Historic Riyadh summit brings Asia’s east and west together

Historic Riyadh summit brings Asia’s east and west together

Last Friday, Riyadh hosted a historic summit—the first ever—between the leaders of the GCC and the ASEAN (File/AFP)
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Riyadh hosted a historic summit last Friday between the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — the first ever — to chart a new strategic path toward greater integration between the two blocs. It was co-chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

While the main focus was economic cooperation, the Riyadh convocation established mechanisms for political dialogue, security cooperation, climate change mitigation and people-to-people exchanges.

The two organizations started their institutional dialogue in 2009 in Bahrain, they agreed on a joint action plan a year later in Singapore and went on to convene numerous meetings in both regions and elsewhere to advance integration along the main themes of that action plan, including trade and investment, tourism, education, agriculture and food security.

At Saudi Arabia’s initiative, last week’s summit was convened to upgrade the two blocs’ engagement to a strategic level by engaging heads of state and government. At the end of the summit, they agreed to meet every two years; the next meeting at this level will be held in Malaysia in 2025.

The GCC-ASEAN summit was convened to upgrade the two blocs’ engagement to a strategic level

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Much as the GCC’s founding in 1981 was in response to major security upheavals in the Gulf region at the time, ASEAN’s establishment was also rooted in the search for regional security. In 1967, five Southeast Asian nations — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — set up ASEAN to create a common front against the spread of communism. Its membership has doubled since then with the addition of Brunei (1984), Vietnam (1995), Laos and Myanmar (1997) and Cambodia (1999). Timor-Leste will be the next country to join ASEAN; after it applied for membership in 2011, the group granted it observer status in 2022 and it is on track for full membership by 2025.

Top leaders from both blocs attended the Riyadh gathering, with the exception of Myanmar, whose participation in such events has been frozen by ASEAN after it rejected the organization’s peace plan for the civil war in that troubled land. However, East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta was there, even though his country is still an observer.

With the growth in membership, the Southeast Asian organization’s focus has also shifted. It is no longer concerned with the spread of communism, as some of its new members are run by local communist parties, but is instead focused on economic integration. However, much like the GCC, ASEAN states jealously guard their political independence.

In 1976, the members signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which emphasizes mutual respect and noninterference in other countries’ affairs. All ASEAN members have acceded to the treaty, known as TAC. At the Riyadh summit, ASEAN participants welcomed the fact that GCC states have also acceded to TAC.

ASEAN’s shift in focus to economic matters made even more sense after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which started in Thailand, the birthplace of ASEAN. The bloc’s members pushed to further integrate their economies to deal with the crisis. Since then, ASEAN has become more integrated and connected, but it has yet to adopt a customs union or a monetary union.

The two blocs are among the largest economic entities in the world. GCC gross domestic product stands at $2.2 trillion and ASEAN’s at $3.4 trillion. Their combined markets of about $6 trillion, when fully integrated, would make them the fourth-largest in the world after the US, China and the EU. ASEAN and the GCC are among the fastest-growing regions in the world.

The summit surpassed expectations, even those of the organizers, in reenergizing integration and connectivity

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

These two regions have extensive trade and investment ties. The crown prince pointed to the significant and fast-growing volume of trade exchange. Two-way trade stood at $137 billion in 2022, which represents about 8 percent of total GCC external trade. Trade with Indonesia and Vietnam, in particular, has witnessed brisk growth in recent years. GCC exports to ASEAN account for about 9 percent of all exports and its imports from ASEAN are about 6 percent of all imports.

GCC investment in ASEAN countries has reached $75 billion during the past two decades, or about 4 percent of all GCC investments abroad. ASEAN’s investment in GCC countries has reached $25 billion, or about 3.4 percent of all incoming investment.

ASEAN economies, fueled by fast growth and more than 650 million people, provide an attractive market for GCC exporters and investors. ASEAN and GCC leaders, speaking at the Riyadh summit, invited Gulf investors to take advantage of the great opportunities their economies provide for each other.

The detailed seven-page joint statement issued at the conclusion of the summit included new ideas, many of which were amplified by the leaders addressing the Riyadh summit. They welcomed Saudi Arabia’s bid to host Expo 2030 in Riyadh and its candidacy to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup, stressing the importance of organizing such regional and international events to reenergize economic and cultural exchanges between the Gulf and Southeast Asia.

Initiating a change in the course of their cooperation, the two groups have agreed to undertake regular political and security dialogues and explore cooperation in preventing and combating transnational crime, cybercrime, terrorism and extremism.

The summit acknowledged the “positive contributions” of Southeast Asian workers in the GCC region and encouraged collaboration to promote “orderly, safe, regular and responsible labor mobility,” while strengthening cooperation to combat people trafficking in relation to recruitment practices, referring to an issue of growing concern regarding the conduct of employment agencies in the workers’ parent countries.

The leaders supported intercultural dialogue to “enhance trust and advance mutual understanding and greater respect for diversity, thus contributing to a culture of peace.”

The GCC-ASEAN Framework of Cooperation, endorsed at the summit, includes extensive mechanisms to push forward integration, connectivity and dialogue between the two groups over the next four years (2024-2028) in the areas identified in the joint statement.

A real test for the new relationship came when the two sides started discussing Israel’s war against Gaza and the need to take a principled stand befitting such an important high-level gathering. In the past, meetings between the two organizations avoided commenting publicly on such difficult issues. In this case, some ASEAN members maintain close ties to Israel and some have workers there, including among the casualties and hostages taken in the conflict.

Despite these challenges, they were able to put out a strong separate statement on Gaza, after hours of debate. It condemned all attacks against civilians and called for a durable ceasefire and access to humanitarian aid and other basic necessities. It also called for the protection of civilians and urged progress toward the two-state solution, supporting the Saudi initiative to revive the peace process.

The summit surpassed expectations, even those of the organizers, in reenergizing integration and connectivity between Asia’s west and east, whose ties are steeped in history and common culture but have frayed over past decades because of global polarization and conflict. Now, the path toward their integration is clear.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the GCC. X: @abuhamad1
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