A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, September 17, 2015

2.5 Million Syrian Refugees in Saudi Arabia? A Question

I'm very busy with our Fall issue but want to address one question I haven't seen discussed very much.

There has been a lot of discussion about the fact (or factoid) that the GCC states have not accepted Syrian refugees, unlike other Arab neighbors. Some of the criticism has been fair, and some unfair, such as posting photos of the Saudi tent city for Hajj pilgrims and saying these tents are standing empty. Since the Hajj is next week I'm sure they're filling up fast.

Several days ago (on September 11 to be exact), the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted that not only was it hosting Syrian refugees, but that it was hosting no fewer than 2.5 million. The statement, posted by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, can be found here.

Part of it reads:
  1. The Kingdom has received around 2.5 million Syrians since the beginning of the conflict. In order to ensure their dignity and safety, the Kingdom adopted the policy not to treat them as refugees or place them in refugee camps. They have been given the freedom to move about the country, and those who wish to remain in Saudi Arabia (some hundreds of thousands) have been given legal residency status like the remaining residents. Their residency comes with the rights to receive free medical care, to join the labor market and to attend schools and universities. This was contained in a royal decree in 2012 that instructed public schools to accept Syrian students. According to government statistics, the public school system has accepted more than 100,000 Syrian students.
Pro-Saudi apologists have touted this and critics of the Kingdom have expressed questions, but hardly anyone has raised an issue of who, exactly, these Syrians may be.

Northwestern Saudi Arabia is still a largely tribal area, with significant portions of the non-urban population either true nomads or transhumants who shift their livestock between summer and winter pasture.  These tribes are trans-national and sometimes have dual nationality if their winter and summer camps are on opposite sides of the boundary lines drawn with a straightedge ruler at the end of World War I. Unless there is a suspicion of a security threat, the nation-states rarely interfere with the semi-nomadic lifestyle that has persisted since ancient times.

One of the best known of these is the large tribal confederation of the Shammar, who may number as many as four million and are found in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. The Arabian branch of the Shammar, under the Rashid ruling family, were once the main rivals to the House of Saud.

Other big tribes that transcend borders are the ‘Anayza confederation, with multiple large subtribes including the important Ruwalla in Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia,

The true nomadic and seasonal transhumant elements among these tribes have routinely crossed map boundaries with near impunity. So my question is: what proportion of the Syrian refugees in Saudi Arabia are Bedouin who simply moved across the border to escape the war in Syria by joining their tribal kin in Saudi Arabia, or perhaps even migrating to their seasonal grazing pastures?

I'm not sure it matters, and bravo to the Saudis for accepting them, but most of the responses to the Saudi statement haven't noted this aspect.

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Good context. I find it strange that some critics of Saudi Arabia (and the UAE) have slighted their contributions to the refugee crisis by noting that most of these Syrians have come in as part of the expatriate work force. As if refugees want to sit in a camp and receive donor provided support rather than working to support themselves and their families. This is a slur on the Syrians who work in the Saudi economy, as well as the KSA. Aside from that, there are the financial contributions, quite significant on a per capita basis from the governments of the KSA,UAE,Kuwait and Qatar. Not to say they could not be more generous, but given the very low US intake of refugees from both Iraq and Syria, this is the pot calling the kettle black.