Speaking Of Asia

Retake West Asia from the Middle East

When East Asia growth is slowing, Singapore and the region would do well to look to the western reaches of Asia.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud's ongoing grand sweep through East Asia, accompanied by a retinue of more than a thousand princes and courtiers, revives memories of the glory days of the oil states when Gulf sheikhs bestowed Rolex watches upon even casual visitors and, on a whim, could point in a direction and order six-lane highways built for a hundred miles.

Those days are over, of course. Shale gas, new finds in Russia and elsewhere, have depressed oil prices and dented the hubris and purchasing power of oil kingdoms.

Among the stars that dimmed were people like Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi commoner who made much of it possible by dreaming up the 1973 oil embargo. Dismissed from the Saudi court in 1986 after 32 years as the kingdom's oil minister, Sheikh Yamani is living out his days in London.

Still, with oil back at about US$50 a barrel - the Saudis are projecting a nearly 50 per cent increase in revenues this year - there's a lifting of the mood. Besides, when you are the world's third-largest military spender and the custodian of Islam's holiest sites, it is a big stave that you carry.

"The aura of His Majesty's presence was rare, momentous and significant," enthused Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who was minister-in- waiting during King Salman's stop in Malaysia, writing in New Straits Times this week after the royal Boeing 747 had departed for Indonesia, its next port of call.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The King's presence in these parts - his travels will also take him to Brunei, China and Japan before he heads home via the Maldives - is a useful reminder of the importance of a region that, for too many of us, is a blank slate or interpreted through Western lenses.

Singapore's diplomacy has made a good beginning with the upgrading of its representation in UAE to that of a full ambassador in Abu Dhabi. It helps, too, that on the other side, the Asean-Gulf Cooperation Council structure is currently powered by Bahrain, a forward-looking emirate. But too much of its work is powered by the political and bureaucratic leadership, the so-called Track 1. A stronger relationship can come only from the semi-formal and informal tracks, such as the ties that bind us to India.

Given East Asia's abhorrence of disorder and our broad preference to keep religion largely a private matter, most of us also tend to box the Gulf states and their key neighbours as a zone of endless troubles, a headache best avoided when considering investments and certainly travel, unless you are Muslim and planning a pilgrimage. Indeed, it is a pity that we routinely refer to it as the Middle East, when, in truth, the key states, Israel included, ought really to be approached as West Asian nations.

By not doing that, we are missing out on closer awareness of a throbbing, thriving neighbourhood with some idea of where it is going and how it will get there.

From the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to Saudi Arabia, every nation is planning for a post-oil future. This throws up immense opportunities for Asean companies big and small in fields as varied as urban design to education and healthcare.

There are other economic reasons to embrace the region; not only is West Asia a vital source of energy for the Asian continent, but it is also a key employment source for Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Indians and Pakistanis, not to speak of Australians. It is also strategically near the next growth frontier, Africa.

In every way, including the opportunity to offer the world a more nuanced interpretation of Islam at a time when the Donald Trump administration is pushing a calamitous view of the faith, the centrality Asean seeks in Asian affairs can only be enhanced, not diminished, by this.

Take Dubai in the UAE, which once studied Singapore closely as a development model. Unlike its sibling Abu Dhabi, it has little oil. Yet, a recent visit to the emirate revealed a vibrant, go-getting spot on the map, where some 190 nationalities mix freely, and a state that is trying out some amazing experiments, including 3D-printed buildings and unmanned air taxis for city commutes.

Emirates, the state airline, was started three decades ago with two aircraft wet-leased from Pakistan International Airlines, and has emerged as the world's No. 4 airline. Last year, the desert city got 15 million tourists, about the same number as Singapore did. And all this at a flying time from Singapore not significantly longer than it takes to fly to Tokyo or Beijing!

The broader region isn't doing badly either, despite the turmoil. Iraq emerged from recession last year after the government managed to take back large swathes of land from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Iran's growth is at a six-year high as it reintegrates with the global economy, although this could well be set back as the US, under Mr Trump, turns to confront the majority-Shi'ite nation.

And it is not the Arabs alone. The Israelis, who, too, are very much West Asians by location, merit close attention as well. Tel Aviv, for instance, is home to at least 1,450 start-ups, which works out to 28 start-ups per sq km, or, put another way, a start-up for every 290 residents. That's believed to be the highest number of start-ups per capita of any country on earth.

With the highest concentration of start-up accelerators outside the US and a world-class university, Israel's administrative headquarters has evolved into one of the world's leading technology and innovation hubs. Surprisingly, it also has emerged as the vegan capital of the world.

As Asian economies adjust to the rapid changes afoot in manufacturing and digitisation, there is much to be said for having such a state inside the Asian tent peering out than outside looking in.

It is a pity, therefore, that more work isn't being done to bring West Asia closer. Singapore's diplomacy has made a good beginning with the upgrading of its representation in UAE to that of a full ambassador in Abu Dhabi. It helps, too, that on the other side, the Asean-Gulf Cooperation Council structure is currently powered by Bahrain, a forward-looking emirate.

But too much of its work is powered by the political and bureaucratic leadership, the so-called Track 1. A stronger relationship can come only from the semi-formal and informal tracks, such as the ties that bind us to India.

Only then will political and economic intelligence on the region improve. Right now, much of that comes to us through secondary sources, just as with the Pacific Islands, of which our perspectives were influenced by Kiwis and Australians until Singapore appointed its own ambassador to those parts.

For starters, the Middle East Institute - it should probably be renamed Institute of West Asian Studies - could be helped to get the same exposure as think-tanks such as the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS).

Indeed, it may even be worth merging the Middle East Institute with ISAS to create an expanded Institute of South and West Asian Studies. This would not be unusual. Many universities do that. Besides, it would tie in with some of the strategic moves powerful South Asian states like India and Pakistan are themselves making in their western neighbourhood.

This is not to suggest even for a moment that the West Asian region offers easy pickings, business or otherwise. The challenges are several; the application of law is not always even in those parts, especially if you are in dispute with a local citizen or corporate entity. Massive cronyism, especially within the ruling cliques, makes it difficult for outsiders to clinch lucrative franchises.

But nothing ventured is nothing gained, and at a time when growth to the east of us has significantly slowed, and the world is being pushed towards a clash of civilisations, there is little harm in knocking on every door to open fresh avenues for trade, investments and tourism, as well as keep the social peace our societies have prospered under.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'Retake West Asia from the Middle East'. Print Edition | Subscribe