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Commentary: The Syrian Refugee Crisis -- Where Is Everybody?

A Syrian refugee from Aleppo holds his 1-month-old daughter moments after arriving on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos on September 3.
A Syrian refugee from Aleppo holds his 1-month-old daughter moments after arriving on a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos on September 3.

Finally, a rich Arab has come forward with a major offer of help to Middle Eastern refugees.

Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire, tweeted on September 1 that he was willing to buy an island from Greece or Italy to "host the migrants" and not hold back on any financing needed to make it a permanent home. He even suggested that it can become a new country called Hope. (Though he also suggested it could be "at least temporary until they can return to their countries.")

The reaction on social media to Sawiris's generous offer has been largely positive. After all, who would criticize a successful world citizen for a willingness to do what most governments are reluctant to do to address the current crisis?

But few in the media or diplomatic circles have asked the more important question: Where have the rich Arab countries been over the last few years, as the Syrian civil war has raged and millions of refugees have fled to neighboring countries? The only Arab countries to have accepted Syrian refugees are Jordan and Lebanon, two weak economies with very limited means. To be sure, rich Arab countries have sent some aid to refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, but no major plan has even been offered that would appear to be aimed at making a serious difference.

Consider the financial means at the disposal of five energy-rich Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain. Their combined GDP is about $2 trillion a year, and their combined population is under 55 million people. That translates into a per capital annual income in the poorest member of this group, Bahrain, of more than $21,000 and a per capita gross national income in the richest, Qatar, of $90,000.

It is not hard to imagine what 5 percent of their combined annual GDPs -- so around $100 billion -- might have done to avert the worst of the crisis. Arab countries could have offered well-financed safe havens on the vast stretches of land they control, or they could have offered major financial incentives to other countries to host the refugees.

But, arguably, expectations ought to have been low to begin with. For a Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, or citizen of any other average Arab country, it is next to impossible to get even a temporary visa from some of these rich Arab countries, the same or worse for a work permit. Still, many people are prepared to criticize Western countries for not readily offering safe haven to Middle Eastern refugees.

As thousands of Syrians and other migrants flood into Austria, it is interesting to compare that country to the U.A.E. because of similar populations (around 10 million) and GDPs (both upward of $400 billion). Per capita national income is roughly $50,000 in Austria and around $43,000 in the U.A.E. Yet no rich Arab country has allowed Syrian refugees to stream across its border, even en route to other countries.

Government policies aside, it is also interesting to look at popular reactions to the unfolding drama. While many NGOs and large numbers of Westerners have urged their governments to act to help or accept the refugees, public responses have been more muted among rich Arab states. There have been no reported demonstrations to pressure those governments to accept refugees or find other, fundamental solutions.

Part of the explanation might lie in the fear such countries have had regarding migration by "other" Arabs to their lands. They have sought jealously to safeguard their wealth from possible dilution.

They have also appeared concerned about possible political instability if Arabs from other countries arrive and swamp their relatively small populations. While Indian or Pakistani guest workers will always remain foreigners because of their linguistic differences with Arabs, Arab migrants speak the same language and can communicate and influence local populations, especially in volatile societies like Saudi Arabia.

Even recognizing all these concerns, though, it remains puzzling why five countries with a combined national income of $2 trillion have not offered credible assistance to solve the current refugee crisis. After all, they have all more or less been involved -- directly or indirectly -- in the Syrian civil war by virtue of having either encouraged or armed various groups.

Mardo Soghom is RFE/RL's regional director for Southwest Asia. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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