For desperate Syrian refugees, the Arab Gulf is not an option
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Saudi Arabia accepted precisely 8 Syrian refugee applications between 2011 and 2014

For desperate Syrian refugees, the Arab Gulf is not an option

Syrians treated as ‘third-class citizens’ by rich Gulf states, says expat in Germany who is seeking refuge for his family

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Migrants and refugees wait to be registered by police at the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, September 6, 2015. (AP/Santi Palacios)
Migrants and refugees wait to be registered by police at the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, September 6, 2015. (AP/Santi Palacios)

As thousands of Syrian refugees arrive at the doorstep of the European Union seeking open-ended political asylum, eyebrows are being raised over the unwillingness of the richest Arab states to shoulder some of the burden.

According to statistics published by Amnesty International, while Germany and Sweden each received roughly 50,000 asylum requests between 2011 and 2014 (a number similar to the rest of the EU combined), the number of Syrian applications to the richest Arab states comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the same time frame were laughable.

Statistics available on the website of the UN refugee agency show that Saudi Arabia received a grand total of 12 Syrian applications, of which four were recognized; Oman received four applications and recognized none; Kuwait received 12 and recognized seven; Bahrain received three and rejected them all; the United Arab Emirates received 23 applications, of which it recognized nine; and Qatar received seven applications, recognizing all but one.

“Looking at the GCC, the lack of any resettlement contribution is shocking,” read a 2014 report by Amnesty International titled “Left Out in the Cold: Syrian Refugees Abandoned by the International Community.”

“The six GCC countries have offered 0 resettlement places to Syrian refugees,” the report continued. “GCC countries — due to their geographical proximity, historical links with Syria and relative integration potential (due to common language and religion) — should make a significant contribution to the resettlement of Syrian refugees.”

Syria’s immediate neighbors Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have borne the brunt of the refugee influx, taking in 95 percent of the refugees, or some 4 million people. But as scores of refugees risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats, more and more observers are wondering what prevents wealthy Arab countries from welcoming more refugees, who could arrive more easily over land.

The inaction by Arab state actors was recently highlighted by the initiative of Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, who has offered to buy a Mediterranean island to house the Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, Kuwaiti political commentator Fahd al-Shelaimi offered a number of explanations for his country’s rejection of Syria’s refugees.

The cost of living in Kuwait and the Gulf, he reasoned in an interview with France 24 Arabic, is too expensive for Syrian refugees. “At the end of the day, you can’t accept people from a different environment, from a different place. They have emotional problems and trauma; you can’t just take them into your society.”

Those comments sparked outrage on Arab social media. “The Kuwaiti Fahd al-Shelaimi has forgotten that Kuwaitis and their leaders were once forced into refuge,” wrote one Facebook commentator, referring to the occupation of Kuwait by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1990. “Remember your past, and identify with those experiencing the same tragedy.”

Other talkbacks were less polite. “God curse the day when you discovered oil, you son of a bitch,” wrote Facebook commentator Khaled Ardah, “only to condescend to the people of Syria.”

A young boy holds a German flag in front of the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015 (AP/Frank Augstein)
A young boy holds a German flag in front of the railway station in Budapest, Hungary, September 3, 2015. (AP/Frank Augstein)

Abu Omar, a 49-year-old Syrian who emigrated to Germany in 1990 to evade military service under the dictatorial regime of Hafez Assad, has been trying to obtain asylum permits in Germany for 23 members of his extended family still living in Syria. For them, seeking refuge in the Arab Gulf was never an option, he said.

“The Gulf states treat us Syrians very, very poorly,” Abu Omar told The Times of Israel in a telephone conversation Sunday. “They don’t accept any refugees from Syria, and make life difficult for Syrians living there.”

Abu Omar’s Syrian sister-in-law had lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, with numerous family members still there. But when she applied for an entry visa to Saudi Arabia for her children and herself following the eruption of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, her request was denied.

“There is no law guaranteeing her a visa even if her family lives there,” Abu Omar said. “Syrians know 100% that Gulf states have no mercy on them… They are treated like third-class citizens. Indians get more respect in the Gulf than Syrians.”

If caught entering certain Gulf states illegally, Syrian citizens risk being deported back to Syria, he noted.

Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abdel Bari Atwan (photo credit: screen capture/YouTube)
Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abdel Bari Atwan (screen capture: YouTube)

Meanwhile, commenting on the iconic image of the three-year-old Syrian child Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach last week after drowning at sea en route to Europe, Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan accused the Arab League and its head, Nabil Elaraby, of conspiring against the Syrian people.

“We do not know if our Arab leaders, and especially those involved in this war by pouring oil on the fire… have seen the same images as we have, and how they have reacted to them. Did they shed tears like the Swedish [foreign] minister and many others among us? Do they even have tears to shed?”

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