As the Syrian refugee crisis has garnered global attention in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have faced increasing criticism, from sources both domestic and international, for failing to open their borders to those displaced by the conflict.
On social media, political cartoons and hashtags shaming the Gulf states’ inaction have been widely shared and circulated, as have maps and human rights reports slamming Saudi Arabia and its neighbours for offering zero resettlement spaces to refugees.
Saudi Arabia has previously responded to such criticism by pointing to the estimated $700m in humanitarian aid it has given to support Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. Then, last week, a government official told the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) that Saudi Arabia has received nearly 2.5m Syrians since the conflict began, just not as refugees.
Though the numbers claimed by the unnamed official appear unsubstantiated at best and spurious at worst, it is likely that Saudi Arabia has in fact welcomed between 100,000 and 500,000 Syrians on visas.
This very unclear data is just another sign of the fundamental problem: Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states simply don’t “do” refugees.
No policy at all
The short answer as to why there are no official Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states is that none of the states has a domestic policy on refugees, and none are signatories to the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Better known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, it defines who refugees are, details refugee rights, lists obligations for states, and establishes state coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As non-signatories, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have no clear policy or mandate for accepting refugees or processing asylum seekers.
Instead, Syrians (or any others wishing to enter) must apply for a visa or work permit, which are reported to be costly and highly restricted in practice. Still, the visa/permit system is why Saudi Arabia can claim to be hosting somewhere between 500,000 and 2.5m Syrians, and Amnesty International can claim that Saudi Arabia has offered zero resettlement spots to Syrian refugees, and both can be right.
Saudi officials have argued that their visa-based model preserves the dignity of displaced Syrians by allowing them to have proper residency, freedom of movement, and rights to work, education, and health care. However, critics claim that the worker status denies the financial support, legal protections, and path to potential citizenship afforded to many recognized refugees, making them vulnerable to restrictions or deportation at any time.
The Gulf states’ reliance on work permits over refugee policies are largely attributed to demographics. These countries rely heavily on short-term transitory workers, who make up close to 90% of the residential population in smaller Gulf states like the UAE and Qatar. Work permits and visas are closely monitored, and workers must leave after the termination of their contract.
For these states, an influx of refugees with no work and no exit date would threaten their demographic stability. For Saudi Arabia, however, policies regarding Syrian refugees have less to do with demographic stability and more to do with security.
As the BBC’s Michael Stephens put it, once Saudi Arabia came to see the war in Syria as a “competition between Sunni Gulf Arab interests and Iranian aligned allies,” it started worrying that supporters of Bashar Al-Assad would seek to “infiltrate” the gulf.
In response, Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Qatar, made it increasingly difficult for Syrians to obtain or renew work permits, a policy that persists today.
Furthermore, the rise of Islamic State in the past year in mostly Sunni areas of Syria has only intensified Saudi security concerns regarding refugees. As Leonid Bershidsky writes in Bloomberg, “Many Sunni areas of Syria have served as a base for the Islamic State, which the Saudi and UAE air forces are helping to bomb. Islamic State is hostile to the Saudi regime, and it’s important to them whether the refugees are fleeing Islamic State or the bombings."costly and short-sighted.
Saudi Arabia’s security concerns are not unfounded, and indeed, many states in Europe and North America have similar reservations. However, it is specifically because states have such reservations that the UN Convention on Refugees is so crucial, as it holds states accountable to providing minimum protections during refugee crises.
As we have seen in Europe in recent weeks, the rights of asylum seekers can be extremely limited even in states that are convention signatories, but asylum procedures in accordance with international standards at least provide refugees with the right to seek asylum and protection from refoulement (return to the state of origin).
Furthermore, having a transparent refugee policy allowing for coordination with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) could actually relieve some of the security and demographic concerns mentioned above. By agreeing to certain resettlement numbers, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states could accommodate refugee populations that do not upset demographic balances, and the UNHCR could assist the states in pre-approving resettlement applications to prevent security risks.
Indeed, in 1993, Saudi Arabia co-ordinated with the UNHCR via a Memorandum of Understanding to accept approximately 35,000 Iraqi refugees, a model that could be replicated today to deal with the current crisis.
With great power …
Clearly many countries, including the US, Canada, and many European states, could do much more to assist in the resettlement of Syrian refugees. On the regional level however, with Turkey and Lebanon hosting over 1.9m and 1.1m refugees respectively, Gulf states in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, can do much more.
The Saudis are perfectly well-equipped to provide at least some measure of short term relief. As Bobby Ghosh has argued in Quartz, with Saudi Arabia’s expertise of hosting millions of visitors for the Hajj, combined with the Gulf states’ plethora of construction companies, they are in fact rather better equipped than many other states.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia reportedly has 100,000 empty air-conditioned tents intended for Hajj pilgrims that could be used to house refugees.
In the longer term, if Saudi leaders are serious about aiding “Arab brothers and sisters in distress” (as Syrians are reportedly termed in official Saudi documentation), they should clarify a refugee policy that enables them to do just that.
Saudi Arabia has positioned itself as a regional leader in the Gulf and in the general Middle East and North Africa as a whole. Now is the time to exercise that leadership in earnest.
Dr Julie Norman earned her PhD in International Relations from American University in Washington, DC, in 2009. She has held lectureships with McGill University (2012-2015) and Concordia University (2009-2012) in Montreal, Canada, and fellowship positions at Dartmouth College and MIT (2008-2009) in the United States.