Gulf nations: yes to migrant labourers, no to Syrians?

Gulf nations: yes to migrant labourers, no to Syrians?
Comment: Leaders of the world's wealthiest nations fear unrest if they admit politically engaged refugees, writes Mohamed el-Meshad
5 min read
14 Sep, 2015
Countries such as Saudi Arabia are not known for their good treatment of foreigners [AFP]

In 1994, the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani wrote his most famous poem, When will they announce the death of the Arabs?

He passionately argued the state of social and cultural backwardness that plagued the Arab world as symptomatic of the diseased regimes that often preferred to maintain their grip on power rather than tend to the states of decay in their countries.

He cursed the state of never-ending warfare and the obstinate refusal to give basic human rights and dignity any priority in the face of petty politics, tribalism, patriarchy and personal gain.

Qabbani recounts 50 years of trying "to draw a land… called- figuratively - the land of the Arabs", but he concludes, "I have never seen the Arabs!"

Twenty-one years later - on the back page of an Egyptian newspaper - the title of his poem hangs solemnly above the heart-wrenching image of the corpse of three-year old Aylan Kurdi, laying face-down on a Turkish beach.

His family was trying to flee a war in Syria that has claimed more than 300,000 lives and continues to endanger millions more. The past few months have made it painfully clear that, with a few obvious exceptions, the passive and often negative position of many Arab states towards this crisis is both despicable and harmful.

Globally, it seems that the magnitude of the Syrian catastrophe was grossly underplayed ever since 2011, internally and externally.

Perhaps some members of the international community and regional powers such as the EU seem to have been moved - or pressured - into at least addressing the need for a more comprehensive and systematic solution to the Syrian refugee crisis - in which around 10 million Syrians have been displaced, at least four million externally.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker mentioned proposed plans to implement a minimum quota for asylum seekers on every country within the union.

While noting Europe's need to come up with viable solutions for its migration problem, he highlighted the role of the Commission in supporting "humanity and dignity".

     The collective Arab response to this situation has ranged from disappointing to perhaps even suspect

Meanwhile, the collective Arab response to this situation has ranged from disappointing to perhaps even suspect.

Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have collectively received nearly two million asylum seekers, while Turkey hosts another two million.

Egypt has accepted around 135,000 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, although nearly none were accepted this year after public opinion turned against them - with the help of the military leadership that saw the Syrian refugee phenomenon as a political liability.

Also, while the influx of refugees is sure to incur profound social and economic changes to a society, Syrians moving to the aforementioned Arab states do not burden the budgets of said countries as they are mostly either aided by international organisations such as the UNHCR, or they work and pay their way.

Residents of some Cairo suburbs will have noticed that between 2011 and 2013 there was a sudden and dramatic increase in the quality of shawarma sandwich restaurants -due to the massive influx of working Syrians to these areas.

To be fair, neither the economic, nor political situations in Egypt, Lebanon or Iraq seem to be conducive to providing safe haven for refugees.

Most European recipients of asylum seekers will afford their refugees many of the same welfare benefits it offers its citizens.

The European response to the crisis has not been unanimous and it certainly is not ideal.

However, the absence of a coordinated regional Arab response is comparatively jarring - especially since some of the GCC states, which enjoy some of the world's highest GDP per capita, have not accepted a single refugee this year (according to the UNHCR) and have treated Syrian applicants for normal visas as they do most other Arab visa applicants, extremely selectively.

Arguably, the comparison between the EU and the Arab League responses is not even valid since, being a member of the Arab League, Syria deserves to have this issue at least discussed on a regional level.

Article 28 of the 2004 Arab Charter on Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to seek political asylum in another country in order to escape persecution... Political refugees may not be extradited."

It is safe to say that many of the clauses in this charter are not exactly followed to the letter.

If there were any real will within the League to address these recurring refugee crises, they would have ratified and implemented the 1994 Arab Convention on Regulating Status of Refugees in the Arab Countries.

Unfortunately, since regional refugee crises stem from regional turbulence, they are dealt with as political bargaining chips, rather than as humanitarian cases. Thus no member state is willing to accept any absolute obligation towards refugees of any other state.

GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE and Bahrain already rely on extremely high rates of migrant labour, and so one cannot argue that these countries do not have the capacity or financial capability to accept some refugees.

     [Gulf leaders] fear a culture of political dissidence... may permeate their societies and somehow disturb the monarchical control of wealth

However, over the past three decades, they have taken a more political view.

Many fear that the culture of political dissidence that is prevalent in some Arab populations - not least among political refugees - may permeate their own societies and somehow disturb the monarchical control of wealth and society.

It may be argued that GCC governments have provided millions of dollars in aid for Syrian refugees and even in some cases offered temporary asylum.

However, since these same states have played vital roles in funding some of the rebel groups, aside from the Arab League obligation, these states have implicitly burdened themselves with a much more profound moral obligation towards the refugees.

Many individuals have provided for, or made grand proposals to provide for the refugees, such as Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris' unrealistic plan to buy an island to house the refugees and put them to work.

But this is one of those cases where the Arab League needs to be effective. Otherwise, it will be easy to make the case for a terminal end to an already vegetative "Arab land".

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focused on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book,
Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.