During the years I lived in the Arabian Gulf, I found there was much interest in South-East Asia but little direct knowledge of the region. Similarly, throughout the time I’ve lived in South-East Asia, I’ve come across plenty who want to hear and talk about the Gulf but found that first-hand experience is rarer.
Of course, there are many South-East Asian expatriates working in the Gulf – more than one million Filipinos alone – and there have been people of Arab descent in South-East Asia for centuries.
At times, individual ties have been strong: the UAE-Indonesia Comprehensive Economic Partnership has just come into force, which is expected to increase annual bilateral trade to $10 billion within five years, for example; and relations between Saudi Arabia and Malaysia were so good in 2017 that a King Salman Centre for International Peace was going to be built in Kuala Lumpur.
But at others, the relationship between the GCC and the 10-member Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) as a whole has appeared to amount to little more than “tepid co-operation”, as Narayanappa Janardhan, director of research and analysis at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi, put it recently.
In my own experience, academics and think tank directors have expressed keenness at forging stronger region-to-region links; and then little happened.
This is why the GCC-Asean Summit – the first ever – that took place in Riyadh last weekend was so important.
Co-chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, most of the heads of government were present, and a joint statement was issued with sufficient substance to raise expectations of how the two blocs can co-ordinate and strengthen ties in the future.
The GCC member-states formally acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation in South-East Asia – a legally binding code for inter-state relations in the region and beyond.
All parties committed to an Asean-GCC Framework of Co-operation (2024-2028), which covers political and security dialogue, trade and investment, people-to-people exchanges, education, culture, tourism, media and sports. And the statement set out a range of other areas, from economic development to the joint promotion of both regions’ traditions, arts, heritage and cultures, where the two blocs have agreed to work closely together.
Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia – the country co-ordinator of the summit – proposed creating a free trade agreement for the GCC and Asean, which would surely increase the already robust $110 billion trade between the blocs.
The summit also issued a firm “Statement on Developments in Gaza”, which condemned all attacks against civilians, called for a durable ceasefire and for all parties to abide by international humanitarian law, and urged all concerned to work towards the realisation of a two-state solution in Palestine-Israel based on the pre-1967 borders.
It was another part of the joint statement, however, that caught my eye and hinted at a tantalising prospect.
The summit jointly “welcomed the candidacy of Saudi Arabia to host the 2034 Fifa World Cup”. Riyadh’s bid can already be assumed to have the support of the entire Arab region; to add the official backing of all of South-East Asia, which taken as a whole is globally the third-most populous economy, after China and India, is quite something.
If the two blocs made a regular habit of teaming up to act as one internationally, they could constitute a formidable grouping.
Think what they could do. They would represent more than 700 million people, and they would have a combined gross domestic product estimated between $6-8 trillion. Aligned as the GCC and Asean are in many ways, together they could project a far stronger voice in the global conversation than they do on their own.
They have important views and aspects in common. The around 250 million Muslims in South-East Asia is an obvious point, but the place religion has in nearly all of the two blocs's member-states is the larger picture, especially compared to the secularising West. Both blocs acknowledge the reality of the rise of China, and they want to work peacefully with Beijing and avoid the rhetoric of war.
Broadly speaking, they have similar approaches to human rights.
The 2020 version of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam states that “everyone has the right to exercise and enjoy the rights and freedoms set out in the present declaration, without prejudice to the principles of Islam and national legislation”, while the 1993 Bangkok Declaration issued after the Regional Meeting for Asia of the World Conference on Human Rights said that the latter must be considered “bearing in mind the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds”.
All the GCC and Asean member-states would also agree to the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another”, which is in the Treaty of Amity and Co-operation; take no pleasure at being lectured by the former colonial powers; and wish to build a future within the context of their own histories, cultures and customs.
Together, the GCC and Asean could play a significant role in determining the emerging multipolar world, resisting the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” paradigm to which some leaders wish to reduce international relations, and instead promoting a vision of peace, mutual collaboration and respect for others.
The prospect is alluring. It’s certainly a possibility if the will is there.
Either way, the GCC-Asean Summit was a good start – and it deserves much more attention, both within member-states and beyond.
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