In recent years, GCC countries have increasingly pivoted towards Asia, and ties are now growing to encompass security and political dimensions alongside robust economic relations. To explore these dynamics, The Middle East Council on Global Affairs (ME Council) organized a panel at the Doha Forum titled “Asia and the GCC: A Deepening Partnership.” The session convened leading experts to offer a nuanced examination of the evolving ties between both regions. The panel was moderated by Dania Thafer, senior fellow at the ME Council, and included Jasem AlBudaiwi, secretary general of the GCC, Wu Bingbing, director of Peking University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center, Shuji Hosaka, director of the Jime Center and board member of the Institute of Energy Economics, and Nilanjan Gosh, director at the Observer Researcher Foundation (ORF). During the session, participants explored the broad contours of Asia-GCC ties before delving into the impacts of recent geopolitical events, namely the Gaza war, on Asia-GCC relations.
Dania Thafer set the tone of the discussion by highlighting the recent dynamic shifts in Asia-GCC relations. She noted the move beyond conventional trade ties to include aspects such as technology cooperation and political alliances. Thafer emphasized the Gulf states’ potential involvement in organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS, reflecting significant geopolitical shifts. She also touched on China’s mediation efforts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, marking a transition from purely commercial interests to a more prominent political role.
Jasem AlBudaiwi then elaborated on the historical connections between the GCC and Asia. He underscored the GCC’s ongoing efforts to expand partnerships, beyond traditional western allies, including in Africa and the Caribbean. He particularly stressed the GCC’s comprehensive efforts to deepen relations with Asia, illustrated by the substantial trade volume between both regions. Wu Bingbing discussed China’s role in the GCC, underscoring the shared interests between both. He highlighted China’s significant energy imports from the GCC and cooperation in areas such as renewable energy, the digital economy, and healthcare. Bingbing also pointed to the importance of people-to-people relations in deepening ties between China and the GCC.
The conversation then shifted to individual national strategies within these broader regional dynamics. Abdulaziz Sager addressed Saudi Arabia’s approach towards Asia. While acknowledging strong economic ties, he clarified that Asian countries are not viewed as replacements for Western allies, particularly in security. He noted that Saudi Arabia views Asian countries as important regional hubs but maintains its security alliances with the U.S. and Europe. Shuji Hosaka shared insights into Japan’s evolving relationship with the Gulf, discussing Japan’s reliance on the region as a primary energy partner with the potential for expanding cooperation into new areas, such as hydrogen, ammonia, and carbon storage technologies. This reflects Japan’s strategic approach to diversify its energy sources and deepen technological ties with the GCC.
Lastly, Nilanjan Gosh discussed the India-Middle East corridor, highlighting its significance in strengthening India-GCC relations and its potential to create product and factor markets, thereby enhancing economic resilience and reducing transactional costs. This corridor, explained Gosh, represents an extension of the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) signed with the UAE, in 2022, reflecting the growing interdependence and shared interests between India and the GCC.
Assessing the Impact of the Gaza War
During the session’s second round, panelists engaged in a nuanced discussion surrounding the implications of the Gaza war on Asia-GCC relations, revealing the intricate interplay between regional conflicts and international alliances.
AlBudaiwi, led the conversation by reflecting on the changing dynamics of international relations in the wake of the Gaza war. He highlighted the Arab ministers’ visit to China, during their tour, as part of their mediation efforts. AlBudaiwi argued that the tour was reflective of the GCC’s efforts to strengthen regional engagement with global allies. Bingbing expanded on China’s evolving role in the Middle East, discussing China’s new security framework proposals, including a trans-Gulf dialogue and advocacy for a two-state solution, indicating China’s deepening political engagement with the Middle East.
Panelists also explored each respective regions’ considerations amidst the evolving war. Sager honed in on Saudi Arabia’s perspective, alluding to nascent strategic realignments and emphasizing the considerable increase in diplomatic visits and interactions between Asia and the GCC. Sager also touched on the potential implications of the UN ceasefire vote, suggesting it could bring about significant shifts in international relations.
Hosaka discussed Japan’s use of soft power in the region, including cultural influences, through media for instance. He also touched on Japan’s delicate balancing act in the Gaza war, attempting to balance its stance within G7 consensus, which tends to lean towards Israel. Lastly, Gosh addressed the Gaza war’s impact on the India-Middle East corridor. He acknowledged the social costs of such conflicts but remained optimistic about the resilience of India-GCC relations, emphasizing the shared interests and mutual benefits that underpin this partnership.
Overall, panelists provided comprehensive and insightful analysis of the intricate relationship between both regions. The discussion underscored the importance of understanding the multifaceted nature of Asia-GCC relations, especially in the context of a rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, highlighting the need for strategic, nuanced partnerships and cooperation to navigate the complexities of the current global environment.