Dubai is closer to Bangkok than to London
Former Asean Secretary General Ong Keng Yong noted that the Gulf States are actually not too far from East Asia. Yet, those in East Asia tend to see the Gulf States as a separate region – the Middle East. Even the UN considers the Gulf States a distinctive region of West Asia and has established the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (UN-ESCWA) to help develop the region; whereas the rest of Asia is under the responsibility of the UN-ESCAP based in Bangkok.
On the map, Dubai is actually nearer to Bangkok than to London, Brussels, Rabat or Johannesburg.
Yet, peoples in East Asia and the Gulf region know little about each other. To be sure, people in Asean do know about the huge oil and gas reserves in the Gulf as it has been importing a lot of crude oil from the region. The oil and gas from the Gulf going to East Asia passes through the international sea-lanes in the Asean region.
On the other hand, East Asia sells to the Gulf States automobiles, consumer goods, foodstuffs, machinery and other technology products. There is a complementary economic interdependence between the two regions, which is a good basis for win-win cooperation.
While the cooperation potential between the Gulf and East Asia is huge, both sides have rather been slow in capitalising on it. All the six GCC Members and the 10 Asean countries belong to the Asian Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), initiated in June 2002 by Thailand. Through the ACD, the Gulf States have ample opportunity to increase their interactions with Asean.
Leveraging the Ties
The ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, commonly known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has since last September agreed to institutionalise their cooperation and elevate their relationship to a ministerial level.
The two regional blocs have had informal periodical consultations since the 1990s on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Impressive growths in their bilateral trade, growing opportunities for investment and urgent issues of mutual interest have led both sides to formalise their cooperation.
In July last year, the Asean Foreign Ministers at their 41st meeting decided to seek and set up regular meetings their GCC counterparts. The GCC responded to the idea initiative when the two groups met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in September.
At the GCC Secretariat in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Asean Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan and Secretary-General of GCC Abdulrahman Bin Hamad Al-Attiyah discussed details of the formal modality of cooperation.
Phenomenal growth in trade had brought the two blocs together to Riyadh. According to Asean Secretariat, trade between the two regions shot up from just $18.3 billion in 2002 to $57.1 billion in 2006 while the two-way trade during the five years reached $160.1 billion, a whopping 213 percent growth.
With the rise of oil prices then and the growing concern over food shortages worldwide, Asean and GCC saw a large space for cooperation and closer coordination of issues facing the two regions.
The GCC economic ministers are setting up a fund to invest in agriculture production worldwide, which is definitely something that Asean member states with large agricultural production should be interested in.
The first meeting of Asean and GCC foreign ministers is expected in the next few months.
Drawing GCC Investment to Asean
Lately, Asean has been active in its pursuit to draw investment from GCC countries. To showcase the opportunities that the Asean Community offers to private investors and sovereign wealth funds, Asean’s high-level investment road show drove into Dubai last October, sending out the message that Asean is an attractive investment hub and is a gateway to Asia for the Gulf countries.
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