DUBAI (Reuters) - When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, fellow Gulf states raced to shelter thousands of displaced Kuwaitis. Fast forward 25 years, and the homeless from Syria’s nearby war have found scant refuge in the Arab world’s richest states.
For critics of the Gulf’s affluent monarchies the contrast is profoundly unflattering, especially as several are backers of the combatants in Syria’s conflict, so must, they argue, shoulder a special responsibility for its consequences.
The wrenching image of a Syrian Kurdish refugee boy drowned on a Turkish beach has stoked debate in Europe. The official silence of Gulf Arab dynasties makes many Gulf citizens uneasy.
Paintings and cartoons of the young boy’s death crowded Arab social media, one depicting little Aylan Kurdi’s corpse laid out before an open grave with inert figures in traditional Gulf Arab cloaks and robes holding shovels.
Another showed the three-year old’s head slumped toward a tombstone marked “the Arab conscience”.
Sara Hashash of rights group Amnesty International called the Gulf Arab states’ behaviour “utterly shameful” and criticised Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for officially taking in zero refugees.
Turkey hosts almost 2 million, tiny Lebanon over a million and other restive and poor neighbours hundreds of thousands.
The Gulf states’ supporters say the numbers involved in Syria’s crisis are vastly larger than in Kuwait’s case. They point to the funding Gulf states have given to aid efforts in countries neighbouring Syria.
“Qatar is very small and already donating to refugees in Jordan, Turkey and northern Iraq. For logistical reasons Qatar cannot take in large numbers of refugees so instead Qatar chooses to support them financially,” said Abdullah Al-Athbah, editor in chief of Arab Newspaper.
But sympathy for Syria’s refugees is on the rise.
“It gives us a glimmer of hope after these recent drowning episodes to see broad campaigns of sympathy and solidarity with the issue of Syrian refugees by governments and peoples in some European countries,” wrote Zeid al-Zeid in a column for Kuwait’s Al-An newspaper on Sunday.
“But it makes us sorry and makes us wonder about the absence of any official response by Arab states ... we’re seeing a silence that’s scandalous.”
Sultan Sooud al Qassemi, a commentator in the United Arab Emirates, said he suspected Gulf States were wary of allowing in large numbers of politically vocal Arabs who might somehow influence a traditionally passive society. But he said Gulf states should open their doors to the refugees.
“The Gulf states often complain that the Arabic language is underused and that our culture is under threat due to the large number of foreign immigrants,” al Qassemi said.
“Here is an opportunity to host a group of people who can help alleviate such concerns and are in need of refuge, fleeing a brutal war.”
One Kuwaiti analyst, a regular fixture on pan-Arab news shows, raised hackles by saying in a television interview last week that refugees were better suited to poorer countries, failing to acknowledge the pledges of rich European countries like Germany to take in many thousands.
“Gulf countries clearly can and should do an awful lot more,” said Oxfam’s Syria country director Daniel Gorevan.
He called on Gulf states to “offer up work places, family unification schemes, essentially other legal avenues for them to get into Gulf countries and to be able to earn a living.”
In Arab states beyond the Gulf, there is immense sympathy for Syrians, but mixed views on the feasibility of helping.
“Tunisia is not able to welcome any refugees. We cannot accept Syrian refugees. After the revolution of 2011, Tunisia was the first to pay the price in terms of refugees. We have welcomed 1.2 million Libyans and that has cost us a lot,” Boujemaa Rmili, a spokesman for the Nidaa Tounes party which forms part of the governing coalition.
Migrants from Syria and Sahel countries into Algeria are estimated at 55,000, a source from Algeria’s red crescent told Reuters. “We have done what we can to offer them the basics including food, medicine, host centres, and we have allowed the Syrian kids to study in our schools,” the source said.
Gulf officials and those defending Gulf policies say the outrage overlooks the billions donated to Syrian refugee camps abroad and the delicate demographics of countries where expatriate workers already nearly outnumber locals.
“Qatar has provided over $2 billion in aid to the Syrian people in addition to the $106 million provided by Qatar’s semi-governmental institutions,” a Qatari diplomat said.
Others felt Gulf states should go further.
“(The Gulf) should accept Syrian refugees. Saudis and Syrians have always been brothers and sisters. Aside from the fact that our religion requires us to do so, helping refugees should be a natural reaction to what we have seen in the media,” 22-year old Saudi student Noor Almulla said.
Another Saudi student, Sara Khalid, 23, said Gulf Arab states “as their neighbours and fellow Muslims” had a greater responsibility to Syrian refugees than Europeans.
While none of the Gulf Arab states have signed onto key global agreements defining refugee status and imposing responsibilities on countries to grant asylum, the United Nations Refugee Agency praised the Gulf’s “hospitality.”
“The six GCC governments continue to respect international standards with regards to protecting refugees,” especially in not repatriating them back to their war-torn homes, Nabil Othman, the UNHCR’s representative in the Gulf told Reuters.
While authorities generally apply “humanitarian considerations” to those overstaying their visas, Othman said work or local sponsorship still mostly defined residency status.
Foreign workers outnumber locals five to one in the UAE and Qatar, where well-heeled European families and South Asian workers are omnipresent while long-robed citizens are rare. Refugee camps are, and will likely remain, non-existent.
“The numbers of foreigners are overwhelming. Here we have 90 percent - do you want to turn local people into minorities in their own countries? They already are, but to do it really?” said UAE Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist.
Over the decades, Saudi Arabia has become home to around half a million Syrians and the UAE to over 150,000, and the welcome extended to these and other expat professionals has helped fuel a boom in Gulf economies.
But since the unrest and wars unleashed by the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings in 2011, those governments have adopted a stricter line on accepting Palestinians, Syrians and Shi’ite Muslims - a sign of just how much the rich and stable Gulf ruled by absolute monarchs is wary of importing political contagions.
Iyad al-Baghdadi, a Palestinian blogger and activist deported from the UAE last year, has criticized the response of the Gulf states and laments the closed borders and repression.
Recalling time spent in a Norwegian refugee camp with Syrian refugee friends, he said on Twitter: “Something about this felt absolutely alien - three grown Arab Muslim men who were made homeless and are seeking refuge in... Scandinavia.”
“The Arab world is 5 million square miles. When my son was born, among the worst thoughts was how it has no space for him.”
Additional reporting by Tom Finn in Doha, Marwa al-Malik in Dubai and John Davison in Beirut, Tareq Amara in Tunis; Patrick Markey in Algiers; Editing by William Maclean, Janet McBride, Anna Willard