Boosting Asean's ties with Gulf states

Singapore hopes to strengthen ties between the Gulf states and South-east Asia by improving economic relations between the two regions, and fostering closer links between their people.

These are the two key focuses of the first ASEAN-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) workshop, launched in Singapore yesterday by Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam and his Bahrain counterpart Shaikh Khalid Ahmed Al Khalifa.

Officials from the two regions had, at a ministerial meeting in Bahrain last year, proposed a new workshop to discuss with stakeholders in fields like heritage and finance, ways to encourage greater cooperation.

With the ASEAN Economic Community poised to debut next year and with the GCC maturing as a group, the one-day workshop is indeed "timely", said Mr Shanmugam. And an increasingly globalised world, he said, means countries must build a wide network of relations beyond their immediate neighbours.

"We really have to start looking beyond our historical and traditional relationships which, while still useful, no longer fully serve our respective needs," said Mr Shanmugam in his opening remarks.

"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."

The GCC comprises all the Arab states in the Persian Gulf, save Iraq.

Mr Shanmugam drew attention to the regions' many similarities.

Both are prospering, and boast a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of over US$4.37 trillion (S$5.46 trillion).

Their economic growth far outpaces the expected global average of 3.7 per cent. ASEAN's GDP is expected to grow at 4.7 per cent this year, and the GCC at 4.5 per cent.

Both also have young populations, with one-third of ASEAN's population and half of the GCC's under 30 years old.

These demographics suggest an increase in the demand for goods and services within both regions, said Mr Shanmugam.

ASEAN - with its population of 620 million people - can offer GCC a ready market for energy exports, for instance, and a reliable supply of raw materials, among others.

And beyond dollars and cents, the ties between their people should be strengthened as well.

The Middle East and South-east Asia, said Mr Shanmugam, have strong historical roots. Trade between the regions goes back to the ninth century, and Arab sailors and merchants brought Islam to South-east Asian shores, where it is now the faith of 40 per cent of the region's population.

The regions can explore new ways to further tourism links, and promote their heritage and arts to improve mutual understanding, he suggested.

In his opening remarks, Shaikh Khalid said: "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."

This article was first published on June 12, 2014.
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