The Scandal of Saudi’s Syria Refugee Policy

By Simon Mabon | (The Conversation) | – –

The violent civil war in Syria and rise of Islamic State (IS) has forced millions to flee their homes, cascading across Europe in search of safety. And yet, despite the crisis unfolding on its doorstep, the response from the Saudi Arabian government has been far from welcoming.

Why is it that Saudi Arabia, the home of the world’s largest oil supplies – a state with vast swaths of empty territory, has done so little to help?

The Saudi relationship with the Syrian crisis is complex – a tangle of domestic and regional priorities. Abroad, Riyadh wants to see the Assad regime toppled and Iran’s influence in the Levant weakened, but at home Saudi policy has been much more reactionary and conservative, working hard to quash dissent and maintain stability.

Humanitarianism trumped

Donors from the other Gulf states have provided large amounts of money to the Syrian refugees, but Saudi Arabia has failed even to recognise the legal concept of refugee status and has not formally accepted any refugees. The Kingdom claims to have accepted millions, but has not done so under formal refugee status.

This in itself is hardly surprising, as Saudi Arabia is not party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. But it’s more than a legal matter: Saudi Arabia’s serious demographic concerns are at the very heart of its security calculations.

The country’s population is middling by global standards, currently standing at around 30m. But altering the domestic balance by providing refuge to those fleeing Syria, regardless of their ideology or political leanings, could throw the country’s domestic political and economic balance wildly off.

The Kingdom is also eager to maintain the balance between regime and society, while also negotiating increasingly volatile sectarian schisms: the population is estimated at 90% Sunni, with 1.5-2m Shia Muslims making up the bulk of the remainder. The imperative is to keep regional Sunni allies in power and to capitalise on any opportunity to oust rivals.

The situation facing Riyadh is increasingly precarious, a dropping oil price, an invigorated Iran, conflict in Yemen and the prevalence of IS in neighbouring Iraq and Syria. The last thing Riyadh needs is more domestic unrest.

Fragile legitimacy

The al-Saud regime is terrified of IS. Its violent fundamentalist reading of the Quran shares many similarities with the Wahhabi ulema, who are woven into the very fabric of the Saudi state.

In the face of opposition to their rule, the al-Saud family have traditionally relied on the centuries-old alliance with Wahhabi clerics to provide much-needed domestic legitimacy. The al-Sauds are also the protectors of Islam’s two holy mosques, Mecca and Medina.

While the quest for legitimacy is motivated primarily by domestic issues, it has also long guided foreign policy – particularly since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, since which Riyadh has been perpetually paranoid about Iranian aspirations to regional hegemony.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Uprisings this rivalry morphed into proxy conflicts across Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain. Sectarian divisions across the region were accordingly politicised and securitised as Saudi Arabia fought to keep its allies in power and the Iranian threat in check.

Saudi Arabia has long feared a galvanised “fifth column” in its Eastern Province, or across the King Fahd Causeway in neighbouring Bahrain, particularly as a Trojan horse for Iranian interference. These concerns are exacerbated by the sheer number of people fleeing Iraq and Syria, whose ideologies are unknown to Saudi Arabia.

IS has put the al-Saud regime in a bind, forcing it to choose between national stability and the anti-Shia rhetoric of the Wahhabi (and IS) doctrine.

Dark ramifications

Even with the reports that no refugees have been formally accepted into Saudi Arabia, there is some confusion as to how many Syrians have actually found a home in the country. The pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper has reported that around 500,000 Syrians had found work (and homes) in Saudi Arabia since the explosion of violence in their home country.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia has offered to build a mosque in Germany for every 100 refugees that arrive in the country. Of course, that does not answer the question of who will deliver prayers at these mosques – Wahhabi imams, perhaps.

In order for Saudi Arabia to defeat IS, it must fulfil its humanitarian obligations and do what it can to resolve the Syrian crisis. Humanitarian actions can have strategic consequences. So can neglect.

As time passes and the Kingdom formally does very little to accommodate people fleeing Syria and Iraq, regional resentment of the al-Saud dynasty will only grow. While Saudi Arabia has historically provided huge amounts of financial aid to Lebanon, Yemen and Pakistan, the scale of the Syrian crisis requires a different type of response.

The House of Saud must come up with an explicit response and make a point of providing refuge to those fleeing the IS “caliphate”, Assad’s barrel bombs, or the sectarian militias of Iraq. If it doesn’t, it will pay the price in political legitimacy – not only within Saudi Arabia, but also across the Muslim world.

The Conversation

Simon Mabon, Lecturer in International Relations, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

CNN: “Refugee crisis: Why aren’t Gulf states taking them in?”

6 Responses

  1. Is that even true that Saudi Arabia offered to build 200 mosques in Germany? All of the reports seem to come from one source, which it not anything official.

  2. Off topic, but related to Saudi Arabia:

    Has anyone heard of this?
    Saudis to Crucify Kid Arrested When He was 17-Years-Old
    link to wemeantwell.com

    ““But worse still, Ali was a vulnerable child when he was arrested and this ordeal began. His execution – based apparently on the authorities’ dislike for his uncle, and his involvement in anti-government protests – would violate international law and the most basic standards of decency. It must be stopped.”

    The government of the United States has issued no statement. Nobody on Twitter has started a feel-good hashtag campaign.”

  3. Has it been confirmed that Saudi Arabia has taken 500k Syrian refugees? Or is the author doubting that?

    If they have then its probably more refugees then all other countries,.

    • I think what they said is that 500,000 Syrians have come to Saudi to work and live, just as they were doing before this all started. The same goes for Kuwait, for example, where somewhere around 120,000 to 150,000 Syrians live and work. They have waived the rules so that their visas won’t expire and they can stay when they might have otherwise had to leave.

      Just a note – as someone who lives in the Gulf, I can tell you that the people themselves have been giving a lot of aid to Syrians, and this has been going on for years now. It should be more, but it’s not right to ignore the fact that so many people have been contributing money, food, clothing, blankets, tents, etc.; that many people go to refugee camps regularly to deliver aid, etc. Most of this is done on a personal level and is not even included in official records of the amounts given.

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