On May 23, 2022, InterRegional for Strategic Analysis held a workshop entitled: "The Future of Interactions between Arab Gulf Countries and the Indo-Pacific Region," which hosted Dr. Jean-Loup Samaan, a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute of the National University of Singapore. The seminar addressed the main approaches to understanding the future of interactions between Arab Gulf states and the Indo-Pacific region by shedding light on the determinants of Gulf-Asian relations as a starting point. Then, it addressed the escalation of international alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, determinants of the Gulf vision for the region, and the most prominent challenges related to Gulf interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
The workshop started its discussions by emphasizing that the determinants of Gulf-Asian relations can be understood through several approaches that can be clarified as follows:
1. Extended Religious and Cultural Ties: According to the workshop, relations between Gulf countries and Asia are long standing. For religious and cultural considerations, given the association of countries bordering the Indian Ocean, such as the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia, there is a common religious bond through the Islamic religion. Historians always remind us that historically there were relations between countries or regions bordering the Indian Ocean. If we are going to talk about East Africa, the Gulf, or Southeast Asia, we find that all of these regions have different political and historical backgrounds, with Islam being the clear link between them. Thus, there was cultural exchange between the Gulf and the rest of the Indian Ocean.
2. Human Mobility and Mutual Migration Movements: According to the workshop, human movement between the Gulf and Southeast Asia is a protracted historical movement, but increased significantly in the twentieth century. This is due to oil discoveries in the Gulf, where there are a number of workers from Southeast Asia. However, historically there are extended ties between the Gulf region and important Asian countries such as Pakistan, India, and others. This relationship increased in the seventies of the last century due to the emergence of oil in this region, and because of the increase in demand for it. That is why many Indians and Pakistanis now live in the Gulf region. These are all important points that show us that these are long-standing relations rather than new ones.
3. The Rise of Asia and the Reconfiguration of the Energy Market: With the rise of emerging economies in Asia, such as China, India, Japan, and South Korea, which represent the strongest emerging economies in the current global economy, Gulf-Asian relations have deepened. Judging by the map of global oil exports, according to the workshop, Saudi oil exports to Asia represent about 77% of Saudi oil exports, whereas Europe represents about 10% of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports, which illustrates the nature of relations. The same is true for Kuwait, since 80% of Kuwait’s oil exports go to the Asia-Pacific region. On the other hand, Europe represents only 8% of Kuwait’s oil exports, indicating that it is a regional policy.
4. The Strategic Shift of Gulf Countries Toward Asia: The workshop concluded that oil is not the only factor in the current developing relations between Gulf states and the Asian continent. Rather, there is a strategic dynamic in the shift of the Gulf towards the major Asian powers, which falls within the framework of distributing Gulf diplomacy and diversification of strategic alliances. Thus, within this context, it is possible to understand the intensity of diplomatic visits between the Gulf states and Asian countries, given that leaders from the Gulf states have made several important visits to Asian countries.
On the other hand, major Asian powers, especially China, are not looking at the Arab-Gulf region solely from an economic standpoint, but also from a strategic position. With the decline of the strategic influence of the United States and the West in this region and the decline of its importance to the current and former American administrations, the Gulf states have diversified their strategic relations with Asian countries. This decline has also been responded to in kind with the increased pace of Gulf-Asian relations, especially in terms of China, India, and Japan.
The workshop emphasized that the Gulf transformation towards Asia is also linked to the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific region in international strategy. Its most prominent features are as follows:
1. The Obama axis in Asia and the Pacific: According to the workshop, the formation of a special policy for the Indo-Pacific region in the United States began during the administration of former President Barack Obama, and extended to the administration of former President Donald Trump, and has continued until now. Though the Obama administration focused on the Indo-Pacific region, the White House did not wish to use that term throughout the administration. This was because the United States wanted to give priority to Asia, a viewpoint of the Obama administration which sought to reduce its relations with the Middle East and to start focusing on East Asia.
This appeared in an article written by Hillary Clinton during the Obama administration at the end of 2011, in which she concluded that the US State Department wanted to emphasize the issue of the rise of ISIS. Therefore, it did not want to adopt macro-regional policies towards the Indo-Pacific region, which would require a change of resources and a rearrangement of priorities. Thus, by the end of the Obama administration, the Middle East, particularly Iran and Syria, were the primary focus points for the United States.
2. The launch of the Pacific strategy in the era of Trump: Since 2016 under the Trump administration, a different American approach to Asia has been developed. However, it is important to remember that by the end of Obama’s presidency, US relations with China had largely deteriorated, with suspicions on both sides that each was motivated by a military confrontation with the other. During Trump’s presidency, curtailing China became the focal point of American attention. So starting in 2013, the administration of US military forces in that region, formerly called the "Pacific" Command, was renamed the "Indo-Pacific" command.
