The Persian Gulf Arab States and the Regional Refugee Crisis
By S. Hesam Houryaband.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees have flooded the gates of Europe, escaping the worsening humanitarian crisis engulfing Syria and Iraq. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have been hard hit by the civil war in Syria and Iraq, as well as the threat posed by ISIS. To date, according to UNHCR, approximately 5 million Syrians have left the country seeking refuge in neighboring states, or making their way to Europe. Faced with the impending waves of refugees, several European nations have felt obligated to grant asylum to thousands of people. Yet, all of the rich Persian Gulf Arab states’ governments have been extremely quiet and mum about the whole affair. This is even more appalling given the fact that all of these countries are in one way or another involved in the ensuing civil war in Syria, and the worsening political situation in Iraq, ranging from political and financial support, to military and logistical help to warring parties.
There are several underlying factors for the lack of response from most of the Gulf Cooperation Council members, specifically Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. All of the below reasons give these countries an excuse for not volunteering to accept refugees.
Fragility of Domestic Sociopolitical Situation
Despite the outward appearance they portray, coupled with the lack of media coverage on their domestic affairs, all of these countries are wrought with very fragile sociopolitical and religious conditions. Saudi Arabia has had its hands full with the ongoing war in Yemen, where it is trying to quell the Shias and preventing them from taking over the country. At the same time, Saudi rulers are struggling with internal discontent among the country’s own Shia minority population, as well as fighting Sunni extremists and Al-Qaeda members.
Bahrain has still to return to normalcy after the country’s majority Shia population uprising against its Sunni minority rulers in 2011. The country has been beefing up internal security, as well as financial spending on military and police equipment from abroad. Also, sham trials of political activists are ongoing, with many in prison or under house arrest.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have for recent years been struggling with Al-Qaeda operatives, as well as Muslim Brotherhood members on their soils. Especially after the fall of the Morsi government in Egypt, some of the Muslim Brotherhood members tried to escape to the UAE and Qatar, where both governments kept a tight tab on them, and resolved to expel some. This is on top of the Iranian and Hezbollah operatives roaming all around in UAE.
It is evident that with the problems these countries face with regards to the fragility of their political and religious fabric of their respective societies, the slightest change in that balance could spell problems which could quickly turn out of control. Although most of the refugees from Syria and Iraq adhere to the Sunni sect of Islam, yet it does not mean their integration and interaction with local Sunni populations of these countries would be smooth. And none of these governments would be willing to take in other religious minorities, specifically Alawites (offshoot of Shi’ism) for fear of adding to their current minority predicament.
Population and Land Size
One readily available impediment and excuse for these governments is the total population size of each country with respect to total land size. The combined total land size of Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE is roughly 113,000 square kilometers, about the same as Bulgaria. And their combined total population is roughly 18 million, approximately the same as that of the Netherlands. With that in mind, these countries would not readily accept to house refugee families on their territories.
Xenophobia and Sense of Superiority
Although the local population of all of the above countries are of Arab decent and race, yet there is a sense of xenophobia and racism, as well as a false superiority complex amongst the Arab population of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf basin region, specifically with regards to the rest of the general Arab and non-Arab populations of the Middle Eastern and North African countries.
The Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf basin consider themselves true and pure Arabs. The Saudis regard themselves as the pious of the pious, boasting of being the custodians of the Islamic holy sites, and the prophet’s lineage. Also, the wealth and economic power that the Saudis, Qataris, Emiratis and the Bahrainis benefit from, have added to their false sense of superiority, treating foreigners and migrants in their midst as second class citizens.
All in all, although these nations have the economic and political power to aid the thousands of refugees in their region, yet out of political fear and greed, they choose to turn a blind eye to the plight of their fellow brethren. And although they have a hand in the worsening regional situation, yet they have done little to abate the humanitarian fallout of the conflict in Syria and Iraq. It is evident that as the conflicts in these two countries rages on, the humanitarian situation is yet to reach boiling point. So unless the majority of the Gulf Cooperation Council members do something to alleviate some of the problems they’ve helped create, history and their fellow Arabs will hold them responsible.