Gulf states need to deepen ties with new Asian allies

Wednesday, Dec 05, 2012

Along with much of the Gulf, the UAE is being forced to find new friends in Asia, but is finding it hard to upgrade its relationships from the relentlessly commercial to a more strategic political understanding.

Such an effort has to come from the top, and must be fronted by the governments, as there is a deep cultural gap between the people of the UAE and the populations in countries like China, Japan and South Korea. The day-to-day concerns and long-term family ambitions of a UAE citizen are very different from the worries and hopes of a Chinese citizen.

This means that there is no bottom-up coming together of the two cultures since the Arab and Pacific Rim populations do not naturally enjoy each other’s offerings. Very few Arabs understand Chinese, Japanese or Korean, which means that literature and films find it hard to travel.

It is hard to build a deep cultural understanding based on the undoubted popularity of Bruce Lee’s kung fu films. And the wider possibilities of what might be available in the way of education or leisure in the Far East has not yet opened up to Gulf populations.

This contrasts with the deeper relationship the Gulf states share with their long established allies in the West, where the United States and Britain are far more accessible.

The prevalence of English language is a vital factor, but the relationships are bolstered by much more familiarity, as many Gulf citizens have been to the US or Britain for education, may have second homes there or at the very least are regular visitors, and due to history there are all sorts of business links. For example, UK and US standards have been adopted by many authorities as mandatory in all sorts of fields like construction, health care and consumer rights.

US energy self-sufficiency

In addition, the West has proved itself willing to come to the aid of the Gulf. When Kuwait was invaded by Saddam Hussain’s army, the Desert Storm liberation was not manned by hundreds of thousands of Chinese or Japanese soldiers. The willingness of the US, Britain, France and other allies to commit their soldiers to support the Gulf states is a vital indicator of the strength of their strategic relationship with them.

But that said, the Gulf is starting to focus a lot more on the Far East. It is all too obvious that for this generation and beyond, substantial commercial growth will be in the huge markets of China and India, with the economies of Japan Korea, Indonesia and other south Asian territories offering tremendous potential.

A further push to the Gulf to look east will be the importance of shale oil to the US, which may find itself self-sufficient in hydrocarbons for the first time in many decades. All modern economies have a vital requirement for energy, but if the US can find all the oil it needs at home, then suddenly it will not have the same strategic interest in the Arab world.

Other than a general sense of goodwill and a broad interest in good governance, it will care much less about which governments rule the oilfields, and Washington will see much less direct American national interest in the Gulf region.

This means that the Gulf states will have a problem, since their premier military ally will be less interested in their fates. They will seek to engage their new Asian friends, but it is hard to see them replacing the US at that level. The main impact of the Asian allies will be more in their commercial strength.

But this commercial imperative is not enough. Both sides of this deep divide need to work at overcoming their mutual ignorance of each other. Therefore it will be important that the Gulf invests time in getting its students to learn Korean, Japanese and Mandarin.

Schools should start teaching Asian studies, and the very few cultural exchanges which have happened to date need to become a lot more frequent. We need to see more Korean orchestras visiting the UAE, more Chinese art shows held, and more Japanese authors coming on lecture tours. With the existing strong commercial links, and a wider cultural appreciation, then a more strategic relationship can be expected to develop. The Gulf is an important part of the Arab world, and a significant part of the Islamic world.

The Far East may not care very much about the Arab world, and it only has a peripheral interest in Islamic affairs, but if these states want to be part of the Gulf’s strategic thinking, then the Asians will have to share their concerns and take part in finding answers to the Middle East’s notoriously enduring problems.

But in addition to this high level of engagement at government level, the lack of popular understanding between the Gulf and the Far East should not be allowed to persist. It is too dangerous for both sides to have such an important relationship hampered by profound ignorance of the other side.

Just as universities in Korea and Japan are investing in Arab studies, as is happening in China, the Gulf institutes must start building up their Asian studies.

By Francis Matthew, Editor at Large

Gulf News 2012. All rights reserved.


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