SINGAPORE - Singapore is hoping to strengthen ties between the Gulf states and Southeast Asia by improving economic relations between the two regions, and fostering closer links between their people.
These are the two key focuses of the inaugural ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council workshop on Wednesday, said Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, who jointly opened the workshop in Singapore with Bahrain's Minister of Foreign Affairs Shaikh Khalid Ahmed Al Khalifa.
The one-day workshop brings together not only diplomats, but also participants from fields such as finance and heritage together to share their experience and expertise.
An increasingly globalised world, said Mr Shanmugam, means countries should work not only within their respective regions, but build a wide network of relations beyond their neighbours.
"There is therefore much that we can do with each other to cooperate for mutual benefit. And we really have to start looking beyond our historical and traditional relationships which, while still useful, no longer fully serve our respective needs," he said in his opening statement. "We need to create new linkages, forge new networks, not just with those who were here a long time ago as colonial masters, but also between ASEAN and the GCC."
Mr Shanmugam also drew attention to the regions' many similarities. Both ASEAN and the GCC are prospering, with a combined GDP of over US$4.37 trillion. And the economic growth of both regions far outpace the expected global growth average of 3.7 per cent. ASEAN's GDP is expected to grow at 4.7 per cent in 2014, while the GCC's expected growth rate is 4.5 per cent.
Their member states also have a great number of young people, with one-third of ASEAN's population, and half of the GCC's, under 30 years old.
These demographics suggest that the demand for good and services within both regions will increase, said Mr Shanmugam. ASEAN - with its population of 620 million people - can offer GCC a ready market for energy exports and outbound investment, for instance, and a reliable supply of raw materials, among others.
In 2012, ASEAN-GCC trade reached US$135 billion - a 20 per cent increase over 2011 - and these figures are expected to rise in coming years.
And beyond the economy, ties between the people should be strengthened as well.
"From every face of this relationship (between the two regions), you will find depth, you will find colour, and you will find a lot of inspiration that we can build on in the future," Shaikh Khalid said in his opening remarks.
The Middle East and Southeast Asia, said Mr Shanmugam, have strong historical roots, with trade between the regions going back to the 9th century. Arab sailors and merchants also brought Islam to Southeast Asian shores, said Mr Shanmugam. It is now the faith of 40 per cent of the region's population.
Air travel between the two regions have increased as Gulf carriers up the frequency of their flights to major hubs in Southeast Asia, he said, adding that the regions can explore new ways to further tourism links.
There should also be greater promotion of their respective cultures in the fields of heritage and arts to help improve mutual understanding, he suggested.
Though the regions are strongly linked by trade, culture, and the relationships between their people, Shaikh Khalid says more can be done - and the workshop, which he hopes can serve as a "springboard" for further cooperation projects, is a step forward.
"We have that strong foundation, but now we need to be practical. We need to bring it forward... We're optimistic. We're awaiting the ideas from this workshop, and we're looking forward to the future," he said.