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Story highlights

Kuwait, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states have resettled no Syrian refugees

Gulf states didn't sign treaty that legally recognizes refugees

Human rights groups blast the inaction; retired UAE university professor calls lack of laws a "shortcoming"

(CNN) —  

They’ve risked their lives to escape war in Syria. Most of Europe has struggled to deal with their masses, and has at least tried to answer a humanitarian call of a magnitude not seen since World War II.

But no Syrian refugees have been resettled in Persian Gulf nations like Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, countries with significant financial and political interest in Syria.

“Other countries need to do more,” tweeted Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. He called those wealthy countries’ inaction on the Syrian refugee crisis “shameful.”

Officials in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the UAE defend themselves by noting that each has given millions of dollars to the United Nations to help the refugees. The UAE says it’s given more than $530 million in relief aid. They stress that Syrians have entered Gulf states on visas, and stayed.

And they also employ a “What about them?” defense, noting that the Gulf states aren’t the only nations not helping give homes to victims of war. Amnesty International points out that other high-income countries like Russia, Japan, Singapore and South Korea have offered zero resettlement options.

No concept of refugee in Gulf states

The U.N. has been direct. It wants all nations which are developed to open their borders.

It’s more than a matter of generosity; it’s also practical, some argue. Gulf citizens have much in common with Syrians. They speak Arabic, like most Syrians. And those states are wealthier than many countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, that have accepted refugees.

Some say Saudi Arabia and Qatar have an obligation to help victims of a war in which those nations have been involved through their financial support of rebel groups that have fought Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

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The Syrian civil war began in 2011 at the fever pitch of the Arab Spring revolutions that deposed dictators in Egypt and Libya, amid optimism that the people could, if they mobilized, win previously unheard-of freedoms. Protesters gathered to try to vocalize that dream, asking the Assad government to be more open. Al-Assad met that expression with violence, and as months went by, the conflict grew more complicated, with foreign fighters and people of varying desires thrown into a very messy conflation. ISIS exploited that chaos and moved in, killing and torturing anyone who opposed the extreme Islamists.

Poorer countries taking many

Turkey has taken in nearly 2 million refugees; Lebanon more than 1.1 million; Jordan at least 629,000. Egypt has played a role, too, welcoming more than 130,000, and even Iraq, a country still ravaged by violence, has accepted nearly 250,000 refugees. More have likely crossed into those countries without being counted.

It’s possible that one of the reasons that the Gulf states haven’t been welcoming is that the concept of a refugee doesn’t even exist there.

Legally, they’re not obligated to help. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and other Gulf states are among the few nations in the world that have not signed a 1951 U.N. treaty on refugees. That’s a key legal document that defines what a refugee is and spells out their rights and states’ legal obligations. But since Gulf states haven’t signed the treaty, any victim of war would need to meet the same standards as anyone else to obtain a visa.

Now a fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi became famous for reporting in real time on Twitter what was happening during the Arab Spring.

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He wrote last week that the Gulf states might not have signed the treaty, but that hasn’t precluded them from taking refugees in other situations.

“A large number of Palestinians, Lebanese and Yemenis currently live in the Gulf. These individuals were displaced following conflicts in their own countries but were never referred to as refugees. Many of these settlers are now naturalised citizens and have become successful entrepreneurs,” he wrote in the International Business Times.

Al-Qassemi also reminded that 25 years ago, thousands of Kuwaiti refugees were given a place to live in the Gulf nations after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. “In Abu Dhabi, the government rented out entire apartment blocks and gave them to families for free. My own father allocated free-of-charge a majlis (meeting room) for Kuwaitis to gather in on the ground floor of one of his buildings,” he wrote.

A specialist in Gulf state politics and Brookings Doha Center nonresident fellow, Luay al-Khatteeb, tweeted a map showing which Gulf states have resettled refugees.

A government source with the UAE Ministry of International Cooperation and Development told CNN that the country has given money and worked with neighboring countries to help, including funding a Jordan refugee camp and hospital. Gulf states have given and pledged billions, according to the U.N. refugee resettlement arm UNHRC. In May, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a decree to establish a humanitarian center in Yemen.

The U.N. is keeping track of who’s given money. The United States has given the most – more than $574 million, or 31% of the aid donated.

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After the United Kingdom, Kuwait has given the third-largest amount – $165.7 million.

The UAE, which has a gross domestic product of $570 billion, has given $4.7 billion.

A human and immediate need

Gulf states are hesitant to welcome refugees because they are concerned about what it would mean for their nations’ security, said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a retired professor from United Arab Emirates University.

He told CNN that there’s a belief that accepting Syrians who are fleeing ISIS only appeases the terror group. It would feed “into the violence in the region, which is already the most violent region on Earth,” he said.

The Gulf states are the most stable nations in the region, he explained, and getting too involved could risk that.

It’s a “shortcoming” of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states, he said, that they don’t have laws that allow for more “elaborate refugee programs” like those of European nations.

“We have not been as sophisticated,” he said.

Observers might not be as generous in their description of how Europe is handling the crisis.

The European Union has met to try, at the last minute, to forge one united policy to address the more than 366,000 refugees and migrants – from Iraq, Syria and Aghanistan – who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe already this year.

According to the U.N. at least 2,800 have died or disappeared during the journey.

One of them was a Syrian toddler named Aylan Kurdi. A picture of the little boy’s limp body, washed ashore on a beach in Turkey, symbolized the gut-punching tragedy of what’s happening.

Some European nations have been welcoming, mostly notably Germany, which has said it expects 800,000 asylum seekers this year. At least 17,500 refugees have relocated to Munich alone. But other European countries, such as Hungary, have taken a very hard line. The nation’s leaders said a wall will be erected on its border with Serbia to keep migrants out.

The situation is so bad and there’s such a huge immediate need, Abdulla said Gulf states should perhaps “go out of our way without any need for a law. … The sooner we do this, the better off we are.”

CNN’s Ashley Fantz wrote and reported this story from Atlanta. CNN’s Becky Anderson and Schams Elwazer contributed reporting from Abu Dhabi.