Saudi Arabia Claims "Received 2.5 Million Syrians since Beginning of Conflict"

September 13th, 2015
in Op Ed, syndication

Written by

A news release from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs was distributed by PRNewswire on Friday (11 September). The full press release is posted below. The figure of 2.5 million, if it were true, would represent 60% of the number of Syrians registered as refugees with the United Nations (all in countries other than Saudi Arabia).  Perhaps the 2.5 million "refugees" that went to Saudi Arabia never registered with the UN?  That is contrary to the common belief that "most Syrians who have left their homeland have registered with the United Nations".  Is there some explaination for this discrepancy or is there simply gross misrepresentation?


Follow up:

Before further discussion, here is the press release (can also be found at Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Washington, DC):

WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2015 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement today addressing the Kingdom's efforts to support the Syrian people. Saudi Arabia has been one of the largest providers of aid to Syria's people, and has taken in millions of citizens from the war-torn country.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained that the following actions have been taken by Saudi Arabia:

  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.
  2. The Kingdom's efforts were not limited to accepting our Syrian brothers and sisters after their crisis; it also extended its efforts to support and care for millions of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and others. Efforts included providing humanitarian assistance in coordination with the host governments and with international human aid organizations. Aid was provided in the form of money and goods.
  3. The aid provided by Saudi Arabia to the Syrian people totals around $700 million, according to the statistics of the Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria, which took place inKuwait on March 31, 2015. Government aid and aid provided by the National Campaign are included in that figure.
  4. Humanitarian aid provided to Syrians by the Kingdom consisted of food and medical, academic, and residential supplies, and included the establishment of Saudi specialized clinics in refugee camps, most importantly the Zaatari Camp in Jordan. The Kingdom was able to provide medical care in the form of immunizations, preventive treatments and medical procedures. In addition, Saudi Arabia sponsored a large number of Syrian families living in Lebanon and Syria (specifically paying for their rent and living costs).

SOURCE Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Information Office

My observations:

  • The number 2.5 million given in the headline has apparently no relationship to the number of Syrians that have remained in Saudi Arabia, using the numbers provided by the press release ("some hundreds of thousands"). If the unverifiable 2.5 million have ever set foot in Saudi Arabia 2 million, more or less, have just been "passing through".
  • The total aid provided to the Syrian people totals around $700 million, according to the press release, a figure claimed to be substantiated by the "statistics of the Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria". We have not yet located that number in the extensive documentation available (see documents attached here), but have no reason to question its accuracy.
  • If the $700 million amount does not include any expenses associated with the "some hundreds of thousands" Syrians remaining in Saudi Arabia (including 100,000 school children cited in the press release), then Saudi Arabia has provided about $66 for each officially (UN count) displaced Syrians over the four years of the civil war.
  • If the $700 million includes costs for "free medical care" for "some hundreds of thousands" and public school education for "more than 100,000 Syrian students", then how much could have been spent outside the country? The average cost per pupil in the Saudi public school system is about RY20,000 (U.S. $5,400), according to the Arab News today (13 September 2015). If we assume the more than 100,000 refers to the cumulative enrollment over four years then the cost would be more than $540 million. If the press release is literally correct then the number of enrollments is much larger than "more than 100,000 Syrian students", referring to individuals, because some individuals would have enrolled for more than one year. How many enrollments would there have been? Maybe 200,000 if the average term of enrollment of "more than 100,000 Syrian students" was for two years each? That would represent a cost of more than $1 billion. We have to assume that the $700 million does not include domestic Saudi expenses for Syrians with residence within The Kingdom.
  • Should we speculate that the press release deliberately misleads with the words "more than 100,000 Syrian students" when their data really refers to student enrollments over the past four years?
  • It seems we should not include health care expenses for Syrians living in Saudi Arabia as well. According to the World Bank the per capita health care expenses in Saudi Arabia for 2013 were $808. If the "some hundreds of thousands" of Syrians totaled 400,000, that is another $320 million dollars per year (do the math for other populations) and if there was a gradual build-up over the past four years the total would easily exceed $700 million. For this reason alone (without the school children) we must attribute the $700 million in relief to refugees in other countries.

My summary: The least critical opinion I can give of this press release is that it is very confusing. The least kindly opinion is that it is designed to be misleading.

Here is what was published by CNN on Friday (11 September 2015): War has forced half of Syrians from their homes. Here's where they've gone.



Here is what CNN says about Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states:

Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain have been criticized for resettling no Syrian refugees despite similarities of language, religion and culture.

My bottom line: The Saudi press release is in serious disagreement with official UN records on the refugee migration. It seems totally non credible. Perhaps there are a number of Syrians living in Saudi Arabia, but are they refugees? Saudi Arabia has for many years used immigrants for labor.  How many of the imprecisely counted Syrians came not as refugees but as immigrant workers? Is this just shameless propaganda from The Kingdom?

Hat tips to Roger Erickson and Chuck Spinney for providing leads for this article.


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