Saudi Arabia said it has taken in about 2.5 million Syrians on religious and humanitarian grounds in the years since the country's conflict began and has offered residency to hundreds of thousands, as it sought to rebut suggestions that oil-rich Gulf states should do more to address the plight of refugees fleeing civil war.
The official Saudi Press Agency quoted an unnamed official at the Foreign Ministry as saying the kingdom does not consider those it has taken in as refugees and does not house them in camps "in order to ensure their dignity and safety.''
The OPEC heavyweight is not a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention, which outlines the rights of refugees and obligations on those countries that are party to it.
Saudi Arabia did not specify how many of those Syrians admitted remain in the country, saying only that those who wished to stay — a figure it put at "some hundreds of thousands'' — have been granted residency status.
That status gives the Syrians access to work, schools and free medical care, according to the statement. It said Saudi public schools have accepted more than 100,000 Syrian students.
The kingdom had not intended to discuss its efforts to aid Syrians and "did not wish to boast about its efforts or attempt to gain media coverage,'' but felt compelled to disclose some figures in light of what it called "erroneous and misleading information,'' according to the report.
The announcement late Friday came as media attention was focused on the collapse of a construction crane at the Grand Mosque in Mecca that left at least 107 dead. Officials could not be reached for further comment Saturday.
The Gulf Arab nations, key backers of rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, have come under fire over their response to the crisis in recent weeks as Syrian refugees and other migrants have streamed into the European Union, provoking a backlash in some member states.
The United Arab Emirates, the second largest Arab economy after Saudi Arabia, earlier this week told The Associated Press that it has provided residency permits to more than 100,000 Syrians who have entered the country since 2011. It said more than 242,000 Syrian nationals currently live in the country.
Both countries and their Gulf neighbors are longtime importers of migrant workers, expatriate professionals and foreign businesspeople, including Syrians.
Saudi Arabia's statement emphasized that the kingdom has provided some $700 million to support Syrian refugees, including those living in Jordan and Lebanon. Its aid included food and medical supplies, the establishment of clinics in refugee camps, and payments to cover rent and living costs to families living in Lebanon and Syria.