Can MENA Nations Lead the Way in Refugee Aid and Peace Building? Commentary
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Can MENA Nations Lead the Way in Refugee Aid and Peace Building?

One of the major global issues facing many nations in both the developing or developed categories is forced migration and displacement during crises. No matter which region, continent, or nation is the focus, every state, in addition to several other political players, has its own role to play in addressing this complex problem. Situational analysis reveals that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is closely related to the enormous number of people compelled to flee to nearby or western nations. Statistics also outline that five out of the top seven countries of origin that are considered to have the most refugees in the world today are middle-eastern or Muslim countries: Syria (6.5 million), Afghanistan (5.7 million), South Sudan (2.3 million), Myanmar (1.2 million),  Sudan (836,000) and Somalia (790,000). The majority of refugees, approximately 80%, are resettling in developing countries, with a record of three countries in the MENA region among the seven first-host countries: Turkey (3.6 million),  Iran (3.4 million), and Sudan (1.1 million). It is worth noting that the aforementioned report is based on the registered number of people with refugee status, and when the undocumented or unregistered population is factored in, the situation appears much worse.

The Middle East, North Africa, and Asia regions face a high number of crises related to forced migration, refugee situations and internal displacement. Hence, issues of displacement and asylum are linked to Middle Eastern communities around the world. The severity of the problems entails that the only way to raise awareness of the situation is not available unless the contributions of all countries are proportionate to their available resources and capacities. For instance, many rich Arab countries are contributing by funding humanitarian operations. And as mentioned, many others have opened their borders to the affected population. These contributions are based on temporary policies made by countries’ governments, who consistently and heavily emphasize their moral commitment in response to the crisis. They all have their own modes of operation without any established legal regime, similar to what developed countries are implementing.

But in this article, we will examine how and why the current role of MENA governments in the complex and critical issue of forced migration and asylum is not commensurate with their real capacity. At the same time, the role and power of United Nations-affiliated organizations, e.g. UNHCR and OCHA, non-governmental humanitarian organizations, and private sponsors, as well as the lack of active regional mechanisms and agencies in this regard, cannot be ignored.

We seek to answer the question of how regional governments’ commitment to helping refugees and displaced migrants could evolve from sporadic interventions with little impact to accountable and responsible methods of aiding in the establishment of peace, providing humanitarian aid, and housing impacted people through the establishment of national or international legal frameworks. The present flows and practices of states and other important actors will be reviewed for this purpose, and many country- or regional-level suggestions will be made based on the information, need assessments, and scenario analysis in the areas of good donorship and specialized humanitarian/development organizations.

Good donorship: enhancing quantity

Increasing their responsibility and establishing themselves as emerging international funders of humanitarian projects, there are wealthy nations in the middle of the Middle East whose donations to the humanitarian/development system are quite high. However, our assessment shows that they still have a long way to go before they can compete with established European or North American nations.

We have identified the top seven MENA countries in terms of GDP per person for this reason, and we have also included those nations’ humanitarian aid during the same fiscal year (Table 1). In order to guarantee access to all relevant data, the baseline year is 2022.

Country NameCountry Code2022 [YR2022] – GDP (current US$) [NY.GDP.MKTP.CD]2022 [YR2022] – GDP per capita (current US$) [NY.GDP.PCAP.CD]Humanitarian Assistance (USD) (2022)
QatarQAT236,258,302,839.6587,661.45 820 million
United Arab EmiratesARE507,063,968,273.3153,707.981.4 B
Saudi ArabiaSAU1,108,571,517,285.3830,447.886 B
BahrainBHR44,383,297,872.3430,146.93No comprehensive report available
KuwaitKWT175,363,265,306.1241,079.52256 million
TurkeyTUR907,118,435,952.6910,674.507.2 B
OmanOMN114,667,360,208.0625,056.79No comprehensive report available


Next, we divided the list of nations into three categories based on how financially close they were to one another and compared them to developed nations with comparable per capita incomes (tables 2, 3, & 4). When the financial support provided by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, two wealthy Muslim nations, is compared to that provided by western developed nations with roughly comparable per capita income, there is a significant disparity in how those nations approach providing humanitarian assistance.

This makes it obvious that Qatar made its financial contribution 2 times less than Finland and Austria, the countries at the floor; Qatar’s contributions are a tragedy when comparing it with German humanitarian assistance in the year 2022 (table 2).

