Rich Arab kingdoms bristle at criticism of not doing more

Migrants breaking through a police cordon in Gevgelija in Macedonia. As the migration crisis overwhelms Europe, critics are accusing the Arab world's richest nations of not doing enough to help out.
Migrants breaking through a police cordon in Gevgelija in Macedonia. As the migration crisis overwhelms Europe, critics are accusing the Arab world's richest nations of not doing enough to help out.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

BEIRUT • The Arab kingdoms and sheikhdoms of the Gulf have some of the world's highest per capita incomes. Their leaders speak passionately about the plight of Syrians, and their state-funded news media cover the Syrian civil war without cease.

Yet as millions of Syrian refugees languish elsewhere in the Middle East and many have risked their lives to reach Europe or died along the way, Gulf nations have agreed to resettle a number of refugees that many find surprisingly low.

As the migration crisis overwhelms Europe and after the well-publicised drowning of a Syrian toddler crystallised Syrian desperation, humanitarian organisations are increasingly accusing the Arab world's richest nations of not doing enough to help out.

Accenting that criticism are the deep but shadowy roles countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia have played in bankrolling the war in Syria through their support for rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. And Gulf citizens - with or without their governments' knowledge - have funded the rise of Syria's terrorists, according to US officials.

"Burden-sharing has no meaning in the Gulf, and the Saudi, Emirati and Qatari approach has been to sign a cheque and let everyone else deal with it," said Ms Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch for its Middle East and North Africa division. "Now everyone else is saying, 'That's not fair.'"

ASK WHO CREATED CRISIS

Why is it that there are just questions about the position of the Gulf, but not about who is behind the crisis, who created the crisis?

DR KHALID AL-DAKHIL, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

There are, in fact, hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the Gulf, where vast oil wealth and relatively small citizen populations have made the countries prime destinations for workers from poorer Arab countries. Most are lowly paid labourers.

This group now includes many Syrians who have fled the war, although they get none of the protections or financial support that come with legal refugee or asylum status, nor a path to future citizenship - benefits Gulf countries do not grant.

Gulf officials and commentators reject the criticism, however, saying their countries have generously funded humanitarian aid and that giving Syrians the ability to work is better than leaving them with nothing to do in economically struggling countries and squalid refugee camps.

"If it wasn't for the Gulf states, you would expect these millions to be in a much more tragic state than they are," said Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science don in the United Arab Emirates, which he said has taken in more than 160,000 Syrians in the last three years. "This finger-pointing at the Gulf that they are not doing anything, it is just not true."

Others bristle at criticism from the United States and the West, which they accuse of letting the conflict fester for more than four years while Mr Assad's forces deployed chemical weapons and bombed civilian areas, causing so many people to flee. "Why is it that there are just questions about the position of the Gulf, but not about who is behind the crisis, who created the crisis?" asked Dr Khalid al-Dakhil, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh.

He agreed that the Gulf could do more, but directed the blame towards Iran and Russia, which have heavily backed Mr Assad and his military while also refusing to resettle Syrian refugees.

Fuelling much of the criticism is the tremendous wealth in the Gulf, a region filled with sprawling malls, gleaming skyscrapers and wide boulevards clogged with sport utility vehicles. That opulence is clearly lacking in Syria's neighbours, where most of the conflict's more than four million refugees are.

Jordan, for example, has an annual per capita income of US$11,000 (S$15,500) and has received 630,000 refugees. Lebanon is richer, but has more than 1.2 million Syrians, making them about one-quarter of the population. Turkey has the most, about two million, with a per capita income of US$20,000.

Those average incomes are a fraction of the figures for Qatar (US$143,000), Kuwait (US$71,000) and Saudi Arabia (US$52,000), according to the International Monetary Fund.

To be sure, Gulf countries have funded humanitarian aid. Saudi Arabia has donated US$18.4 million to the United Nations Syria response fund so far this year, while Kuwait has given more than US$304 million.

Saudi Arabia has sheltered 500,000 Syrian refugees since Syria collapsed into civil war in 2011, Al Hayat newspaper reported recently. All of the refugees are provided with valid resident permits to get the rights for education, labour and health services, a Saudi official said.

But critics, including many Sy-rians, say the rich Arab kingdoms do not do enough and tend to avoid measures that would compromise their high standard of living.

In a recent TV interview, Kuwaiti commentator Fahad Alshelaimi noted that his country was too expensive for refugees, but appropriate for labourers. "You can't welcome people from another environment and another place who have psychological or nervous system problems or trauma and enter them into societies," he said.

Cartoonists have lampooned such ideas. One drew a man in traditional Gulf dress behind a door surrounded by barbed wire and pointing a refugee to another door bearing the flag of the European Union.

"Open the door to them now!" the man yells.

Another cartoon shows a Gulf sheikh shaking his finger at a boat full of refugees while flashing a thumbs-up to a rebel fighter in a burning Syria.

"We know that the Gulf could take in Syrian refugees, but they have never responded," said Mr Omar Hariri, a Syrian who had recently fled Turkey on an inflatable raft with his wife and two-year-old daughter. Speaking by phone from Athens, he said he saw hope in Europe, not in the Gulf. "They have helped the rebels, not the refugees," he said.

Responding to accusations of shirking by the West, former Qatari diplomat Nasser al-Khalifa accused the Obama administration of not forcefully intervening in Syria out of fear that it would ruin the rapprochement with Iran. "Now European and American officials facing their short-sighted policies must welcome more Syrian refugees," said Mr Khalifa.

Mr Michael Stephens, head of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, said the decision by the United States not to directly intervene against Mr Assad had left many in the Gulf unsure of how to respond.

"The Gulf Arabs are used to a paradigm in which the West is continuously stepping in to solve the problem, and this time it hasn't," Mr Stephens said. "This has left many people looking at the shattered vase on the floor and pointing fingers."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 13, 2015, with the headline 'Rich Arab kingdoms bristle at criticism of not doing more'. Print Edition | Subscribe