Gulf States Response to Syrian Refugee Crisis – A Myth Debunked

It is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Since the Syrian civil war began, in 2011, more than 4 million refugees have left the country. For years, the bulk of the refugees from Syria have been settled in the surrounding states.  At the end of 2015, Turkey hosts more than 2.2 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon hosts roughly 1.2 million, Jordan hosts more than 630,000.

In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis reached the European Union. According to  the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) around one million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe till the end of 2015, travelling  across the Mediterranean Sea, three to four times more than in 2014. Half of them were Syrian nationals.

Confronted with the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the western countries failed to provide a coherent response. A huge and often sterile debate on how to address the crisis has developed. The debate is more often based on myths than facts. Repeated in the western media, many of the misconceptions about the refugee and migrant crisis have become part of mainstream political debates.

OSI took a look at one of the biggest myths about Syrian refugees, a myth perpetuated by prominent politician in Europe and United States, but also by media and NGOs.

The myth: Wealthy Persian Gulf countries refuse to take a single Syrian refugee

This is one of the most common myths about the Syrian refugee crisis. Six of the wealthiest Muslim countries, the members of the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), have been condemned  for „keeping their doors to refugees firmly shut”.

While US and European Union have been blamed for not doing more, „the wealthiest countries on the Arabian Peninsula, have taken no Syrian refugees in at all”. The legend is repeated all over from social media to the mainstream western media, from activists to politicians.

The myth seems to be based on two sources. When saying that „the Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees” western media usually refer to two organisations, Amnesty International and the Brookings Institution.

Indeed, Amnesty International (AI) noted that „the six Gulf countries – Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain – have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees”. The note was part of a short article, published by AI in December 2014, „Facts & Figures: Syria refugee crisis & international resettlement”. The article is based on no data, and although it talks about „six Gulf countries” it enumerates only five.  (

In September 2015, AI republished the information. About the same time, a former non-resident fellow in the Brookings Institution became very active on social media, constantly feeding graphics claiming that the Gulf countries have apparently taken zero Syrian refugees.

 Truth #1: There are millions of Syrians in Gulf countries, but they are not called “refugees” 

Obviously, it is ludicrous to assert that while there are 25 Syrian refugees in Kazakhstan and 30 in Mexico, there are none, not a single one, in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. But, as foolish as it seems, the myth was perpetuated by CNN, BBC or Washington Post.

And for that there is a logical explanation. Western media miscount the Syrian refugees because the primary data source, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, does not count the refugees within the Gulf States. These states are not signatories to the Refugee Convention, their refugee relocations are not handled by the UNHCR.

There are 2 million to 3 million Syrians in the Gulf countries, many of whom arrived since the war began, but they are not considered refugees and they are not part of the UNHCR statistics. They are classified as “Arab brothers and sisters in distress” instead of refugees covered by UN treaties. Even though, according to UNHCR officials, only in Saudi Arabia, there were 500,000 Syrian refugees in September 2015.

The government of Saudi Arabia has stated that, since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, it has hosted 2.5 million refugees and has given permanent residency to hundreds of thousands of Syrians. According to Saudi officials, the kingdom „was keen to not deal with them as refugees, or to put them in refugee camps, to preserve their dignity and safety, and gave them complete freedom of movement.” Saudi Arabia also says it has given Syrians access to work, free medical care and education. Over 100,000 Syrian students were being educated in Saudi schools.

The United Arab Emirates also defended its response to the Syrian refugees crisis. According to a statement issued by the UAE government in September 2015, „the UAE has made it one of its foreign policy priorities to address this issue in a sustainable and humane fashion together with its regional and international partners”. The UAE government said it has provided residency permits to more than 100,000 Syrians who have entered the country since 2011, and that more than 242,000 Syrian nationals currently live in the country.

Truth #2: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar have already donated more than $2.3 billion

The myth of the rich Muslim countries that have taken zero Syrian refugees is often paired with the idea that, although the Gulf state donated some money, the amount is small compared to the aid money handed over by western countries.

This is also a false claim. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are in the Top 10 countries giving aid to Syrian refugees. The four Gulf states have already given more than $2.3 billion – more than Germany, Canada, Japan, Australia, France and Italy combined.

The Gulf countries have donated to support the U.N. refugee agency’s efforts in countries neighbouring Syria. The UAE has funded refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq giving shelter to tens of thousands of Syrians, while Saudi Arabia and Qatar have donated funds, food, shelter and clothing to Syrians in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

The United Arab Emirates has provided more than 1.98 billion dirham ($540 million) in humanitarian aid and development assistance since 2012 in response to the Syrian crisis. UAE had established a refugee camp in Jordan and one in northern Iraq, according to UAE government officials. The UAE-funded camp in Jordan, known as Mrajeeb Al Fhood, houses more than 4,000 refugees. UAE government believes that it is in the best long-term interest of the refugees to be close to their homes so it will be easier for them to return when the conflict ends.

In September 2015, the Saudi Press Agency announced that Saudi Arabia has provided around $700 million to aid agencies in Syria and has set up clinics at refugee camps.