Hey, Saudi Arabia: Here’s what you can do to help the Syrian refugees

Which way to Riyadh?
Which way to Riyadh?
Image: Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Hands are wringing all across Europe as the flood of refugees from war-ravaged Syria shows no sign of abating. In country after country, immigration policies—as well as infrastructure—have come under scrutiny, and been found wanting. In just the latest outrage, some European leaders have suggested they’d be willing to take Christian refugees, but not Muslims. The criticism directed at governments that are unable or unwilling to do more to help these desperate people is warranted, and should be kept up.

But the same scrutiny should be brought to bear on the policies of governments in the Arabian Peninsula, which have done much less than the nations of Europe to provide shelter to the Syrians. This has, at last, begun to happen. An Amnesty International statement points a damning finger at Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which have offered “zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.”

Shame on them all.

The Saudi, Qatari and Emirati governments know full well that the Muslim states that are taking in Syrians are already overwhelmed by the numbers. According to Amnesty International, Turkey alone has 1.6 million—and it, at least, is economically stable. The same can hardly be said for Lebanon (1.1 million refugees), Jordan (620,000), Iraq (225,000) or Egypt (140,000). And these are the refugees who have registered; it is hard to know how many others have crossed into these countries, but have not been counted.

The oil-rich Gulf Arab states might argue that they are giving all these countries financial aid, to help them cope with the refugee crisis. This is not enough. Money cannot paper over the tremendous social and political strains on the smaller countries: the refugee numbers are equal to a quarter of Lebanon’s population, for instance. Nor can cash make up for the huge drain on natural resources. Jordan’s water supply, which has always been meager, cannot cope with so many more parched mouths.

The Gulf states must do more. The most sensible course would be to route large numbers of the refugees in Jordan into Saudi Arabia, through their long common border. (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also share borders with Iraq, but given the violence in that country, safe routes may be hard to come by.) The job of sheltering them can then be divided equitably between the oil-rich states. Refugees from Egypt and Lebanon can be shipped to ports along the Arabian Peninsula.

The region has the capacity to quickly build housing for the refugees. The giant construction companies that have built the gleaming towers of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh should be contracted to create shelters for the influx. Saudi Arabia has plenty of expertise at managing large numbers of arrivals: It receives an annual surge of millions of Hajj pilgrims to Mecca. There’s no reason all this knowhow can’t be put to humanitarian use.

Europe can do more for the Syrians. But Saudi Arabia and its wealthy satellites must—or must be made to—shoulder much more of the burden.