The United Arab Emirates is in a same situation. When comparing the UAE to the Republic of Korea, the GDP per capita to humanitarian assistance ratio is 2 factors in favor of Korea. The gap is much more obvious at the top because the United Kingdom recorded roughly 11.4 times more annual assistance than the UAE (table 3). In their respective group, Saudi Arabia is in the best situation (table 4).

Country Name2022 [YR2022] – GDP (current US$) [NY.GDP.MKTP.CD]2022 [YR2022] – GDP per capita (current US$) [NY.GDP.PCAP.CD]Humanitarian Assistance (USD) (2022)
Qatar236,258,302,839.6587,661.45 820 million
Netherlands1,009,398,719,033.0857,025.016.5 B
Germany4,082,469,490,797.6848,717.9935 B
Sweden591,718,144,602.1456,424.285.5 B
Finland282,649,838,009.7350,871.931.6 B
Australia1,692,956,646,855.7065,099.853 B
Austria470,941,926,750.7452,084.681.9 B
Belgium583,435,595,579.9649,926.832.7 B


Country Name2022 [YR2022] – GDP (current US$) [NY.GDP.MKTP.CD]2022 [YR2022] – GDP per capita (current US$) [NY.GDP.PCAP.CD]Humanitarian Assistance (USD) (2022)
United Arab Emirates507,063,968,273.3153,707.981.4 B
United Kingdom3,089,072,722,400.1446,125.2615.7 B
Spain1,417,800,466,262.6529,674.544.2 B
Japan4,256,410,760,723.7534,017.2717.5 B
France2,779,092,236,505.8540,886.2515.9 B
Korea, Rep.1,673,916,469,026.5632,422.572.8 B
Italy2,049,737,165,407.9834,776.426.5 B
Canada2,161,483,369,422.0155,522.457.8 B
New Zealand248,101,705,541.4048,418.59537.5 M


Country Name2022 [YR2022] – GDP (current US$) [NY.GDP.MKTP.CD]2022 [YR2022] – GDP per capita (current US$) [NY.GDP.PCAP.CD]Humanitarian Assistance (USD) (2022)
Saudi Arabia1,108,571,517,285.3830,447.886 B
Bahrain44,383,297,872.3430,146.93No comprehensive report available
Kuwait175,363,265,306.1241,079.52256 million
Oman114,667,360,208.0625,056.79No comprehensive report available
Portugal255,196,660,987.4324,515.27504.7 M
Greece217,581,324,512.0620,867.27305 M
Slovak Republic115,461,711,688.9721,256.81171 M
Czech Republic290,565,654,835.8127,226.62987.1 M
Lithuania70,974,490,450.4925,064.81197 M
Latvia40,932,030,049.5621,779.5099.2 M
Hungary177,337,436,677.3718,390.18395.6 M


The history of Middle Eastern countries’ financial support for other nations shows that it has its roots in the “south-south cooperation” of the 1970s and 1980s in terms of diplomatic and political assistance. Nevertheless, the Persian Gulf States, who are emerging as donors, are contributing more and more to humanitarian aid, and the current situation has made some of those nations top players in the donorship game. However, their combined contribution varies quite a bit from year to year, and as was already mentioned, they are not currently trying to compete with developed nations.

Good donorship; upgrading quality

Alongside the quantity of the aid, the quality is also under the microscope. Many of the rich Arab countries’ contributions focus on specific countries in the Middle East. For instance, in 2019, Saudi Arabia was the biggest donor to the humanitarian response in Yemen, with its $1.28 billion representing 93% of its total humanitarian aid. In 2018, the UAE was the biggest donor, providing 96% of its total humanitarian funding. The trends is currently changed based on the 2022 report, as US and European countries invest more in Yemen.

The statistics show that the amount of humanitarian aid provided by these donors has been concentrated in a number of nations, including Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Somalia, and Indonesia. Of course, the situation is not exactly the same in the cases of Kuwait and Qatar, but their assistance is also targeted at MENA countries, or, on a larger scale, the Muslim world (Report 2019). The facts show that such countries have a long way to go before expanding their reach and competing internationally.

When looking at Arab contributors, the impartiality of sponsoring humanitarian efforts is also questioned. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates send humanitarian aid to Yemen but are involved in the ongoing conflict there. The US and the UK also provide weapons to and contribute significantly to the humanitarian effort in Yemen. This moral conundrum calls into question the objectivity of charitable giving. International humanitarian organizations that operated in the Houthi-controlled territories were forced to reject funds donated by the UAE and Saudi Arabia as a result. Therefore, it is evident that the current flows need to be modified in order to meet the minimum international criteria.

