A persistent myth surrounding the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis is that the wealthy Gulf States are not sponsoring Syrian refugees. As I wrote in late 2015, the Gulf States did not host refugees but they were sponsoring almost 1.4 million Syrian emigrants in 2013 – about a million more than they were sponsoring in 2010 before the Syrian civil war began. The recently released World Bank bilateral migration index for 2017 shows that Gulf Countries are still sponsoring about 1.2 million Syrians, a 12 percent decline relative to 2013 (Table 1).
These Syrians are technically not “refugees” because Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States are not signatories to the 1951 UNHCR convention that created the modern international refugee system. Statements by government spokesmen in the Gulf States confirm that they have taken in large numbers of “Arab brothers and sisters in distress,” but that they do not abide by international law governing refugees. In many cases, these government extended work and residency permits to Syrians who were already there when the civil war began in 2011, allowed them to bring their families, and then permitted other Syrians to join them.
The total number of Syrians in the Gulf States declined by 12 percent from 2013 to 2017 but their share of all Syrians living outside of their home country more than halved. The number of Syrians living outside of Syria in 2017 increased by 96 percent over 2013, from about 3.9 million to 7.8 million (Table 2). About 82 percent of the global increase in the number of Syrian emigrants from 2013 to 2017 settled in Turkey and Lebanon. A full 88 percent of all Syrians who left Syria from 2010 to 2017 settled in other Middle Eastern countries. Of all Syrian emigrants globally, 85 percent living in the Middle East (Figure 1).
Every additional Syrian emigrant living in the Gulf States is one fewer potential refugee elsewhere. Although the Gulf States have cut the number of Syrians living there since 2013, they are still housing over 1.2 million. The mere fact that the Gulf States have allowed large numbers of Syrians to live in their territory has helped relieve the humanitarian crisis somewhat. As much criticism as we can heap on the Gulf States for other issues, at least they allowed many Syrians to live there during the worst years of the Syrian civil war.