By Tom Finn
DOHA, April 12 – Chinese artist Ai Weiwei called on wealthy Gulf Arab states to take in more Syrians displaced by six years of civil war, saying the surge of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East was a “test for humanity”.
Ai, often described as China’s most high-profile artist and dissident, has won acclaim for artwork highlighting the plight of Middle East refugees fleeing in boats to Europe.
Last year Ai wrapped the giant columns of the Berlin Konzerthaus with 14,000 life jackets brought from the Greek island of Lesbos on whose beaches over a million migrants have entered the European Union.
He has visited camps in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan to film a documentary about the refugee crisis.
Speaking after a talk in Doha on Tuesday night at Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), Ai said a Gulf Arab policy of not granting Syrians and Iraqis refugee status was short-sighted.
“Many Gulf states refuse refugees. I don’t think that’s an intelligent act because many refugees even have the same religious background to them and talk the same language,” Ai said speaking in the ziggurat-style museum’s vast marble lobby.
“I think this only shows very short-sighted politics … like you’re refusing to help out your brothers or your relatives,” he said.
Civilians fleeing Syria’s nearby war have found scant refuge in the Arab world’s richest countries despite several being backers of combatants in Syria’s conflict, including Qatar.
Gulf monarchies say they have in fact taken in hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens since the civil war there began in 2011, including half a million in Saudi Arabia and 100,000 in the United Arab Emirates – just not as refugees.
Like the rest of the expatriates that form a majority in many Gulf States, Syrians have been admitted mainly as temporary guest workers, which generally means they must have jobs lined up before they arrive, or as their family dependants.
Gulf states also say the criticism also overlooks the billions donated to Syrian refugee camps abroad, as well as the delicate demographics of countries where expatriate workers are as numerous as locals or outnumber them.
Ai said the six Gulf Cooperation Council states – Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar – should sign the U.N. convention on refugees which has governed international law on asylum since World War Two.
“(Signing the convention) is not just to help but to testify that a state can understand what humanity is about,” he said.
“Because this is really a test of our humanity and willingness to defend those integrities of human life. It doesn’t matter how rich you can be or how self-protected – if we cannot meet this challenge I think the future is very dark.”