By Hamza Jilani/Staff Reporter
Regional powers of influence over the GCC are shifting from the West to the East as emerging Asian markets continue to demand fuel for their operations and cultural, economic and military ties reshape the Middle East and GCC, Prof Anoush Ehteshami of Durham University has observed.
Qatar University’s Gulf Studies Programme of the College of Arts and Sciences yesterday hosted Ehteshami at a seminar, “Asianisation of the Gulf: Strategic Implication”, where he discussed the rising influence of East Asian countries across the GCC.
Ehteshami highlighted and defined the bilateral critical drivers and strategic implications of “Asianisation” in terms of energy demands, trade and investment, military and security partnerships, labour and remittance flows and cultural exchanges. He described today’s “regional globalisation” as the evolution of “traditional globalisation” in open markets, where the multi-polarity of rising powers and the shift of influence went beyond former political and cultural boundaries.
Ehteshami said the emerging economies of China, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan accounted for more than two-third of Asia’s total oil consumption in 2010 - the figure was likely to grow in the coming years - and met 80% of their demand through Middle Eastern suppliers. “China alone meets nearly 33% of its total oil imports from just two Gulf countries - Saudi Arabia (21%) and Iran (11.5%),” said Ehteshami, professor of international relations and director of the Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah Research Programme at Durham University. “India imports as much as 44% of its oil from the same places - 30% from Saudi Arabia and 14% from Iran. More broadly, as much as 70% of India’s oil imports originate in the Gulf. This means Asia is now seen as the ultimate buyer of oil in the region and countries such as Saudi Arabia, which have built oil refineries off the coast of China, show the developing business pattern and trade routes between the countries and within the region.”
In terms of trade and investment, Ehteshami cited GCC trends by comparing Saudi Arabia’s business activities with China and India. In 2010, Saudi Arabia’s trade reached $40bn with China and $21bn with India. Similarly, Iran’s trade activities amounted to $40bn with China and $13.5bn with India. “This is in the context of China spending $110-150bn annually on oil imports, comprising as much as 14% of its total imports,” the professor said. “Trade between China and the GCC has grown fast, reaching $100bn in 2010 and expected to increase to $300bn by 2020. By 2017, Asia will be the GCC’s biggest trading partner.”
Ehteshami said Israel, too, was expanding trade links with the Asian giants; Indian-Israeli trade stood at $47bn in 2011. This made India Israel’s second most important trading partner. South Korea’s trade with the region is probably even more significant, with three states appearing on its list of top 10 importers in 2010: Saudi Arabia was fourth at $27bn; the UAE at $12.2bn and Kuwait at $11bn in the ninth and tenth positions, respectively.
“‘Asianisation’ in this respect doesn’t worry the GCC as the cash stays here, but empowering trade links and countries does worry Asia about exposure to jihadism. Which is why security is important for powerhouses in the East,” he said. “The security relationships primarily affect the Gulf states, Israel, Sudan and Syria on the Middle Eastern side, and China, India and North Korea on the Asian side.”
He said China has become a primary source of arms for some Middle Eastern states (notably Iran) and a suitable alternative to Western suppliers and Russia in others, as in the case of Egypt. “But China’s total annual arms sales of around $1bn disguise deeper military and security relationships, which now encompass a naval build-up in Pakistan, training and port calls with some Gulf Arab states.”
“In 2011, Israel exported $7.2bn of arms, much of it heading to Asia, including $1bn to India,” he added. “Since 2008, India has signed a total of $6.6bn worth of military contracts with Israel.” Ehteshami cited that as many as 13mn Asian expatriates may be living in the GCC countries. In four of these nations, expatriates account for more than 50% of the total population. These are the UAE (81%) - the highest proportion of expatriates in the national population, Qatar (70%,) Kuwait (60%) and Bahrain (40%).
“Indian nationals make up around half of the UAE’s total workforce and have a strong cultural presence as a consequence,” he said. “Well over $30bn a year is transferred in the form of labour remittances, which acts as a significant source of income for the labour-exporting countries. So, remittances from the GCC countries to India alone amount to $23bn a year today, and those to Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand are not far behind in terms of their relative national importance.”
What else does that labour and expertise source flow entail for the GCC?
Labour has brought with it socio-cultural habits: the celebration of the Chinese new year in the Gulf, marking of Diwali across the GCC countries, a growing interest in traditional Asian customs and the popular Hindu celebration of Holi.
According to Ehteshami, with domestic maids from the Philippines and India being found in the majority of GCC Arab homes, a loss of native culture has been observed among the new generation. By the time a child is 7-8 years old, s/he will know English as well as common terms and slang in Hindi and Filipino, besides identifying with cultures, religions and traditions that are not their own.
He explained, “When you are a minority in your own country, where whatever you need to get done - whether it’s booking a ticket, ordering food or filling gas - is done in English, you start asking yourself things like ‘where do I stand in all of this? What happens if expats are naturalised? What happens to my language and my home? Where do I stand in my own country?’”
But the flip side means that more tourism and GCC students studying across Asia. As Ehteshami puts it, the current 3,500 GCC students studying in China will send the next generation there as well.
“The GCC-Asia Forum promotes cultural exchanges and tourism between the partner regions and as it’s easier to get a visa eastwards than westwards, you can expect to see more influence shifting in the future,” he said. “The GCC is at the crossroads between the East and the West and both polarities know and appreciate this. Transporting people, expertise, culture, businesses and goods in this new-age trade route doesn’t offer any loss to the GCC as the cash stays here.”