How Arab Gulf Nations Can Help Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, to the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PETROS GIANNAKOURIS
Syrian refugees arrive aboard a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, to the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/PETROS GIANNAKOURIS

Syria’s refugee crisis has overwhelmed the world’s response — and the gripping images from the shores of Turkey to Hungary’s southern border have stirred our collective conscience.

Nobody’s done enough. This is clear from the belated and divided responses of the United States and Europe, and the fact that the 2015 humanitarian appeal by the United Nations remains unfunded.

Arab Gulf nations, among the wealthiest countries in the world, have been singled out for special criticism. As non-signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, none has accepted a single refugee. One Syrian refugee speaking from Greece recently complained, Gulf nations “have helped the rebels, not the refugees.”

Gulf nations are not alone in having significant room for improvement on this front. But if they can act quickly — bridging funding gaps, better coordinating with the international community, and providing protections for Syrians in their midst — Gulf nations have an opportunity to exert leadership on an issue its own people care about and demonstrate the heightened U.S.-Gulf cooperation both sides seek in the post-Iran-deal Middle East.


Of course, as Gulf nations have been quick to point out, the sum of their efforts to date is far more than the figure of zero refugees might suggest. According to their governments, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are combined hosts of at least 740,000 Syrians, 200,000 of whom have joined since the conflict began. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait together claim to have given nearly $4 billion in humanitarian aid to Syrians since the conflict began.

Experts, however, raise a few issues with these self-reported numbers: First, the absence of refugee status means that Syrians in the Gulf are not extended rights and protections enumerated for refugees under international law, such as protections against being returned to Syria, access to education, and access to social security and public assistance. Second, because much of the aid is managed directly by the donor countries, it does not benefit from the reach and expertise of the UN and its bodies.

Ideally, for reasons of both principle and international standing, Gulf nations should accept Syrian refugees. Some in these nations have argued that their unique circumstances — huge expatriate populations, high bars to citizenship, exceptional resources for those who qualify — make this impossible. But less wealthy Arab nations such Jordan and Lebanon, despite their own demographic and economic challenges, have welcomed millions of Syrians. Gulf nations also understandably point to the small numbers accepted by comparably wealthy countries with established refugee laws and liberal residency and naturalization traditions — one more argument for developed nations to lead by example.

So, what is to be done?

First, all major stakeholders will need to offer more — hosting refugees, providing financial support, or both. That includes Gulf nations and the United States. But it also includes China, which has given next to nothing. Chinese President Xi’s visit to Washington represented a missed opportunity for China to showcase its leadership on the global stage through a meaningful contribution to the UN humanitarian appeal.


Second, Gulf states should give better. This is the worst humanitarian disaster in several decades. Its scale far outstrips existing capabilities. But the UN and its bodies remain the best suited to manage the response. However, much of the Gulf’s assistance still travels through its own channels. When it does, Gulf donors should continue to increase public reporting on their activities and enhance coordination with the international community’s efforts.

But Gulf nations should also channel a larger share of their generosity through international agencies. This will increase the likelihood that their money efficiently reaches those in greatest need. It will decrease the likelihood of setbacks like the World Food Programme’s recent decision to end food rations for 229,000 Syrians in Jordan due to a lack of funds. It can also mitigate the challenges of uneven relations between donors and frontline states.

Additionally, if Gulf states won’t accept Syrians as refugees, they should work to ease restrictions on those Syrians that do arrive on their shores. Steps like those taken by Saudi Arabia to allow Syrian children free access to primary education should be encouraged and expanded. Special exemptions should be extended to Syrians to protect them from deportations.

The refugee crisis makes painfully clear the continued cost of the absence of a global consensus on how to end the Syrian civil war. A top UN official on Syria recently predicted that one million more Syrians will flee their homes by the end of this year.

This is a moment of opportunity to do better in caring for them. The world cheered as Germany pledged to accept tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, and the UK and France soon followed suit. Now, Gulf nations should work in partnership with the United States to bridge gaps in the world’s response. For example, one could envision Gulf countries’ pledge to meet three-quarters of the UN’s outstanding 2015 humanitarian appeal alongside a U.S. announcement of additional assistance and a joint effort to sustainably chart the humanitarian path ahead. Rising to meet this regional challenge together would powerfully demonstrate the closer regional cooperation that U.S. and Gulf leaders have sought at Camp David and in Washington.

Countries actively supporting combatants in the Syrian civil war have a special responsibility to care for those the war displaces. Nobody should have a free pass — least of all Iran and Russia, which appears to be doubling down on arming, and championing the regime whose barrel bombs have forced so many Syrians to flee. Both appear to have done next to nothing to welcome or care for Syrian refugees.


There’s plenty of blame to go around. The world’s renewed sense of urgency represents a moment of opportunity to do more. Countries should seize it together.

Daniel Benaim is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. Muath Al Wari is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.