Edited by Jeff Zeberlein
Whether it’s war-torn devastation, authoritarian regimes, or natural disasters, the Middle East has encountered crisis after crisis. According to UN data, of the nearly 26 million refugees displaced around the world, 43% of them originate from Arab countries. Europe hosts over 7 million refugees as of 2021. The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain—by contrast, have refused to accept any refugees.
The UN 1951 Convention legally defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” The Refugee Convention’s signatories are obligated to host and resettle people in their nations. None of the Gulf states have signed on to the 1951 Convention and enrolled themselves in this international refugee system.
The non-signatory states of the Gulf have no legal obligation to accept refugees in their futuristic, skyscraper-filled cities. The leaders of these states have little problem accepting migrants, as foreigners enter by the thousands for work in industries like agriculture, manufacturing, or hospitality. In fact, migrants account for 70% of the GCC’s employed population. Though economic migrants provide productivity, the Gulf States do not seem to hold the same view about those needing to escape war, persecution, and disasters.
Though some Gulf states, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have accepted Syrians at the height of the civil war, they are not granted refugee status but rather work or visitor visas. Granting visas promotes long-term instability as it requires job sponsorship and can be revoked randomly at any point in time. Gulf states aim to protect and preserve their elitist structure and provide a pathway to citizenship for only a select number of people, which do not include refugees. After settling in Saudi Arabia, many refugees who envisioned a better life now wish they had taken the risk and gone to Europe instead. Without the prospect of citizenship, refugee status, or permanent residence, long-term stability and economic prosperity for these migrants are weak no matter how long they live and work in the Gulf. Refugees in the GCC are not given access to public healthcare and education nor are they given government protections that could compensate for the lack of refugee status.
Considering the Gulf states’ extensive wealth, they have donated monetary aid to nations willing to accept refugees in an attempt to avoid backlash and accusations of turning a blind eye. According to Chatham House, during some of the worst points of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, Kuwait donated about $800 million, and the UAE about $364 million. In Saudi Arabia, the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center has partnered with the UNHCR since 2015 and donated about $53 million USD as of 2019, while Qatar has historically donated $373 million USD overall in assistance to various organizations.
Being able to migrate to the Gulf states would offer the opportunity for Middle Eastern refugees to have a much more seamless transition to their new lifestyle, as they share similar languages, cultures, and customs. Arab refugees settling in Europe struggle to adapt to foreign life. Refugees are pressured to assimilate and adapt to their new communities, and in doing so, endure a sense of loss to their self-identity. Creating a pathway of migration to the Gulf would promote a sense of protection over their culture and identity that may not be as easy to achieve when escaping to Europe.
Further, the journey to Europe, often taken by sea, can be dangerous. Refugees pay large sums of money to be overpacked onto small boats with unqualified crew. Thousands of refugees do not complete the journey and remain lost at sea. Allowing refugee migration into the Gulf would decrease the risks and dangers that refugees face on their journey to Europe. As Europe faces economic strife along the Mediterranean and at times lacks the capacity to rescue, opening up other paths and travel for people to embark on can provide humanitarian assistance throughout the journey itself.
The Gulf states claim that they do not have the means, institutions, and protections to accept refugees in their respective countries. Saudi Arabia insists that it does not have the political legislation set in place to navigate the acceptance of refugees and that Europe is more equipped to handle such a situation. If Iraq, following decades of war, can accept a quarter of a million refugees, the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf definitely have the means and capacity to do so.
Economically, the GCC nations are ranked amongst the wealthiest nations in the world, and maintain a total GDP of about US$2 trillion, says The World Bank. Regarding safety concerns, the GCC has been accepting migrants for years and has not voiced any security concerns as they have towards refugees. In a report conducted at the height of the Syrian Crisis, no terrorist attacks were orchestrated by refugees, and further data by the UNHCR continues to disprove any correlation between refugees and terrorism.
So what should be done? The solution is simple: rather than pouring millions into Europe to accept people of your faith and culture, the Gulf should practice what they preach through Islam and develop a policy to recognize and accept refugees. The Gulf states are no strangers to accepting migrants into their labor market, and their claim that it would destabilize the region and pose a security issue is statistically incorrect. Gulf states should also address the concerns about the quality of life and respect provided for refugees upon arrival. Integrating the GCC countries into the international refugee system and obtaining their support for these humanitarian crises is vital as Europe continues to find itself struggling economically and faced with an influx of refugees amidst every Middle Eastern crisis. Once integrated, economic prosperity, social mobility, equality, and a pathway to political stability should be set and monitored as goals by the UNHCR in all participating states to achieve prior to increasing their acceptance of refugees.