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Saudi Arabia, the richest Arab nation and a close U.S. ally, has largely shut its doors to those fleeing the chaos and horror.


By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

(St. Petersburg Times) In his speech on a “new way forward” in Iraq , President Bush said not a word about one tragic effect of the war: a mass exodus of Iraqis.

One reason could be that Syria – a country the administration relentlessly criticizes – has been among the most welcoming havens for Iraqi refugees. Or that Saudi Arabia – the richest Arab nation and a close U.S. ally – has largely shut its doors to those fleeing the chaos and horror.

“The Saudis are reluctant, for internal security reasons mainly, to let people into the country, and it’s hard for anybody to get into Saudi Arabia ,” said Michael Hudson, a Mideast expert at Georgetown University .

“That might be a rather ungenerous position to take considering the situation. So many Iraqis that have been leaving have had a really hard time.”

Since Saddam Hussein’s regime fell almost four years ago, nearly 2-million Iraqis – 8 percent of the prewar population – have fled to other countries. Most have escaped to poorer Arab nations – at least 100,000 to Egypt , 730,000 to Jordan and 660,000 to Syria , with tens of thousands more arriving each month.

That few, if any, refugees have gone to Saudi Arabia reflects the growing religious divide in the Middle East and the often problematic role the Saudis play in the war on terror.

Among the first Iraqis to leave their homes after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion were Christians, whose churches and liquor stores were burned as a wave of Islamic fundamentalism swept the country.

At least 35,000 have gone to Syria , considered one of the most religiously tolerant nations in the Arab world. St. Paul had his celebrated conversion on the road to Damascus , and 10 percent of Syrians are Christians who worship freely in the country’s many churches.

Jordan , part of the Holy Land , also has a rich Christian history. And both it and Syria are accessible by car from Baghdad , making them the most popular destinations for the swelling number of Iraqis trying to find a home away from home.

As refugees, “you’re going to go where you feel you have some kind of social ties,” said Sarah Petrin, director of government relations for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Even if it were more open to foreigners, Saudi Arabia would be an unappealing choice for Christian and secular Iraqis because of its puritanical, repressive form of Islam. Non-Muslims are banned from practicing their religion in public, and persecution extends to Shiite Muslims, seen by many in the dominant Sunni sect as “infidels.”

During the 1991 Persian Gulf war , Saudi Arabia did admit thousands of Shiite refugees who had fled the fighting in southern Iraq . But most were confined to hot, crowded camps in the remote border region. Recollections of that treatment likely dissuaded Iraqi Shiites from trying to enter Saudi Arabia during the current war.

“Apparently it was very rough conditions that the Saudis kept them in,” Hudson said.

Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites are also at an all-time high in the region. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries are concerned about the growing power of Iran , a huge Shiite nation, and the Shiites in Iraq , who now control the government and are blamed for much of the sectarian violence.

The Saudis have warned the United States that they will back Sunni fighters in Iraq if the country begins to break up. But as Hudson notes, the Saudis have a “very ambivalent relationship” with Iraq ‘s Sunnis, too.

“On the one hand, they want to help them now that they are being oppressed by the Shiite militias,” he said. “On the other hand, they know that al-Qaida and other movements that are generally anti-Saudi have a lot of influence in the Sunni community in Iraq . So the Saudis are kind of whipsawed.”

Founded by Saudi Arabia’s most notorious ex-citizen, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida has long vilified Saudi rulers for their extravagant lifestyles and for allowing U.S. troops onto “sacred” Muslim soil during the 1991 Gulf War.

Despite Iraq ‘s refugee crisis and the mounting burden on Syria and Jordan , Saudi Arabia has been “off the radar” as a potential host country because of its history, said Petrin of the U.S. refugee committee. Instead, the United States is pressured to take in more Iraqis, especially those who have risked their lives working for Americans. Fewer than 500 Iraqi refugees have resettled in the States since 2003.

“The United States gave a lot of money and materials and other kinds of assistance at the onset of the invasion because of fears there would be a humanitarian crisis,” Petrin said. “What the United States hasn’t been good at is recognizing the humanitarian crisis is now. No one wants to admit that now, even though we’re seeing Iraqis as the largest refugee population in the world.”