With its neat rows of carpeted cabins, security monitors and on-site hospital and school, the Mrigb al Fuhud camp in Jordan is opulent compared with the squalid tent cities that house other Syrian refugees.
Humanitarian workers, however, privately deride it as a “five-star hotel” or “the Stepford camp.” Built by the United Arab Emirates for nearly $10 million, the camp holds just 5,500 people – at a time when 8,000 people a day are fleeing the civil war in neighboring Syria and more than 150,000 refugees crowd the sprawling eyesore of Zaatari, the mega-camp that in a few short months has become one of the largest urban concentrations in Jordan.
Aid agencies say they’re in no position to turn away any help for the dire Syrian refugee crisis, but the state-of-the-art Emirati camp encapsulates the frustration of U.S. and United Nations officials, who are trying to persuade Arab governments to channel assistance through established international groups rather than spend precious funds on what critics view as vanity projects.
The State Department is stepping up its efforts to coax oil-rich Persian Gulf countries – specifically Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – to make more resources available to the United Nations and other foreign aid agencies to relieve the Syrian refugee crisis rather than follow the traditional Gulf charity model of lavishing millions directly on handpicked governments and programs. That leads to duplication of aid or, worse, gaps that only complicate efforts to contain the world’s most urgent refugee crisis, they say.
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Their chief mission now is to get the Gulf states to live up to the financial pledges they’ve made to help U.N. efforts. But time – as well as money – is running out as the United Nations prepares to issue a new and much larger plea for help in early June. Meanwhile, funding for the previous appeal of $1.5 billion still hasn’t been met, though Gulf states have spent millions on their own private food and clothing drops.
“We’re remaining in a wait-and-see mode in order to see how those dollars will be contributed,” Kelly Clements, the deputy assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration at the State Department, said of the Gulf pledges. “We have encouraged all donors to look at the U.N. appeals as a mechanism for support. It represents a coordinated action.”
Persian Gulf states have failed to deliver on an estimated $650 million, about half the total funding pledged at a donors’ conference in Kuwait in January, according to a tally this month by the British newspaper The Independent. Among the worst offenders are some of the United States’ chief allies in supporting the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad: As of May 1, Saudi Arabia had fulfilled just $21.6 million of its $78 million pledge and the United Arab Emirates had come through with only $18.4 million of its $300 million pledge.
As The Independent noted, Qatar is spending billions to host the World Cup, but it’s made good on just $2.7 million of its $100 million pledge. Neither Bahrain nor Iraq has contributed a dime on respective pledges of $20 million and $10 million.
Not a single Gulf embassy responded to repeated queries for comment on the unfulfilled pledges and details on the unilateral aid the countries were providing to displaced Syrians.
In interviews over the past month, diplomats and aid workers have stressed that the Syrian crisis is too enormous and underfunded for wealthy Arab nations to work outside the international framework. They’ve launched a quiet campaign to nudge Gulf states into joining the international funding efforts, lobbying through Western embassies in the Gulf and inviting delegates on trips to see firsthand how the aid reaches refugees.
The process, however, remains fraught. For example, officials said, some members of Congress sought to publicize the issue but were discouraged by diplomats, who worried that a public shaming would strain relations with the Gulf states, whom they need not only for the humanitarian crisis but also for support of the Syrian political opposition and the insurgency that’s fighting Assad.
For now, aid officials are keeping the pressure private while publicly offering thanks for whatever the Gulf nations send.
“There is still a long way to go, in my opinion, in order to make sure that different cultures, different approaches, different methodologies of work, can be made entirely compatible and can be fully coordinated,” said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees. “It’s a work in progress. There has been a lot of dialogue with most of the entities from the area.”
That cause is helped by the success story in Kuwait, which became the first Gulf state to fulfill its pledge – $300 million – through the United Nations and its partner agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration.
In the humanitarian aid community, the Kuwaiti move is heralded as groundbreaking. Anne Richard, the State Department’s assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration, lavished praise on the tiny nation at a recent news conference where she spoke alongside Guterres.
Kuwait’s ambassador to the United States, Salem al Sabah, said in a phone interview that his state broke from the rest of the region “without hesitation” because Kuwaiti leadership was convinced that the international agencies were best-equipped to distribute aid in a crisis of this magnitude.
“The message from Kuwait to our friends in the Gulf and the region is: We need to do something, and quickly,” he said. “We hope this will be an example.”
Al Sabah said he wouldn’t discuss the actions of fellow Gulf states, but he acknowledged that the issue of the unfulfilled pledges arises in bilateral meetings. “Whenever we meet with our friends, we try to remind them” of their pledges, he said.
At the overcrowded, dismal Zaatari camp, residents need no reminder of the Gulf states’ contributions, which sometimes exacerbate tensions because they’re distributed haphazardly.
The most visible example is the so-called “Saudi quarter,” with some 2,000 trailers donated by Saudi Arabia. They’re intended for especially vulnerable refugees such as the elderly or those with serious diseases, but that message doesn’t always make it to the seething thousands who are living in tents and suffering from a lack of security and privacy. There are frequent fights in the camp over access to resources.
“Perhaps those that are in the caravans are the most vulnerable, but there’s not enough for everyone,” said Clements, of the State Department.
On a recent Friday, the prayer leader in the Zaatari camp gave a sermon that reflected the refugees’ frustration with the Gulf countries, which many think could do much more given their vast oil wealth. The angry sermon, later posted to YouTube, blasted Gulf leaders for not opening their borders to fleeing Syrians and for treating them “like animals” by giving them handouts of food and tents.
Protests are frequent after the weekly congregational prayer, but that Friday yielded the biggest demonstration yet, said Ayman Arabiyat, the director of the Jordanian press office for the Zaatari camp.
“Compared with their financial ability, is it really such a big thing?” Arabiyat said of the Gulf donors. “They could build them cities.”