The Syrian civil war is now five years old, spreading deep economic and humanitarian costs around the world. The arrival of more than one million refugees and migrants in Europe is leading to tensions that could bring an end to internal mobility in the European Union. Canada’s response to the Syrian crisis also became a major issue in the last election, and Ottawa has pressed ahead with efforts to bring tens of thousands of refugees here. Indeed, there has been a nearly worldwide effort to provide relief and hosting for Syrian refugees and migrants.
Surprisingly, though, wealthy Arab countries have not stepped up to this challenge. Although these countries have given large amounts of money to help refugees, they have not been willing to let them cross their borders. The Syrian refugees are Muslims and Arabs, like the citizens of the Persian Gulf states, which ought to make cultural integration easier. In addition, given the Gulf countries’ relative proximity to the conflict zone, their historic ties with Syria and their huge financial resources, resettling refugees would seem natural. The fact that they are not doing so has opened them to harsh criticism.
Why are they turning their backs on so many desperate people? The roots of this stance lie in a combination of cultural and economic constraints that govern how the oil-producing Arab states deal with internal challenges. Western countries looking to these states to step up and take on more of the refugee burden need to understand why it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
A big reason for Gulf states refusing to take in refugees is the fact that most of them have small domestic populations and are already hosting millions of foreign workers under temporary visas. This often makes native citizens minorities. For instance, more than 85 per cent of Qatar’s population consists of foreign workers. To sustain their citizens’ rights to benefit from oil wealth, these countries hardly ever give permanent residency to immigrant labourers. This can lead to a volatile situation when large, unassimilated working-age people face permanent poverty amid the great wealth of a host country to which they have acquired no loyalty through citizenship. As a result, to protect their citizens from further demographic imbalance, these countries are not willing to absorb new foreigners.
Another concern is the fear that the influx of foreigners may dilute their culture and threaten their identity. While Syrians lived in a secular and more open country, the Gulf states’ citizens live in much more conservative, closed and extremely religious environment. As a result, their governments fear that the arrival of Syrians will influence their identity and hurt their societies’ values and character.
The possibility of terrorism and security threats also loom over the question of welcoming Syrian refugees. There is a fear that militant or terrorist groups could penetrate Gulf states by hiding among the refugees. These oil-rich Arab countries have played a role in prolonging and exacerbating the Syrian crisis by contributing financial resources to the rebellions against the ruling government in Syria. In a world of complex and ever-shifting divisions of loyalties, Arab countries fear that Syrian refugees may form an internal extremist opposition, threatening stability and security in their countries. Jordan experienced a similar situation in 1971 during “Black September,” when conflict arose between Palestinians who had originally arrived as refugees in 1967 and Jordanian armed forces, leading to intense fighting and many causalities.
Finally, these countries blame the West for mistakes they have made in their policies regarding Syria. They believe that Western countries bear much of the blame for what is happening, and they should be the ones to bear the negative consequences. This way, they will also be more pressured to find solutions and resolve the conflicts and crisis in Syria.
The world has watched in horror as the Syrian civil war has dragged on for half a decade. The Arab states’ unwillingness to take in refugees has attracted criticism in the West. Its roots lie in the complex demographic, cultural and economic constraints facing these countries, which are not going to change in the foreseeable future.
Elmira Aliakbari is director of research and Ross McKitrick is research chairman of energy, ecology and prosperity at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.