The cataclysm in Syria has created the worst refugee crisis the world has known since the end of the World War II. This, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UNHCR, which has prime responsibility for coping with the 3.9 million men women and children who have fled the on-going horrors.
Ironically, the tragedy is unfolding almost at the doorstep of some of the most colossally wealthy people on the planet who preside over the oil-rich states of the Gulf.
In deed, with far less than 1% of their mammoth sovereign funds, almost any of the Gulf States could have provided, on their own tab, all of the $1.266 billion dollars that the UNHCR attempted—and failed--to raise last year for Syrian refugee relief.
In 2014, the UNHCR campaign ended up 37% short of its goal.
One would think that those fabulously blessed royals and sheikhs and emirs would have been lining up to back the UNHCR’s attempts to mitigate the catastrophe that has overtaken millions of their mostly Sunni Arab brethren.
Especially since those same Gulf states also provided the arms and money that fueled so much of the horrific violence.
But one would be largely wrong.
As a donor, Kuwait was something of an exception. It gave $93 million to the UNHCR in 2014, the third largest contribution after the United States ($303 million) and the European Union ($146 million).
On the other hand, the Kuwaitis have also funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to some of the most extreme fighting groups in Syria, to the point that furious U.S. officials went public last year in an attempt to oblige them to turn off the spigot.
Yet, to its modest credit, Kuwait’s backing for the UNHCR’s Syrian relief program is greater than all the other Gulf states combined.
It’s not that the recent dramatic drop in oil prices has emptied those Arab coffers.
The Qataris, for instance, bankrolled by a huge sovereign wealth fund estimated at $250 billion, continue snapping up trophy hotels, football clubs, businesses, and huge hunks of prime real estate across the globe. Just in Paris, among many other assets, they own Le Printemps department store, the Peninsula Hotel, Raffles Royal Monceau, and 350,000 square feet along the Champs Elysees.
In London they’ve also bought up much of the skyline, from the towering Shard to Harrods, to No. 1 Hyde Park, to a massive swathe of Canary Wharf, not to mention 20% of the London Stock Exchange, and 10% of the company that owns British Air. They even helped keep Barclays Bank afloat during the height of the financial crisis.
The Qataris have also been among the most aggressive in doling out funds to radical groups fighting in Syria. They are thus also directly implicated in the on-going disaster.
How much did the Qataris, with the second highest annual per capita income in the world ($104,000), give to that campaign?
They gave $26 million-- far less than Germany ($42.3 million) or Japan ($34 million).
That was also far less than the $58 million fine that the Qatari ruling family were ordered to pay for an illegal scheme they used to avoid paying taxes on a prime 13 acre London site they bought from the British Ministry of Defense, for a cool $1.5 billion.
(Don’t even ask about the $120 million that Qatar's armed forces shelled out to purchase the Renaissance Hotel in Barcelona.)
On the other hand, the Qataris were far more open-handed to the UNHCR’s Syrian campaign than were other Gulf rulers.
The royals who run the United Arab Empire control a sovereign wealth fund of $773 billion that dwarfs Quatar’s. They also boast a stunning capital (Abu Dhabi) that Forbes labeled “So Blindingly Rich it’s almost Sickening.” Their donation last year to the UNHCR’s drive?
$4.8 million. Far less than Finland. ($7.84 million)
Then there’s the Saudis.
Their new ruler, King Salman, has been shoring up his own position and that of his sprawling family with a mammoth post coronation give away that so far totals more than $32 billion and has been lavished over most of his country’s population.
According to the New York Times, for the moment at least, there is little talk about human rights abuses or political reform. Saudis are spending. Some have treated themselves to new cellphones, handbags and trips abroad. They have paid off debts, given to charity and bought gold necklaces for their mothers. Some men have set aside money to marry a first, second or third wife. One was so pleased that he showered his infant son with crisp new bills.
The Saudis have also been very generous to the new military regime in Egypt: Along with other Gulf States, they came up with $12 billion to back the government of General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi after it tossed out the Muslim Brotherhood, detested and feared by the Saudis. The Saudis have promised billions more.
Under Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the cowboy head of Saudi Intelligence until he was removed in April, 2014, the Saudis also funneled huge amounts of arms and money to some of the most militant groups battling Syria's Assad—including the fighters from ISIS, who they cheered on in Iraq.
But for the UNHCR’s Syrian refugee program?
In 2014, the Saudis gave a total $2.9 million. Which wouldn’t buy you a decent one bedroom apartment in Belgravia these days.
Even tiny Denmark gave more ($6.2 million).
That was last year. How is the UNHCR’s Syrian refugee campaign doing so far this year as the crisis becomes even more horrific?
For 2015, the UNHCR is attempting to raise $1.342 billion.
As of February 16, with TV broadcasting images of ragged, poorly sheltered Syrian children dying of exposure, the UNHCR has received pledges totalling a scant $74 million--only 6% of the amount needed.
The U.S. has yet to make its commitment.
The largest donors to step up to date are Canada ($10, 318,143) and the European Union ($51 million).
And the Saudis, with their new munificent ruler? They’ve pledged $2.773,000, less than the amount they gave last year. The UAE has promised $2,247 million, also far less than last year.
But more than Qatar…which has come up with $209,000.
Not even the price of a decent crocodile handbag at Aspreys.
(It would be interesting to see if these facts were picked up by Al Jazeera--also owned by Qatar.)