twitter accounts demanding that Gulf state leaders – “rich men who live in golden palaces” – open their countries to the refugees.

Gulf state pundits are going through contortions trying to explain their leaders’ decision to bar the refugees. Some use the security pretext: These countries are fighting terror at home and fear that Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) operatives or other terrorists might infiltrate with the refugees.

Others argue that Syrians must be kept in or near their own country so they don’t become a nation of refugees, like the Palestinians. These pundits say that is also why the Gulf states fund refugee camps near Syria’s borders with Turkey and Jordan – so the refugees can go home the moment it becomes possible. But this excuse is easily demolished: Just as millions of pilgrims to Mecca return to their own countries every year, it would also be possible to organize homeward flights for the refugees.

Yet another explanation for barring the refugees is the Gulf states’ problematic demographics, which differ from those of other Arab countries. Millions of foreign workers, including other Arabs, already live in the Gulf, and native citizens are already a minority in most Gulf states. Foreigners comprise about a third of all residents in Saudi Arabia; 38 percent in Bahrain; 70 percent in the United Arab Emirates; and 80 percent in Qatar – with 15 to 20 percent of these foreign residents from other Arab states. Thus, the Gulf states fear that bringing in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees would disrupt their control system over the workforce, especially since the refugees – unlike workers from other countries – would be almost impossible to deport.

This argument might be more understandable if it weren't for the fact that Jordan, which is also extremely sensitive to its demographic balance, has accepted more than 1.3 million refugees, while Lebanon, whose political existence is threatened by every single demographic tremor, also accepted huge numbers. And both these countries are far poorer than the Gulf states.

Shelaimi’s claim that Syrians come from a different culture and would, therefore, have trouble integrating in the Gulf is genuine. Syrians speak Arabic and most are Muslims. But despite the Western belief that “Arabs are Arabs,” the cultural differences are vast. Syrians speak a different dialect and follow different religious schools to the Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

But when more than two million Syrian refugees live in Turkey, whose culture is also vastly different, while most foreign workers in the Gulf come from Asian cultures and don’t even speak Arabic, this cultural excuse also collapses. In short, as Arab League secretary-general Nabil Elaraby said, “The Arab states’ efforts to solve the refugee crisis have produced no results.”

Yet many of the refugees themselves aren’t enthusiastic about going to other Arab countries – even rich ones.

“We’ve seen three waves of refugees from Syria,” said Mansour Hadi, a Syrian refugee living in Turkey. “In the first wave, people fled to countries just over the border, in the hope that the fighting would die down quickly and they could go home. In that wave, people could visit their homes in Syria occasionally and even do a little business. So there was no reason to seek refuge in distant countries.

“In the second stage, when it was clear the war wouldn’t end soon, people sought destinations where they could live for a long time, and proximity to the homeland was less significant,” he continued, talking to Haaretz by telephone. “They also understood that living in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan was no paradise. This was the stage when the wealthy, along with the smuggling mafia, opened pathways to Europe.

“In the third stage, which we’re seeing now, refugees already want to build a future outside the Middle East.”

Hadi, once a senior technician at a company in Aleppo, found a decent job in Turkey and hopes to build his future there.

“Perhaps I might have emigrated to Germany or Sweden, but I wouldn’t have gone to Saudi Arabia or Qatar,” he said. “They are different Arabs. They’re not like us. It’s a closed, conservative, extremely religious and arrogant society. I have no reason to be there.”

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