“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” President Obama stated these famous words on August 20th, 2012, over three years ago. But the equation remains lopsided. And when things haven’t been able to add up at home, Syrians have chosen to flee their country by the millions, trekking across thousands of miles to reach Europe or even the United States to seek asylum.
Within the Middle East itself, refugees have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, countries which are (mostly) small, economically disadvantaged, and struggling with internal political instability and the constant threat of terrorism. Even Syrians who have been able to reach Europe through transit countries have faced horrific conditions, little economic opportunity and lukewarm welcomes.
Meanwhile, the situation in Syria has been escalating, with Russian military now conducting air strikes which have not only been killing civilians but have hampered the United States’ and its allies’ mission to both depose Assad and target ISIS. The United States has many policy challenges to face in Syria, but if it wants to bring permanent stability to the region, it must start by addressing the refugee crisis and securing the safety of the citizens who will someday return home to rebuild their nation. From so far away, the only way the US can achieve that is by securing the help of its regional partners, specifically the GCC.
The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) is one of the most economically advantaged set of nations within the Middle East. The GDP per capita of the GCC nations in question (all except Oman and Bahrain) is incredibly high in comparison to the nations to which the refugees have fled. Additionally, the ratings of the GCC nations on the Global Terrorism Index in comparison to the other five nations show how most of the Gulf Nations have been able to maintain stability even with the threat of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.
With such large GDPs, high rates of stability, geographic proximity, and cultural alignment, it seems much more logical that refugees would choose to escape to the Gulf nations. However, in total, the Gulf countries have taken in exactly zero refugees, while Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey have all taken in close to four million refugees combined.
The Gulf nations have claimed this to be a technicality; the GCC is not a signatory to the 1951 International Convention on Refugee Rights, and therefore do not have an asylum seeking process in place. Saudi Arabia claims that it has taken over two million Syrian migrants on work permits, but this number cannot be confirmed by any external parties or institutions. No other nations have made any such statements regarding how many Syrian migrants they have accepted, but estimates still remain at zero.
The Syrian Civil War is an issue that is causing widespread regional instability. The deadly combination of ISIS, Assad, and close to six million both internally and externally displaced citizens along with Russia’s increasing involvement in the military conflict only emphasizes the importance that this issue holds in terms of regional security. The Gulf countries do not seem to be blatantly unaware of the issue. Records show that every nation has invested both private and public money aiding the cause against the Assad regime. Saudi Arabian foreign minister Adel Al-Jubair warned that “There is no future for Assad in Syria.” Additionally, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all contributed to the UNHCR to fund the relief efforts for refugees. Kuwait is the second highest donor to the UNHCR, with a contribution of $102 million. However, much larger countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar have all donated less than $3 million dollars, while the UNHCR has requested close to $4 billion.
If the welfare of the Syrian people is truly as important to the Gulf countries as they claim, they should be taking more action, first by donating greater amounts to provide basic needs to refugees who are flooding across the Middle East and Europe. Saudi Arabia was able to spend millions to redecorate the Four Seasons in which the King stayed and hire over 600 luxury cars for his entourage during his visit to President Obama, and the Saudi crown prince just forked over $500 million for an Italian Villa. These levels of spending have not even been suggested as options for the Syrian refugees fleeing their war torn nation. The Saudi Arabian government received extensive criticism on Twitter for providing expansive air conditioned tents for pilgrims on the Hajj, while not even providing minimal amounts of support for refugees. The extravagance which countries like Saudi Arabia displays indicates the financial power of these nations, and the true capability they have to stop the conflict. either militarily or economically, or at the very least, provide humanitarian assistance
Secondly, these nations must put in place a process for refugees to seek asylum or otherwise loosen restrictions for work permit visas. Syrians are widely regarded as some of the best educated in the Middle East, and their skilled work force would help diversify the economies of the Gulf countries, which has been a common economic goal for all six nations. Qatar and the UAE are well known for having large migrant populations, especially from India. These religion and language barriers often cause conflict within the work forces.
Syrians would not have this issue, and would be able to assimilate into Gulf society much more quickly than that of Turkey, Egypt, or European nations. Not only would they be able to assimilate, their pay and opportunities would be much better. Syrians moving to the Gulf countries will experience, on average, much better economic conditions that those who move to Europe. Syrian professionals, such as doctors, would be able to practice medicine in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, but in Europe, will be employed as Uber drivers or restaurant workers. Staying closer to their homeland also means that the journey is much less dangerous; it would prevent the rampant human trafficking that has sprung up through the Mediterranean border nations and will allow Syrians to return home once the conflict in Syria is eventually resolved.
Eventually, the Middle East must maintain stability without intervention from outside nations. For 14 years the United States has claimed that its goal is to promote the self-sufficiency and independence of the Middle East. The Gulf Nations are economically powerful and have maintained political stability even in the face of constant threats and nations like Saudi Arabia strive to become regional leaders. Although Saudi Arabia has stated that it may consider militarizing to prevent conflict, encouraging more military conflict will only prevent future cooperation and lead to further destruction within Syria. Action needs to be taken from the ground up, which begins by addressing the refugee crisis. It is time for the United States to take its economic partnership with the GCC to the next level, and push its allies not to simply look at things in the militaristic short term, but from a humanitarian long term perspective as well. The GCC has been sitting by the side of the US’s long-crossed red line; it’s time to rebalance the equation.