“Why don’t Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf countries host Syrian refugees instead of letting them die in the sea?” some naively ask.
Others maliciously pose this question for the purpose of shifting blame from the Syrian regime, the brutality of which has pushed people to flee and risk dying in the sea.
The Saudi kingdom has been receiving Syrians ever since the Syrian tragedy began. An official I spoke with estimates their number at half million. These Syrians, however, have not been registered as refugees, as Saudi Arabia is not a country neighboring Syria and these people have not arrived as refugees, but have entered via a visit visa.
Saudi Arabia welcomed them over all this time and it did not force them to leave or detain those whose visa expired – however, another country that is supposedly a brotherly country of Syria actually did that. Some Syrians in Saudi Arabia found jobs, others didn’t. The government allowed them to send their children to public schools but this does not mean they are happy. My Syrian friend has seen the occupants of his tiny apartment in Jeddah double; there’s nothing he can do, but be patient.
Saudi Arabia can receive more Syrians, like some European countries and human rights organizations are naively, or maliciously, demanding.
There’s no use in Gulf countries building refugee camps, because Syrians have had enough of living in camps and they want to have a proper life.Jamal Khashoggi
However, Syrians don’t want to go to Saudi Arabia as refugees. Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries’ building of refugee camps is of no use because Syrians have had enough of living in camps and they want to have a proper life. And as long as we don’t give them their country back, they will continue to travel in search of a country where they can build a future, and Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries cannot provide them with this option.
There’s another Syrian man I know who lives in Saudi Arabia. He plans to immigrate to Europe in any way possible. He hears of his paternal cousin who got a job in Sweden and gained citizenship, like thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Afghanis, Somalis and other Arab or Muslim people who are miserable in their own countries, plagued as they are by failure, war, and secular, religious and sectarian extremism.
We are not an enormous economic power like Germany who can – or rather, needs – to contain more immigrants.Jamal Khashoggi
In Saudi Arabia, we don’t easily grant citizenship and that’s also the case in most Gulf countries. This policy is not due to racism or superiority – given that, for example, Saudi Arabia’s citizens consist of all races. The reason is purely economic. Our situation is like that of some European countries, like Hungary and Greece, who don’t want immigrants because their economies cannot contain them. We are not an enormous economic power like Germany who can – or rather, needs – to contain more immigrants yet it’s unwilling because it wants to select them and not receive them in such huge numbers.
Therefore, the reason is purely economic. Our brotherly relations with the Syrian people still prevailed, and we opened our doors to them as much we could. But our economy cannot tolerate hosting refugees who turn into residents.
Foreign labor concerns
This is because our market is already saturated with foreign labor, which most of us don’t even need, and this has negatively affected our society and economy. We hesitatingly think of how to resolve this accumulated problem. We are shocked by the number of foreign laborers in our country and by the reality of unemployment among our sons whenever we hold a conference to discuss “foreign labor in Gulf states, its reality and future.”
We’ve become “addicted” to foreign labor, which constitutes one third of Saudi Arabia’s population.Jamal Khashoggi
This latter phrase is the headline of a study by Jassim Hussain published last week by Al-Jazeera. Whoever read this study must have felt worried and realized the threats surrounding the Gulf’s future as it further sinks in the sea of foreign laborers – who will continue to be foreign as long as they live in a society that does not, and cannot resettle them.
However, we quickly forget or ignore our worry and resume our distorted economic life because we’ve become “addicted” to that foreign labor, which constitutes one third of Saudi Arabia’s population – and which constitutes even more, up to 80% in other Gulf countries. Some of us want to decrease their numbers (I am sure that officials in Saudi Arabia want that and are planning for it).
Resettlement, not refugee camps
Therefore, resettling hundreds of thousands of Syrians will confuse all our economic calculations and affect citizens’ interests. I say “resettle” because this is what Syrians want. They don't want a tent or a camp surrounded by iron bars like those they escaped from in Jordan’s Zaatari camp or in Turkey’s Gaziantep.
Nothing distinguishes one tent from another – they are all miserable after you spend a year or two in them as you wait to return home. Syrians want to settle and become citizens. They want to become Jordanians but there are not enough jobs there, or become Turks and argue with their bosses and earn the same salary as their Turkish colleagues.
The father of Aylan Kurdi – the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, and whose photo as he lied dead on the sand made global headlines, bringing the issue of Syrian refugees into the spotlight – did not directly escape from Kobani to the sea. He lived in Turkey for several months before trying to flee. He experienced life in the camps and accepted a job for a humble salary – one fourth of what a Turkish citizen gains. However, he got tired of it and collected $4,000 – just enough to join the journey of death by sea and either make it to Europe and attain social security and a job to later be naturalized, or die. His family’s fate was death and his fate was to narrate his tragedy and live in misery and pain for the rest of his life.
Syrians don’t need camps as there are camps for them in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon where around four million are officially registered as refugees. They need a home and Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries cannot be that alternative home.
The crisis of Syrian refugees might as well expose the flawed labor market of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries and help the latter see these flaws and realize the huge mistake they committed by allowing the Arabian Peninsula to overpopulate and thus accommodate more than it can provide in terms of food and drink.
The Gulf's consumption of natural resources is double the parentage of what God destined for this Peninsula’s residents. In the past, the Peninsula’s conditions forced people to leave to other countries, mainly to Levant countries and Iraq. However when the oil resources surfaced, immigration stopped and for the first time in history, the Peninsula became an attraction for people. Eventually it got saturated and it could no longer contain those who want to return to it – as it can barely contain its own people.
The solution is to go there and reform the situation of the Levant no matter what it takes, in order for its people to stay there or to return to it.
What we’ve witnessed in Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries – but didn’t complain of – and what Europe witnessed (and did complain of) is only the tip of the iceberg of this Syrian refugee crisis, which has been escalating for four years now. It will affect all of us, as the Syrian people also want a life.
This article was first published in al-Hayat on September 12, 2015.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi