The shame of a nation

[Originally published by SaudiDebate]

Today, the spectacle of Iraqis dancing in the shadow left by the fall of the statue of Saddam seems like a distant memory: Iraq is in total chaos, and 60,000 Iraqis are forced by the continuing violence to leave their home every month. The UNHCR estimates that as of September 2007, there are now four million displaced Iraqis around the worldi.

It is not as if we didn’t know it was coming.

Back in 2003, UNHCR warned that any war with Iraq should be expected to produce hundreds of thousands of refugees, and that they had not been able to properly prepare because the states surrounding Iraq had refused to set up camps on their side of the Iraqi borderii.

However, one of Iraq’s neighbours bucked the trend, and promised to feed and shelter thousands of Iraqisiii, albeit on the Iraqi side of the border. In 2003, the Saudi Defence Minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, told the BBC, “I won’t tell you when or how many, but if 100,000 [refugees] come we are prepared to house them inside their country, inside their desert, so they would be near their families”

Back in 2003, this promise seemed like a strong regional move by a nation trying to position itself as what the Middle East Timesiv calls “the de facto leader of the Muslim world”.

Today, these words ring hollow.

Nowhere to run

The continuing insecurity in Iraq has led to a dire refugee situation across the Middle East. According to the UNHCR figures for September 2007, there are between 1.2-1.4 million refugees in Syria, and between 500,000-750,000 in Jordan, two of Iraq’s other neighbouring states.

For those refugees who are already in neighbouring countries, conditions are very difficult. IRINv recently reported an outbreak of cholera, which threatens to spread fast among an Iraqi refugee population living either in camps at the border or in close proximity to each other in the suburbs. Things are not made any easier by the fact that neither Syria nor Jordan are signatories of the 1951 conventionvi, nor the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugeesvii. This means while they might be recognised by the UNHCR, they are given tourists visas within the countries, and are not allowed to work.

The situation has got even more difficult recently. Both countries have announced that visas will no longer be granted at the border, but must be applied for at the respective embassies in Baghdad: which for many means dangerous cross-country journeys. A further series of changesviii in Syrian and Jordanian policy have made life even more precarious.

To enter Jordan, Iraqi refugees must prove they are either over 40 or under 20, that they have enough money to support themselves in the kingdom, and that they hold a new ‘G’ generation passport, which can often only be acquired by means of a bribe in Baghdad.

Now, to make matters worse, even the door to Syria is closing. The Syrian government have shortened the length of residence permits and announced visa restrictions, which will mean that 1.5 million Iraqis currently resident in Syria will have to return to Iraqx. Yet despite these restrictions, the UNHCR claims that 2,000 people continue to arrive at the Syrian border dailyxi. They have little other choice in the matter: as one refugee told IRIN, "If we stay in Iraq we will definitely be killed. Outside [Iraq] we will suffer but at least we will feel safe and secure."xii

Despite the harshness of some of Syria and Jordan’s methods, one can understand that it is a difficult situation for them. Both governments are under considerable pressure due to the influx of refugees, and their support systems are struggling to cope with a crisis they didn’t create.

It is not as if we can look to the occupying forces to help much: according to Amnesty International, the US has only resettled 753 refugees since April 2003, as a part of a refugee resettlement program which is designed to accommodate 70,000 people every year. In 2007, about 1,750 Iraqis will be admitted to the USA – not even 25% of the people already referred for admittance to the US by the UNxiii.

All eyes turned South

If we can’t turn to the occupying forces, and the resources of Jordan and Syria are stretched to the limit, what has happened to the promise made by Prince Sultan? 

If Saudi Arabia genuinely want to be the regional leader people are currently claiming it is, the kingdom would act to help these refugees, both as fellow Muslims and fellow Arabs, and as befits one of the richest countries in the region, who is watching Syria, a far poorer country, carry much of the burden.

Like the rest of Iraq’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia has not signed the 1951 convention, or the 1967 Protocol. The only provision included in the Basic Law of 1992 says that “the State will grant political asylum if the public interest mitigates.” Evidently helping other Muslims is against the public interest, for Saudi Arabia has not let in any of the Iraqi refugees.

Indeed, the biggest settlement of Iraqis in Saudi Arabia is a military camp called Rafha, where six hundred refugees from the first gulf war stay are still living. Originally, an agreement between the Saudis and the US government led to the creation of two refugee camps for those fleeing Saddam Hussein. The House of Saud made it clear however that there would be no genuine local integration, and that the refugees would not be allowed to leave their fenced-in 20-sq kilometres. They have been there for the last thirteen years. The 600 that remain at Rafha are the last traces of some 33,000 refugees who fled to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. Some started to return after the fall of Saddamxiv, but following the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq, the rest remain virtual prisoners in Saudi Arabiaxv.

Rather than aiding the Iraqis in their hour of desperation, the Saudis announced a different policy, which I have written about in brief before on SaudiDebatexvi.

They are building a fencexvii.

Ironically, just as the Iraqi Chairman of the Higher Commission for Hajj and Umrah lauded the co-operation of the Saudi authorities in assuring the passage of Iraqis to Meccaxviii, the Saudi government announced it was looking at the proposal for a large state-of-the art fence, on which work should begin next year, and will take five to six years to finish.

The fencexix, which is estimated to cost $500 million, will include remote sensors and thermal cameras, though it is not yet clear if the fence will be built across the whole frontier or merely at important crossing points along the enormous 900km border Saudi Arabia shares with Iraq. The Saudi government is currently examining bids from a variety of US and European firms for the project, which will form part of a greater border security plan that will include surveillance aircraft and telecommunications centres, and is estimated will cost in the region of $5.3 billionxx.

All eyes turned inwards 

Given Saudi Arabia’s supposed intention to take a newly assertive role in the region, evidenced by their attempts to step in as mediators between Hamas and Fatah, and in Lebanon, what could explain the way the House of Saud has shut the door on the most compelling problem in the region today?

The official explanation for the tightening of the border is simple: stop the flow of terrorists over the border. Nawaf Obaid, head of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, told the Washington Postxxi that the $1.8 billion spent on border surveillance since 2004 has cut the number of militants heading into Iraq.

However, there is more to such an explanation than meets the eye. The border between the two countries is an arid desert, and the US military reportxxii than even Saudi militants tend to cross over the Syrian border rather than the Iraq- Saudi Arabia border.

That said, in March 2006, the Iraqi police announced that they had captured a militant who had fled into Iraq after an attack on a Saudi oilfieldxxiii. And despite the fact that foreign fighters only constitute a small proportion of the resistance in Iraq, there is no doubt the Saudis form a large part, always coming in the top five countries from which foreign fighters originatexxiv.

However, the main fear for the Saudis doesn’t seem to be militants crossing into Iraq - let us not forget that it was only a year ago that Saudi Arabia threatened to respond to an American withdrawal by arming Sunni insurgentsxxv. Instead, the real fear is that Saudi insurgents will cross back into Saudi Arabia.

We have been here before. It was the return of militants from Afghanistan that brought some of the contradictions of the House of Saud to the fore, and it was this generation of people, radicalised in Afghanistan, that formed some of the Islamist groups that have been waging a guerrilla war on the House of Saud over the last few years. The House of Saud fears the return of militants from Iraq: as Okruhlikxxvi notes, “The jihadis engaged in the war in Iraq are returning to Saudi Arabia much younger and perhaps more independent than the mujahideen who returned from Afghanistan in the 1980s.”

Furthermore, the House of Saud is playing on the fear – and is in part scared by – ideas of a generalised Shia awakening across the region. Neil Patrick, an expert with the Economist Intelligence Unit, claims the Saudis hope that the new fence will limit Iranian involvement with the disenfranchised Shia community in Saudi Arabia.

So there are some understandable reasons why Saudi Arabia is trying to secure the border. Less immediately understandable, however, is why they are not giving any assistance during an enormous refugee crisis. Why is it the case, as Dr. Ahmad al-Salim, a high-ranking official in the Saudi Ministry of Interior, told Human Rights Watch, that “We do not take refugeesxxvii”?

There are some complicated roots to uncover to answer this question. First, they are of course not legally obliged to take in any refugees, as they are not signatories of the 1951 convention. Then, we can see how the worries that led the Saudi government to consider building a fence across its border with Iraq also influence its thinking with regard to refugees.