3. Washington’s Formation of the Quad and AUKUS Alliances: After Trump left and the Democrats returned to the White House, the Biden administration turned to building and reviving new regional arrangements in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or "Quad," a Bush-era policy which brought together India, Australia, the United States, and Japan since 2007, was revived. Then the Biden administration launched the AUKUS coalition, which was announced in September 2021, and includes the United States, Britain, and Australia. This was with the aim of creating another arrangement with the primary component being the military component, in which the United States provides nuclear power for submarines in this region.
The Gulf Vision
The panel discussion continued with the discussion of the Gulf’s perspective towards the Indo-Pacific region. This is in the context of a tri-polar strategic triangle in the Indo-Pacific between Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi, which can be explained by the following:
1. The absence of a Gulf vision specifically for the Indo-Pacific: According to the workshop, in the current period, Gulf countries do not have a specific policy towards the Indo-Pacific region, with none of the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council having made any approach toward Indo-Pacific countries. Indeed, Gulf countries still approach this term with caution, as it is affected by its different American definitions of the region, which appears to a large extent to be a political term, rather than a geographical term that can be dealt with as a clear and specific concept.
Through analyzing the strategy of the Biden administration, including the report that was issued by his administration regarding the Indo-Pacific, we find that it is different from what was circulated during the Trump administration. The Indo-Pacific has become known as the region that extends from the eastern coasts of the Pacific Ocean to the western coasts of the Indian Ocean. Accordingly, it extends from the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden as the entrance to the Indo-Pacific, placing the Gulf states in this region.
As for the approach adopted by the Trump administration to the Indo-Pacific, it was primarily Asian at its core. In this, it starts from India and Pakistan, and does not take Gulf countries into account, which is what causes a degree of ambiguity and uncertainty among Gulf countries.
2. Considering the Indo-Pacific as a Region of International Polarization: The workshop concluded that there are increasing polarization dimensions in the Indo-Pacific region, given that countries located in this region face great difficulties in staying neutral, especially with the intensifying competition between the United States and China in that strategic region. This polarizing dimension poses a challenge to countries that want to diversify their range of strategic relations with major international powers, which is what appears in the Gulf case. This is due to their desire to continue close relations with Washington, and maintain flexible openness to Beijing for multiple economic, strategic and military considerations.
3. The Centrality of the Strategic Triad of Washington – Beijing – New Delhi: According to the workshop, there is a three-polar strategic triad in the Indo-Pacific region, represented by Washington, Beijing, and New Delhi. This does not mean that there are clear alliances between Washington and New Delhi to confront Beijing, rather that New Delhi may join in a future agreement that includes China for its own considerations despite their thorny relationship. However, this will not happen automatically.
For this reason, we saw that India did not condemn the Russian military intervention in Ukraine for their own strategic reasons. In addition, we saw that some Gulf countries that were in connection with the three countries had to respond to the presence of this strategic triangle in that vital region of the world.
4. The American presence in the Gulf region: According to the workshop, in this regard, we must remember that the United States is still a major player in the Gulf region, despite its reduced presence there. Indeed, the United States is the largest power with a presence in the Gulf, one that far exceeds that of the Chinese. This is due to the fact that the US presence in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and elsewhere is still very strong. Furthermore, although there is American talk about reducing its presence in the Gulf region, this is unlikely to happen in the next few years. This is also one of the factors affecting Gulf states, driving them to position themselves strategically in the Indo-Pacific region.
The workshop discussed how to avoid polarizing competitions in the Indo-Pacific region, and promote concepts of strategic partnership and economic prosperity. This was in addition to comprehensive balance and multilateral mechanisms related to small states and their role in the regional security system. All of which can be explained by the following:
1. The Need to Avoid Falling into the Trap of Polarization: According to the workshop, the strongest strategic relationship of the Gulf countries is with the United States, with no doubt that the United States will be the largest partner of the Gulf countries for years to come. Indeed, the strategic future of the Gulf depends on the relationship with the United States.
However, at the same time, the future of prosperity in the Persian Gulf does not depend on the United States, but rather on Asia, especially China. This is the main dilemma facing Gulf states. Yet the positive thing here is that this dilemma does not exist only in the Gulf, but also other countries in Asia as well.
The workshop stressed that in order to maintain balanced relations, you must maintain strong relations with all the great powers. This is because the only way for regional powers to defend their interests is through a game of balances and not to fall into a trap of polarizing alliances. Additionally, the workshop affirmed that the Gulf countries are not forced to choose between the United States and China, but rather must choose their priorities according to their national security and economic interests.
