Ten thousand Syrian refugees should be brought to the U.S., President Obama says, because that’s “who we are.” Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, have used similar language to explain America’s obligation. More than half of the nation’s state governors have objected. On Nov. 20, a bipartisan majority of the U.S. House of Representatives voted, in effect, to block the administration’s resettlement plan on security grounds.
While the debate rages in the U.S., and as Europe struggles to cope with refugees streaming north, too little attention has been directed to the region where the refugees could best start life anew: the Arabian Peninsula and its Arabic-speaking oil-rich countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Approximately 4.3 million Syrian civil-war refugees are now in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt, and registered with the United Nations. Vast camps attest to the refuge these countries have provided even though they struggle without the oil wealth of their neighbors.
The contrast is apparently becoming embarrassing. Saudi Arabia, through its Washington, D.C., embassy website, makes the astonishing claim that it has taken in 2.5 million Syrians since the civil war began in 2011. The U.A.E. ambassador insists that his country has admitted 100,000. Not all Syrian refugees are U.N.-registered, but if those claims were true, U.N. officials would publicly thank Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. for their help in this humanitarian crisis. That hasn’t happened.
“The Arab world’s wealthiest nations are doing next to nothing for Syria’s refugees,” the Washington Post reported in early September. Around that time Michael Ignatieff, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote in the New York Times: “How many Syrian refugees have the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia taken in? Zero. Many of them have been funneling arms into Syria for years, and what have they done to give new homes to the four million people trying to flee? Nothing.”
In the West, some of the opposition to accepting the refugees has been racist. But it isn’t bigoted to question the wisdom of trying to incorporate hundreds of thousands—and perhaps several million—refugees in the West when a more humane alternative exists.
Life in Western countries for Syrian refugees is hard. Educated and skilled individuals—engineers and physicians, for instance—often are unable to practice their professions because their licenses generally aren’t recognized. Unfamiliar languages, religions and customs make assimilation difficult. In European nations like France and Belgium, aggrieved Arab underclasses already exist even though the immigrants came under better conditions than those driving today’s destitute, desperate refugees.
Officials in Arabian Peninsula countries don’t want to risk the political instability and other problems that could result from admitting large numbers of the refugees. Instead, political instability is being exported to the European Union, where the future of the EU is uncertain and the illiberal, anti-immigrant right is on the rise.
Most of the Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, as are the leaders in most Arabian Peninsula countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. Religious and ethnic ties give these nations a special duty to provide shelter.
The U.S. and its Western allies should start practicing a kindhearted, hardheaded diplomacy. President Obama and European leaders could urgently bring pressure—perhaps including an emergency international conference—to demand that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the U.A.E. do the right thing for the Syrian refugees. If necessary, diplomatic and economic levers could be used to shame these countries into assuming their responsibilities.
The West will always accept refugees from around the world, but when Syrian refugees have a better chance of thriving in wealthy, Arabic-speaking fellow Muslim countries, that option ought to be vigorously pursued.