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The GCC’s Tilt Toward Asian Regional Organizations

Over the past year, the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have grown steadily more involved in a wide array of political and economic organizations in East Asia and Southeast Asia. While the European Union and NATO aim to increase their presence in the Gulf region, GCC countries endeavor to carve out roles for themselves in groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BRICS, Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

On October 13, at its latest summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, CICA accepted Kuwait as its 28th member state. Kuwait’s accession to CICA—of which Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE are already members—is the latest example of GCC states seeking greater integration into, and involvement in, Asian regional partnerships.

During a September 15-16 summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar secured dialogue partner status in the SCO, an economic, political, and security organization established by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE are slated to become dialogue partners in the future.

In June, the president of the BRICS international forum, Purnima Anand, announced that Saudi Arabia planned to officially join the coalition—much to the dismay of France and the United States. One month earlier, the Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers each joined other guest countries at a BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting for the first time. Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the acceleration of the organization’s expansion process later that summer, and the GCC states seem eager to participate. BRICS is a heterogeneous organization composed of five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

The Pivot East from the GCC’s Perspective

The GCC’s integration in Asian regional partnerships is among the latest manifestations of its “pivot to Asia”— a concerted effort to strengthen political, economic, and security relations with other Asian countries over the past decade. Gulf leaders consider these organizations a springboard to deepen such ties. At the same time, the U.S. and other NATO allies, the Gulf’s traditional strategic partners, are watching with alarm as their once staunch associates begin to look elsewhere for political and security cooperation.

Despite the region’s close historical alignment with Western organizations, a confluence of political forces are driving GCC countries to bolster previously neglected ties with Asian organizations. First and foremost, the GCC states have seen the benefits of multilateralism, and understand that limiting their engagement to Western organizations could isolate them from potential political and commercial partners in Asia. Having realized that, GCC leaderships have worked to strengthen diplomatic representation in Asian countries and regional organizations to enhance their positions in international affairs and increase options for developing strategic partnerships with Asian countries.

In addition, increasing their presence within Asian organizations will also nurture their economic and security relations with the countries in that part of the world. The GCC states, which have fast-growing economies, are undertaking ambitious development and economic “visions”; they crave foreign investment to keep these projects alive, and Asian economies are willing investors.

The leading member states of these organizations, namely Russia, China and India, also have significant interests in the Gulf region. The GCC states play an important role in China’s international economic plans, including its high-profile “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). China and other major Asian economies rely heavily on Gulf petrochemical products.

In the past decade, top Chinese officials have paid several visits to the Gulf and inked comprehensive strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and strategic partnerships with Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait. In the same vein, Gulf leaders, including Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, visited China on several occasions. In January, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain visited Beijing to accelerate the process of establishing a free trade agreement between China and the GCC. In September, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a meeting with the foreign ministers of the GCC countries on the sidelines of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

The U.S. Pushed the GCC to Asia

The GCC’s energized engagement with Asian powers is also motivated by the perceived disengagement of the United States, its primary security partner. Successive leaders in Washington have criticized GCC nations for perceived human rights abuses, and both parties generally agree that the United States’ military assets are better positioned in Asia to confront a rising China. Uncertain of future U.S. commitments, the GCC states have therefore sought alternative partners, believing that established alignments may no longer be enough to address their economic and security needs in the emerging multipolar global order.

The GCC hopes engaging with multilateral Asian organizations will strengthen bilateral relations with the region’s dominant powers—particularly China and Russia, two global military and economic authorities and the leading members of the SCO and BRICS. Over the past decade, the Gulf states have intensified trade and defense ties with both powers.

The Future of Gulf Relations with the West

Given that the GCC’s strengthening of its relationships with Asian nations and international organizations has detracted from the influence of the Western powers, one might expect that relations between the GCC and the West have soured. In fact, the opposite is true; despite doubts casted by growing GCC-Asia relations and episodes of diplomatic tensions, GCC relations with Western powers have, on the whole, continued to improve. In May, the EU unveiled a Joint Communication on a “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf” aiming to broaden and deepen the EU’s cooperation with the GCC and its members. With this, the EU pledged to significantly enhance its political and economic presence in the Gulf region.

The announcement came at a time of growing concern in the EU and United States about the GCC’s steady drift toward China, which replaced the EU as the GCC’s largest trading partner in 2020 with bilateral trade valued at $161.4 billion. The EU recently opened a new delegation to Qatar, in addition to its outposts in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. To strengthen EU-GCC energy and trade relations, the EU is also expected to appoint a special envoy for the Gulf region at the end of the year.

The United States and NATO also have geopolitical interests in the Gulf region. The United States has built a substantial military presence in each of the six GCC states. In 2004, NATO took a decisive step in building closer relations with the GCC countries with the launch of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. NATO opened its first office in the Gulf region in Kuwait in 2017, hoping to boost security and military cooperation. In June 2021, Qatar opened its military representation office in the NATO headquarters in Brussels, and in March, the United States designated Qatar a major non-NATO ally, making it the third country from the GCC to receive such a designation after Bahrain and Kuwait in 2002 and 2004, respectively.

The GCC’s apparent interest in maintaining its ties with NATO and the West underscore the interest-based nature of its foreign policy. While the Gulf states have increasingly engaged with regional organizations in Asia in order to make up for a perceived deficit of interest from the United States and Europe, they are unlikely to abandon—or even intentionally downgrade—those relationships, especially amid a time of global crisis. Instead, the GCC states will likely continue to tread a fine line between Western and non-Western regional organizations in order to achieve the best results for their long-term security and economic interests.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Sinem Cengiz is a Research Assistant at Gulf Studies Center of Qatar University and Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum. She is a Turkish researcher with a focus on Gulf affairs, and Turkey’s relations with the broader Middle East. She is a regular columnist for Arab News and the author of the book “Turkish-Saudi relations: Cooperation and Competition in the Middle East.” Sinem is born and raised in Kuwait and currently based in Doha. She tweets at @SinemCngz

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