Over the past few years the world has witnessed the greatest refugee crisis of the 21st century unfold live on its television screens. What started as peaceful protests by Syrians demanding rights quickly turned into the bloodiest and arguably cruellest conflict this region has witnessed in decades.
Syrians are caught between the brutal killing machine of Bashar Al Assad’s regime and the inhuman cruelty of a terrorist group that has raised the bar for evil and barbarism towards human beings and civilisation.
As the situation deteriorated, tens of thousands of desperate Syrians began to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe by boat. Criticism grew of the Gulf States – the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman – who until recently were the ‘elephants in the room’ when it came to their lack of support and resettlement for fleeing Syrian refugees.
The Gulf States are not signatories to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention which both defines a refugee and governs their rights and responsibilities towards them.
That is not to say that Gulf States have not taken in refugees in the past. A large number of Palestinians, Lebanese and Yemenis currently live in the Gulf. These individuals were displaced following conflicts in their own countries but were never referred to as refugees. Many of these settlers are now naturalised citizens and have become successful entrepreneurs.
There also exists a precedent for the Gulf States taking in refugees. A quarter of a century ago hundreds of thousands of Kuwaitis were given refuge in the Gulf after the invasion of the country by Saddam Hussein. In Abu Dhabi, the government rented out entire apartment blocks and gave them to families for free. My own father allocated free-of-charge a majlis for Kuwaitis to gather in on the ground floor of one of his buildings.
The global influence that the six Gulf States hold is in no doubt. UAE political science professor Abdul Khaleq Abdulla calls the present era ‘the Arab Gulf moment in history’. The Gulf countries have some of the largest military budgets in the world, collectively spending close to $100bn (£65bn) in 2012 alone.
The Gulf States have emerged as the nerve centres of Arab diplomacy, culture, media production, commerce and tourism, amassing an unprecedented degree of soft power unrivalled in the region and beyond.
I argued to much ire that Gulf cities have started to replace traditional Arab capitals in importance. The omnipotent Arab news industry is firmly in the hands of the Gulf, from the Doha-based Al Jazeera to the Dubai-based Al Arabiya that together command a significant portion of the news audience despite floundering in the past few years.
The Gulf States also form the most influential bloc within the 70-year-old Arab League. Its power was on display in 2011 when they lobbied for Syria’s suspension from the league and for the UN intervention in Libya.
But with great power comes great responsibility. The Gulf must realise that now is the time to change their policy regarding accepting refugees from the Syria crisis. It is the moral, ethical and responsible step to take.
There are those who try to justify the Gulf’s position by citing security concerns. The head of a Gulf based think-tank recently drew harsh criticism for arguing that the “cost of living in the Gulf is prohibitive” for refugees and also saying that these refugees suffer from trauma due to the war and suggesting that they will not adapt to society.
I suspect that the Gulf States may also be wary of allowing a large number of politically vocal Arabs into their countries that might somehow influence a traditionally politically-passive society.
Fortunately, Kuwait, the Gulf trailblazer in terms of human rights (despite recent setbacks) has granted its 120,000 Syrian residents long-term residency permits, which means that they would not be asked to leave if their legal status expires.
The United Arab Emirates, whose capital is one of a few donors that has continuously exceeded the UN aid recommendations ratio to GDP, has funded an entire refugee camp in Jordan that shelters tens of thousands of Syrians. The Saudi and Qatari governments have also donated funds, food, shelter and clothing to Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. In total the Gulf States have given over $900m (£589m) to Syrian refugees according to ReliefWeb.
But an estimated nine million Syrian refugees have had to flee their homes since the uprising started in March 2011. Mercy Corps estimates Turkey has taken in 1.6m Syrian refugees while Lebanon has accepted 1.1m. Egypt, Jordan and Iraq have jointly resettled 130,000, 620,000 and 240,000 Syrian refugees respectively. The final tally of refugee intake for the six Arab Gulf States stands at a grand total of zero.
That said, since the beginning of the war many Syrians, most of whom were economic migrants have fled to the Gulf States, many holding Western passports but few qualifying as refugees under the 1951 UN convention. In addition to ethical reasons, taking refugees may also help tackle some of the criticism that these Gulf States have been attracting regarding the human rights situation in their respective countries.
The Syrians have been sympathetic to Arab refugees in the past. In 1948, Syria took in a significant number of Palestinian refugees displaced following the creation of Israel. As Israel occupied more Arab land in 1967 a second wave of Palestinians followed into Syria.
From 1975 onwards Syria accommodated Lebanese refugees who fled the civil war and in 2003 hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took refuge in Syria following the chaos of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The Gulf States often complain that the Arabic language is underused and that our culture is under threat due to the large number of foreign immigrants. Here is an opportunity to host a group of people who can help alleviate such concerns and are in need of refuge, fleeing a brutal war.
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?
Gulf States should take a leaf from the 19th century American poet Emma Lazarus’ poem, the New Colossus:
“Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free*/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore/ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”