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Neighboring Tragedy and Looking Away: The Role of the Gulf in Syria

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Sep 18 2015

Images are unique in that the right one can cater to the short and fickle attention span of the Western media. When Aylan al-Kurdi washed up on the shores of Turkey, his image succeeded where so many other images of children in Syria failed, and overnight the world decided it cared once again for Syrian lives. As “the refugee crisis” dominated headlines and European countries scrambled to address an issue that had fled to their own front doors, it became painfully obvious where refugees weren’t fleeing; not a single Syrian refugee has found refuge in the Gulf.

Although the silence of the Gulf states has grown more conspicuous now that there is more noise being made in Europe, the Gulf has long turned away from addressing the worst of the world’s human rights violations, whether in Syria or in their own borders. To be clear, although Gulf states must be condemned, it is not because they are expected to act morally of their own accord. States aren’t moral actors, and even if the Gulf were to take in thousands of Syrian refugees, that wouldn’t excuse their own long track record of human rights abuses. Places like Dubai are known around the world for their glittering malls and obsessions with luxury and the Burj Khalifa. In reality, however, these are only a cover for the elite, and while the malls in Dubai teem with Western foreigners and the Arab upper class, Dubai’s prisons teem with migrant workers and political prisoners unjustly detained. If the world was composed of moral states, Dubai would be more famous for the countless incidents like the death of a Ugandan maid in police custody rather than the Burj Khalifa.

Since morality does not inform or shape the actions of states, and most definitely not of the Gulf, their failure to accept Syrian refugees simply becomes part of their long history of human rights violations. Only a tiny fraction of range of abuses against migrants has become visible, and only because of the persistence of local activists and organizations. The Kafala system shows no signs of slowing down despite widespread international condemnation. Instead, it continues to grow and feed into a system of modern day slavery. To support that system, the Gulf states enact a policy of suppression and disinformation. Those who speak out against abuses towards migrant workers are silenced, and sometimes even thrown into prison, along with migrant workers themselves who speak out or resist in any way.

Why discuss these two outwardly disconnected violations by the Gulf at the same time? Syrian refugees and migrant workers in the Gulf, although they both suffer from some of the worst injustices in the world, come from seemingly very different struggles, at least at first glance. However, while the backgrounds of these two broad groups are very different socially, economically, and politically, they both make up crucial elements to the very survival of the Gulf states and their elite. From the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia to all the countries of the region, Gulf state governments carefully decide what kind of people to let in, what kind of people to keep out, and what kind of people to keep under strict control. These violations are not accidental oversights; excluding some types of people while including certain others only to keep them in horrendous conditions shapes the definition of Gulf states and keeps the elite in power. Without their influx of migrant labor, and without their rejection of the rest of the Arab world, they would be entirely transformed societies.

Not only that, but Saudi Arabia and the Gulf stand to benefit politically and economically from the upheaval in Syria. Despite the fact that they themselves have funneled millions of dollars worth of weapons into the conflict, they claim that the spread of ISIS in the region is one of the biggest threats to them, which justifies increased military expenditures and more invasive surveillance in the name of anti-terrorism, further solidifying the role of the elite. Not only that, but the Gulf also justifies taking stronger action against Yemen by claiming it is fighting Iran’s influence in the region, further subjecting yet another innocent civilian population to the horrors of daily air strikes without helping Syrians at all.

Granted, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to admit that its existence as a kingdom is dependent upon the exclusion of Syrian refugees. The KSA and other states do pay lip service to some excuses as to why they are refusing to let in a single Syrian fleeing violence. Government officials claim that they don’t want to disturb a “normal” (re: sufficiently suppressed and quiet) society by letting in an unstable population, and that it would be too large of a hit economically. They claim that their economies are structured to where there are few middle-class jobs, and that the priority should be that they go to locals. They claim that they have donated billions (without any substantive proof of where the money has gone and to whom), and that without them, the refugees would be in a much more tragic state. They say many things. In fact, one Kuwait commentator, Fahad Al Shami, said one thing in particular that sums up a common, callous perspective. “You can’t welcome people from another environment and another place who have psychological or nervous system problems or trauma and enter them into societies,” he said. They have seen too much, and suffered too much, for us to embrace them. We refuse them in the same way we refuse our duty to support them in any way we can.

The fact of the matter is that Syrians aren’t the first population to have been rejected refuge in the riches of the Gulf. In reality, Syrians would likely feed the small seeds of discontent that continually arise in Gulf societies. They are a people fleeing from the fires of revolution and war, and Gulf states may fear that they bring those with them. Before them, Palestinians and Kurds couldn’t find shelter from their own conflicts either. These populations that carry the trauma of conflict are feared to be contagious; in actuality, the trauma is innate in Gulf societies, but it is embedded in the migrant labor force and manifests in the Kafala system and other archaic reinforcements to such widespread abuses. Gulf societies aren’t the bastion of stability that the Kuwaiti commentator implies they are. Oil money runs out. Ideas spread. Families of political victims never forget. And these traumas that bleed into Gulf society will manifest with or without the presence of Syrian refugees.

For those of us that protest these crimes, there is a certain shame that is tied to saying that we come from the Gulf. It is as if we are admitting that we are complicit in these crimes. In a way we are traumatized ourselves — we see everyday the trauma from creating a culture of statelessness by revoking the citizenship of prominent activists, of forcing free speech advocates into exile, detaining, torturing, deporting and then blacklisting migrants who dared to speak up for their right to get paid wages they’re owed, of the culture of racism and classism that we continue to thrive on.

The Gulf has consistently gotten away with massive human rights violations on a variety of fronts, with few credible threats of being held accountable to their actions. Perhaps one of the reasons that the international community is so forgiving is because of its glittering allure to tourists and massive displays of consumption and wealth. But inevitably, the trauma of its own abuses will prove too deep and severe, and the unsustainable growth of the elite at the expense of migrants, refugees, activists, and many others will come tumbling down.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East