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Gulf states under attack for response to Syrian refugees

Ben Hubbard
A hand-written sign welcomes migrants arriving on trains from Hungary into the main station at Munich, Germany, on September 5.
Sean Gallup | Getty Images

The Arab nations of the Persian Gulf have some 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 only a surprisingly small number of refugees.

As the migration crisis overwhelms Europe and after images of a drowned Syrian toddler crystallized Syrian desperation, humanitarian groups 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 Syria by bankrolling rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

And wealthy Gulf citizens — with or without their governments' knowledge — have helped fund the rise of Syria's jihadists, according to American officials.

"Burden sharing has no meaning in the Gulf, and the Saudi, Emirati and Qatari approach has been to sign a check and let everyone else deal with it," said 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.' "

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 and elsewhere. While many expatriates are professionals who have built lucrative careers there, most are low-paid laborers who give up their rights to get jobs and can be deported with little notice.

This group now contains 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 that 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.

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"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 Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor 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, whom 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 Khalid al-Dakhil, a political science professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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

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Fueling the criticism is the tremendous wealth in the Gulf, a region filled with sprawling malls, gleaming skyscrapers and wide boulevards clogged with S.U.V.s. That opulence is clearly lacking in Syria's neighbors, where most of the conflict's more than four million refugees are.

Jordan, for example, has an annual per capita income of $11,000 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 $20,000.

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

Gulf countries have contributed to humanitarian aid. Saudi Arabia has given $18.4 million to the United Nations Syria response fund so far this year, while Kuwait has given more than $304 million, making it the world's third-largest donor. The United States has given the most, $1.1 billion, and has agreed to resettle about 1,500 Syrians.

Many Syrians, too, have criticized the Gulf for trumpeting its outrage while doing little that would compromise its high standard of living.

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"We know that the Gulf could take in Syrian refugees, but they have never responded," said Omar Hariri, a Syrian who had recently fled Turkey on an inflatable raft with his wife and 2-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," Mr. Hariri said.

This week, the Kuwaiti commentator Fahad Alshelaimi said in a TV interview that his country was too expensive for refugees, but appropriate for laborers.

"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 and barbed wire, directing a refugee to another door with the European Union flag.

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

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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.

One Syrian took aim at Gulf leaders. "We are hosting Syrian refugees, but only if they have Kuwaiti citizenship," the emir of Kuwait says in one cartoon. In another, the president of the United Arab Emirates says his country has received "many wealthy refugees" in Dubai.

Many in the Gulf have turned their ire to the United States and its Western allies, blaming them for not intervening forcefully against Mr. Assad in a way they believe could have ended the conflict and stopped the refugee flow.

This week, Nasser Al-Khalifa, a former Qatari diplomat, lashed out on Twitter, accusing Western officials of shedding "crocodile tears" over the plight of Syrians.

He said unnamed "other countries" had wanted to give antiaircraft weapons to the rebels to defend against air attacks on civilian areas, but had been blocked.

He also accused the Obama administration of not forcefully intervening in Syria out of fear that it would ruin the talks with Iran. "Now European and American officials facing their shortsighted policies must welcome more Syrian refugees," Mr. Khalifa wrote.

Michael Stephens, the head of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, said that the decision not to directly intervene 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."

- Maher Samaan contributed to this report