Gulf countries take in refugees and call them “guests”

Arab countries have faced backlash over their involvement in the current refugee crisis.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman – officially have not accepted a single refugee fleeing the war. To find out more about the GCC’s complicated relationship with foreigners, and whether of these countries’ involvement in the refugee crisis is warranted, we talked to Michael Humphrey, a Humanities and Sociology professor from the University of Sydney.

ResearchGate: What role are the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council playing in the current refugee crisis? 

Michael Humphrey: The main role of the GCC countries in the Syrian crisis is firstly to provide funding for humanitarian relief in the region and secondly to support opposition forces in Syria seeking the downfall of President Asad. A recent article on the New York Times has pointed out that the US relies heavily on Saudi funding to opposition forces in Syria. In addition, different GCC countries are reported to support Islamist opposition groups in Syria.  This is in contrast to the countries bordering Syria – including Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt – which accept around five million Syrian refugees.

RG: Could you provide background information on why GCC countries do not accept the legal concept of refugeehood?

Humphrey: The reason why GCC countries are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention is because their very restrictive citizenship laws are defined by kinship which limit who can reside there and who will be the beneficiaries of their oil wealth.  For example, to be eligible for citizenship you must be born (or be a descendant of people born) in the country before a certain date – Qatar (1930), UAE (1925), Saudi Arabia (1914). The provisions for acquiring citizenship are very limited and difficult. Palestinians have lived in GCC countries for generations as foreign workers, however very few have ever gained citizenship. The non-national population remain conditionally resident and therefore can be expelled if they transgress laws or are seen to cause problems.

RG: There has been a lot of criticism of the GCC for not taking in displaced Syrians since the crisis began. Is this assessment accurate?

Humphrey: The GCC countries have accepted Syrians from the conflict, however these have mainly been those connected to Syrians already working in the GCC.  The GCC countries hold that they have welcomed ‘their Syrian brothers’ and provided them with access to health care and education. However, they are essentially guests as the category of refugee does not exist because the GCC countries are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and therefore do not have any obligations to recognize refugee rights. As a consequence, it is very difficult to establish the number of Syrians in the GCC.  Sources including the UNHCR and GCC states indicate there are around 100,000 in the UAE and 500,000 in Saudi Arabia, however the increase in Syrian residents has largely been the result of reunions of Syrian families who already hold work permits in the Gulf. The GCC states claim they take the highest per capita levels of Syrians, however those they accept are not those directly displaced by war in different parts of Syria.

RG: Have GCC countries provided support for refugees in other ways? If so, how?

Humphrey: The UNHCR has noted that GCC countries have preferred to assume their humanitarian responsibilities through financial aid. The argument is that GCC countries could take more refugees relates to the composition of their societies – some 15 million foreign workers largely from South Asia on temporary work contracts. In Qatar, UAE, and Kuwait citizens are a tiny minority while in Saudi Arabia and Oman citizens represent about a quarter of the population. These temporary workers are regarded as more controllable and less of a security threat than those from Arab countries. The GCC countries have long regarded Arab workers as more of a security risk – hence many Palestinians were expelled at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991 and the GCC countries have regarded the Arab Spring as potentially contagious and intervened against any local protest, especially in Bahrain.

RG: GCC countries have also been criticized for exploiting migrant workers, who are often from unstable or repressive countries, and denying all but a small pool of individuals access to permanent residency. Why is this the case, and does this play a role in GCC countries' stance in the current refugee crisis?

Humphrey: As explained earlier, the GCC have a very restricted eligibility for citizenship. This creates a major cleavage between nationals and non-nationals, which also creates an ethno-class hierarchy of labor. Unskilled contract workers from South Asia recruited and employed by intermediaries are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because of the lack of any effective legal address. If they encounter problems with their employers and protest, they can be quickly dismissed and forced to leave the country. In addition to their structural vulnerability, they are now experiencing the consequences of a financial crisis in particular GCC countries brought about by low oil prices and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, huge war expenditure in a disastrous war in Yemen. In some cases, locals and non-local are not being paid for months and workers are protesting. In this context Saudi Arabia has sent back hundred thousands of foreign workers in the last year. Foreign labor has become more politicized in GCC countries, resulting in even greater reluctance to introduce a potentially much more volatile and politicized Arab workforce.

RG: How do you think the situation will develop?

Humphrey: If the Asad, Russian, Iranian alliance prevails in Syria – which at present appears likely – then the refugee crisis will not be resolved quickly because of the fear of future repression in Syria under Asad. As a consequence, the future of the five million or so refugees in neighboring countries will become a chronic one. In this case, GCC countries may well face further pressure to accept a larger share of those refugee populations.

Featured image courtesy of Trey Ratcliffe.