Despite recent cosmetic reforms, the situation of the Shia inside Saudi Arabia is still problematic. As Orkruhlik notes, part of the basic religious justification for the existence of the House of Saud excludes Shia identity. With a resurgent set of Shia political parties in Iraqxxviii, the House of Saud must surely fear the consequences of thousands of Shia streaming over its border. Furthermore, there is no absolute guarantee that concealed within the refugees (who, one assumes, would be Sunni and Shia) would not be Sunni militants looking to take the fight to the supporters of the occupier.

Eyes Closed

All these concerns emerge out of some of the basic structural contradictions of Saudi society. An example. In 2004 Sheikh Abd-al Aziz issues a fatwa against joining the resistance in Iraq, appeasing the Saudi’s American allies. But in the same year, al-Hawali, al-Qarni, al-Awdah and al-Omar all signed a petition for another fatwa calling on Muslims to fight US troops in Iraqxxix. All four of the Sheikhs named above are on the government payroll.

So the first contradiction we can see at play is between an absolutely pragmatic Royal House, interested in keeping power, and a justificatory ideology that is based on a broader religious identity. This contradiction in part produces Islamist militants, disenchanted with the House of Saud and their appeasement of America.

This contradiction is also in evidence in the gap between the Saudi’s claimed intention to position itself at the centre of the Muslim world – which works very well for polemic and ideological purposes – and the reality of its interests, which do not even extend across its border to the Muslims suffering next door.

The American government is fully complicit with the Saudi position. Even until into 2007, by which time the refugee crisis was fully underway, President Bush’s speeches said nothing about the mass exodus of Iraqis; it is only recently, in the face of mounting media criticism, that the Republican administration has made moves to intervene in the situation. However, the interventions they have made – trying to speed up the relocation procedure, for instance – have not once included trying to get Saudi Arabia to open its borders. Apparently the threat of a recurrence of the February 2006 attacks on the Abqaiqd oil facility, the largest in the kingdom, which sent global prices jumping by as much as 3.5%, is a sufficient motivation to silence any criticism of Saudi policy.

Worse, some American think tanks have come out and supported the Saudi position. Last year the Brookings Institute released a paper called: Iraqi Refugees: Carriers of Conflictxxx, which, even in its title, seems to fundamentally confuse its terms. The authors of the paper contend that “where large numbers of refugees go, instability and war closely follow.” As an example, they assert the Palestinian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon “turned against their hosts and catalyzed a civil war in Jordan (1970-1) and in Lebanon (1975-90).”

Unfortunately I do not have the space to refute these historical claims; I will only note that such claims hold to a notion of ‘refugee’ as pertaining to a definitive essence that has “a knack for upsetting the status quo.” But unless refugee questions can be placed in their political economic context, such assertions have no value. Refugees are produced by conflict, that they may then have a hand in future conflict (as equally, they may not: there is no necessary relationship) must be traced to the political conditions in which they find themselves.

When, later in the essay, the authors assert that “refugee camps can become sanctuaries for militia groups”, they are asking questions as much of the camp organisers as of the refugees, of, for instance, the refusal of the Lebanese government to allow the Palestinian population to integrate fully with the local populationxxxi. Their final point, that “But refugees, whether in camps or not, can also corrode state power from the inside, fomenting the radicalization of domestic populations and encouraging rebellion against host governments” yet again seems to miss the point, while providing a justification for current Saudi policy. The entire article is written as if these refugees simply appeared in the Middle East, and are now an onerous burden – but it is not refugees that bring conflict, but conflict that creates refugees.

While it is ultimately with the US that this heavy responsibility should lie, the House of Saud, those staunch allies of the occupying forces, have shown themselves unable to live up to distinguish between a political discourse that marks refugees out as disturbances in the international order, and the reality: which is that there is a Muslim population just across the border in desperate need of help from its rich neighbour, who is, moreover, laying claim to being a leader of the Muslim world.

The House of Saud should be ashamed.

ix IDP refers to internally displaced people: those who are displaced within their country of origin.

xxvi Okruhlik, G. 2005: The Irony of Islah (Reform). The Washington Quarterly. 28:4. pp. 153-170. p.158.

xxxi For a fully developed case study of the difference between refugee life in the camp, where narratives of exile and violence become daily implicated everyday life, and the absence of such narratives among urban refugees, see Malkki, Liisa, H.(1995) Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.