To be a Refugee in Saudi or the Gulf

Senior-analyst-Jamal-KhashoggiThe following is a translation of an Arabic article written by Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and published in September 12, 2015 on Al Hayat’s website. This article came as a response to the international media and rights organizations scrutiny of Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf countries for their refusal to accept Syrian refugees. I’ve chosen to translate this particular article because it displays how propaganda and media spin work in Saudi Arabia. According to Khashoggi, poor Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries don’t have the resources or economic power to handle even those who reside there, let alone accept a “flood” of Syrian refugees. Sadly, even supposedly intelligent people in Saudi Arabia fall for this type of rhetoric and against all evidence to the contrary, they believe Saudi Arabia is hosting 0.5-2 million Syrian refugees and is doing more than enough to help them.


“Why doesn’t the Kingdom and Gulf countries receive Syrian refugees instead of having them die in the sea?” Some of us ask this in a naive manner, whereas others pose this question with malice to change the subject and throw the circle of guilt far away from the regime that pushed its people to choose either dying in the sea or not live in their home country.

From the beginning of the Syrian tragedy the Kingdom has been receiving Syrians. An official I spoke with estimates them to be around half a million, but they were not registered as refugees. The Kingdom is not a bordering country with Syria, and they didn’t come as refugees. Rather, they came with visitor visas throughout the crisis, and the Kingdom didn’t feel fed up with them, ask them to leave, or arrest anyone carrying an expired visa (as a bordering country that’s supposed to be a sister one to Syria has done). Some [Syrians] have found good opportunities for work, and others didn’t. The government has allowed them to send their children to public schools. But this doesn’t mean they’re happy. I have a Syrian friend whose small apartment in Jeddah has doubled in inhabitants, and he has nothing but patience.

The Kingdom can receive more of them, as some European countries and rights organizations have requested, with simplicity or malice. But they don’t want them to come [to the Kingdom] as refugees. There’s no benefit in the Kingdom or other Gulf countries constructing more camps, because Syrians are fed up with camp life and want to live. If we don’t return their country to them, they will remain nomads searching for a country to secure them so they can build their futures in it. The Kingdom and Gulf countries can’t make this option available to them.

I know another Syrian living in the Kingdom and intending to migrate by any means possible to Europe. He hears of his cousin who got an opportunity to work, and before long became Swedish, the same as thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis, and others from among the miserable Arabs and Muslims whose countries have become fed up with them as they blunder between failure, war, and extremist liberalism, religiosity, and sectarianism.

We in Saudi don’t grant citizenship easily, and this is the same for most Gulf countries. The reason is not racism or a feeling of superiority. A country like Saudi, its citizens are from all the races that shape the rainbow of migrants awaiting at European gates. The reason is solely economic. Our state is the same as the state of European countries that don’t want foreign migrants, such as Hungary and Greece, because their economies can’t take them. We’re not a great economic power like Germany, which can – even needs – to take up more migrants but abstains because it wants to be selective with them and not receive them as a torrential flood.

We’re from the first group [i.e., Hungary and Greece], and if our brotherhood with Syrians has overcome us to open our doors as much as we can, our economy can’t withstand more refugees turning into permanent residents. Our market is saturated with foreign workers, most of which we don’t even need. This has reflected negatively on our society and economy. We think reluctantly about how to solve this accumulated problem, we get confronted with its numbers and the reality of unemployment among our own citizens every time we hold a conference on “Foreign Workers in Gulf Countries, Current Reality and Future” (a title given to a study published last week in Al Jazeera by Dr. Jassim Husain). Anyone who read it must have felt worried and understood the dangers facing the Gulf as it delves into the sea of foreign workers, who will remain foreign in a society that doesn’t want and can’t make them citizens. But we quickly forget or ignore our concern, and resume our deformed economic life because we’ve become “addicted” to foreign workers, which form one third of the Saudi “nation” and more than half or even up to 80 percent of inhabitants in the rest of Gulf countries. Some of us want to lower their numbers (I’m sure that officials in the Kingdom want this and are planning for it). Therefore, resettling hundreds of thousands of Syrians will unsettle all our economic calculations and services for citizens. I said “resettling” because that’s what Syrians want. They don’t want a tent or an iron fence like the one they left in the Za’tari camp in Jordan or the Ghazi-Aintab camp in Turkey. There’s nothing that distinguishes one camp from another. They’re all miserable after you spend one or two years in them waiting to return home. Syrians want to settle, to become “citizens”. To be Jordanians, but they don’t have enough jobs there. To be Turkish citizens so they can argue with their bosses in order to receive an equal salary to their Turkish co-workers.

The father of Aylan, the drowned Kurdish boy whose picture exploded the issue of Syrian refugees across the world, didn’t flee from Kobani directly to the sea. Before that he lived in Turkey for many months. He tried camp life, and accepted a modest salary equal to a quarter of what a Turkish worker receives. But he became fed up and saved the $4000 he needed to join the trip “gambling with death.” Either he wins Europe, its social security, job opportunities, settlement, then becoming a citizen, or death. His family’s destiny was death, and his share was to narrate to us his tragedy and live the rest of his life in depression from loss.

Syrians don’t need refugee camps. There are refugee camps for them in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon where 4 million Syrians are officially registered as refugees. They’re in need of a home. Saudi and Gulf countries can’t be that alternative home.

The Syrian refugee crisis should expose to Saudis and Gulf citizen the job market faults they have. The grave mistake they made is in fighting the natural order that gave the Arabian Peninsula a determined amount of natural resources. They’ve burdened it with a number of inhabitants that can’t be supported with what they need from food and water. The Gulf citizen consumes from natural resources multitudes more than what God has determined for the inhabitants of the Peninsula. The destiny of God and history have run a course such that the overflow of Arabs left the Peninsula every time the balance between their numbers and its ability to provide them with sustenance was upset. Syria and Iraq were always the preferred destination, until oil and national borders stopped this migration. Now the Arabian Peninsula has become for the first time since God created it an attractive destination for inhabitants, until it’s become saturated to the point where it can’t receive those who want to return to it – it can barely handle its own people.

The solution is for us to go there, and fix the conditions in Syria no matter how much it costs, so that its people can stay in it and return to it. What we’ve witnessed in Saudi and the Gulf without complaint, and what Europe has witnessed and complained, is the tip of a massive iceberg of people that’s been forming for four years, and it will flood all of us, because the Syrian people also want a life.