The Arab kingdoms and sheikhdoms of the Persian 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-publicized drowning of a Syrian toddler crystallized Syrian desperation, humanitarian organizations 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 to the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
And Gulf citizens — with or without their governments’ knowledge — have funded the rise of Syria’s jihadists, according to U.S. 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 Persian Gulf, where vast oil wealth and relatively small citizen populations have made the countries prime destinations for workers from poorer Arab countries and elsewhere. Although 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 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 that 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.
“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 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 agreed that the Gulf could do more but directed the blame toward Iran and Russia, which have heavily backed Assad and his military while also refusing to resettle Syrian refugees.
Fueling much of the criticism is the tremendous wealth in the Gulf, a region filled with sprawling malls, gleaming skyscrapers and wide boulevards clogged with SUVs. That opulence is clearly lacking in Syria’s neighbors, where most of the conflict’s more than 4 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 2 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 funded humanitarian aid. Saudi Arabia has donated $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.
“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,” Hariri said.
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.