2. The multiple security threats in the Indo-Pacific: According to the workshop, in terms of the main threats to the Indo-Pacific region, some countries, such as the United States or India, will consider China and its expansion in the Indian Ocean a security challenge. There are concerns about the Chinese ocean fleet and China’s military base in Djibouti, in addition to China’s expansion of ports in Southeast Asia, but it is not an opinion shared by all countries.
On the other hand, however, looking at the Indo-Pacific region, we find that there is an area used by networks of nuclear expansion which reaches from the Horn of Africa to North Korea. Similarly, there are also ballistic missiles and multiple nuclear technologies found in this region.
Additionally, there are also terrorist networks operating in this region as we have seen in the past twenty years. This is because in a way, the Indian Ocean has seen transactions between terrorist organizations in Southeast Asia, in which they exchange experiences, cooperate, and share information and technology with other organizations from the Arab region and the Middle East.
This is in addition to the problem of piracy in the Indian Ocean, especially in the area near the Horn of Africa and Bab al-Mandab. This is a part of the Indian Ocean, in which you see the weaknesses of African countries in this region, as there is an inability to confront the problem of piracy. Thus, diplomatic relations in this region are affected by this strategic competition.
Piracy and terrorism are primarily what affect the security of the Gulf. The Houthis, for example, have been launching many ballistic missiles at both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and therefore have become an illegitimate player, threatening the security of the Gulf. This threat was not expected several years ago. However, it is linked to the security of the Gulf in the Indian Ocean, as most of the technology obtained by the Houthis was from Iran via ships that were crossing the Indian Ocean.
3. Iran’s growing interest in the Indo-Pacific region: The workshop concluded that since Iran has been under many sanctions for nearly four decades, it automatically looks to the Indo-Pacific region as it can bring its relations with the countries of that region to a level of economic opportunities that it cannot obtain from Europe and the United States. Therefore, Tehran is looking east for this reason, as it also has good relations with India and falls under the influence of China. With regards to ICBMs, Iran has been using Chinese technology since the 1990s alongside Korean programs, which is not just limited to the ICBM technology field.
The workshop confirmed that China at the present time does not intend to abandon its relationship with Iran, and has no desire to choose between the Gulf countries and Iran. However, Iran does not have much that it can offer to the Indo-Pacific region, since it is seen as a difficult market not only because of the sanctions, but also because of its capabilities and economic structure. It is a country whose economy is controlled by the Revolutionary Guards, thus impacting the economic potential of relations between Indo-Pacific countries and Iran.
As for Iran’s military role, the Iranians are active in naval initiatives in the Indian Ocean, but not in the Pacific region. While Iran has held naval workshops and exercises to promote maritime security, in terms of naval capabilities, it has limited capabilities. This is because Iran focuses most on the Strait of Hormuz, and the region that extends from the Strait of Hormuz to Bab al-Mandab, with no capabilities to play a role in that region greater than that.
4. The Ambiguity of the Indo-Pacific Belt and Road Initiative: The workshop discussions regarding the Belt and Road Initiative found that from 2013 until 2019, everyone was talking about this initiative, that the Chinese government was promoting it as a major program to be established, and that it would change geopolitical relations between China and Europe. Indeed, the impression was that all these projects undertaken by China would be implemented, but since the Coronavirus pandemic, people discovered that this initiative had been limited to specific investments. Hence, China was lending without looking at specific projects, as happened in Africa and Southeast Asia, leaving some projects to be halted, while some have not been implemented fully or at all.
In conclusion, according to the workshop, looking at the map of China’s investments across the world, we find that Beijing does not invest primarily in the United States and Europe, which is interesting. Thus, if we look at China’s investments, in fact, it does not present the vision that we see from the concept of the Belt and Road, rather the investments are traditional investments in the financial and other markets. Accordingly, what we see now, with regard to Chinese projects, is that they are slowing down, perhaps due to the pandemic over the past two years. Additionally, this initiative did not appear on the agenda, while the tone of discourse about it changed, and perhaps interest in it decreased.
The workshop concluded that China is currently focusing on its internal affairs as it attempts to eliminate the Coronavirus pandemic inside the country, and no longer presents itself as the leader of the international economy, as was the case in the period from 2013 to 2019. Hence, the initiative was stopped by the current pandemic, and it is not itself a framework for cooperation in the region, or in the countries of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Therefore, we must wait until the end of the pandemic to see if China will revive the Belt and Road Initiative in a way that is more attractive to the Indo-Pacific.