The way forward with organization building

In each situation in which humanitarian/development support is needed, there are three entities that should work together in order to deliver the aid: the local government, international donors, and humanitarian organizations. As mentioned, some of the rich MENA countries are going to be leading players in the international humanitarian donorship era, while others are not contributing as much as they are earning.

When implementing humanitarian programs, the trends become even more brittle. In general, humanitarian organizations, including (but not limited to) UN agencies, international and national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), local community-based organizations (CBOs), and NGOs, are responsible for piloting and implementing programs, with the exception of special cases where the money transfer to the government is necessary.

The first attempts from MENA countries to provide aid came from specialized bodies for humanitarian funding. The International Organization for Relief, Welfare, and Development in Saudi Arabia (established in 1978) is the clearest example of those attempts, which have been followed by the establishment of the Shaikh Zayed Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation in 1992 and the Qatar Foundation in 1995.

The gap is apparent at the field level, where there is no strong actor to implement the humanitarian/development programs in the targeted contexts, despite the fact that there are well-known businesses active in money transfers. A quick online search yields a lengthy list of international organizations that specialize in humanitarian assistance, the majority of which are situated in the US, UK, and European Union. “Islamic Relief” is a good example of a UK-based humanitarian group working in Muslim or MENA nations.

Presence on the ground enhances the visibility and credit of those countries while developing the experience and expertise to justify funding mechanisms. Contribution directly to operations also strengthens countries’ positions at the diplomatic level; this is critical for states such as Qatar and Oman, which are following the example of Switzerland in the area and are seeking to have effective influence in regional peace mediation.

Building organizations that are created and operated by a number of states collectively is occasionally thought of as a mechanism to improve the quality and quantity of programs. The European Union, which is an entity made up of nations in an area and which works in concert to achieve a common purpose, is a prime example of these endeavors.

Currently, there are potential collective actors, e.g., the Arab League, the Persian Gulf Cooperation Organization, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, who are not currently active in this field. The first step could be activating the humanitarian coordination mechanisms in the current structure, which will be followed by building a comprehensive system within the region.


The final answer to a crisis is not humanitarian or development aid, but if the system is effective, it can tip the balance. It is crucial to respect the impartiality of humanitarian assistance and other humanitarian norms and to refrain from getting involved in political or diplomatic games. In other words, providing humanitarian or development aid is a technical issue that must be handled as such.

Qatar and Kuwait are doing better in humanitarian assistance and have the potential to become the main peace builders of the MENA region, and alongside Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman can also enter at the field level. Turkey and Iran could provide the best support in the field as they provide the needed human resources for an upgraded operation. Although we should admit that all the above-mentioned strategies would be possible only if a coordinated mechanism has been installed.

Certainly, the migration and asylum-seeking flows can turn toward the rich countries in the MENA region instead of ongoing flows to Europe. This is why the countries in the region should come together and initiate ways to improve the situation.

It must be acknowledged that the conclusions drawn from the aforementioned research and analyses apply to more than just governments. In actuality, the problem is a multifaceted, long-standing global concern that calls for multiple-scale interventions and policymaking. The regional initiative should increase the likelihood of sustainability and harmony in humanitarian operations by incorporating more effective elements and actors.

Governments can ride the outstanding lever of progress as the actors with the most capacity: they can welcome asylum seekers by opening borders, acting as good donors, and exerting diplomatic and political influence for peace building.

Therefore, the study’s active component is not limited to the government; bottom-up reforms are also possible. In this case, advocacy work might be done by international humanitarian and development groups working closely with their local non-governmental organizations. Even foreign funders can help enhance the local community’s capability in order to supply the skilled labor force required for local operations and regional projects.

The adjustment of macro-level policies can bring about significant changes, but it requires multidimensional, multi-stated, and comprehensive advocacy in the diverse regions of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as a shift from generosity to strategy in order to achieve the targets of sustainable development.

Javid Rostami is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Tehran, Faculty of Law and Political Science, Public Law Department. He also serves as a Programme Assistant at UNICEF in Iran.

Arash Asadpaski is a Green Architecture and Sustainable Urban Advisor at Hooman Architecture Group.

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.