• Ibrahim Insights

The Gulf States Have No Excuses Left, They Need to Open Their Borders to Refugees

At the time of the Arab Spring, one Arab nation after another succumbed to violent transitions and civil wars. Millions of Arab civilians were forced to become refugees. According to a briefing on Syria from the UN OCHA office in Amman, there are over 4.8 million registered refugees due to the civil war. Elsewhere in the Arab world, ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Palestine and Yemen continue to contribute to the number of displaced civilians. In light of these conflicts, many countries have opened their borders to the asylum seekers. While nations like Jordan continue to open their doors, despite already being burdened by refugees, the Gulf States deny most refugees an asylum. On my trip to the Middle East, I was determined to find out why.


One justification I received as to why the Gulf States have yet welcomed refugees was the declining economy. While in the gulf state of Oman, the Omani Minister of Culture explained the recent economic downturn had made it “difficult” for the country to house refugees. His statement, however, was juxtaposed by the evident stability and wealth of Oman. Amidst the white marble and glass buildings that glistened, the clean paved roads, and the innumerable luxury vehicles driven casually along the highways, was a wealth not seen in most countries. Omanis and Gulf Arabs alike receive numerous public benefits that outdo what even Americans receive in terms of public services, despite the supposed economic downturn. In a conversation with two Omani citizens, it was surprising to hear that the government guaranteed education through university, along with free access to healthcare, childcare, and other public benefits. In the UAE, the citizens receive even more extensive benefits, including an annual income from the government. It is hard to believe that the region’s economic decline was hindering its ability to house refugees when the majority of gulf Arabs were living like the wealthiest 1% of Americans.


Another reason provided by various officials in the Gulf States was that the refugees would place their country’s security at risk. Two millennial Emirates at the conference with the Orient Research Centre blamed the violent crisis in Middle East on the civilian rebels. According to the Emirates, to open their borders would be allowing for the violence and chaos of refugees, or even organizations like ISIS, to infiltrate their community. These explanations were shocking- I expected the millennial Emirates to sympathize with the rebels, or at least the innocent refugees. Their responses were similar to the xenophobic anti-refugee rhetoric heard in America. It is known that the majority of refugees are non-violent and are in fact fleeing the violence caused by their regimes and terrorist organizations. It was disappointing to know that such response contradicted the hospitable nature of Pan-Arab culture.


Despite the arguments provided by the Gulf States, neighboring Jordan has managed to contradict their defense. Jordan, which is one of the poorer countries in the Middle East, has taken in the most refugees in the Arab region. According to a representative from the UN OCHA office in Jordan, there are over 1.4 million refugees living in the country. This amount represents 40% of Jordan’s population. Despite a weak economy, having the smallest amount of water per capita, and being in a high-risk location that is surrounded by conflicts on three borders, Jordan has maintained its willingness to take in refugees. To the Jordanian foreign minister, this was, “the right thing to do.”


I travelled to the Middle East determined to find an answer to why the Gulf States have denied refugees a chance for livelihood in a fellow Arab nation. What I received was reasonable but unjustified excuses. The Arabian Gulf is still floating on waves of wealth, while the refugees are drowning in their journeys to find asylum. Security may be an issue, but it is not an excuse to deny the majority of peaceful fellow Arabs refuge. One can’t help but look to Jordan, commend them for their efforts, and turn to the Gulf and chastise them for their seemingly selfish behavior.


Malak Elshafei is a member of the 2016 Ibrahim cohort.

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