Better collaboration among countries in the Middle East could pave way for a regional trade agreement with China, a two-day conference in Singapore heard.

Rivalry among countries in the Middle East is an obstacle to the region building closer ties with China, and they should take a leaf out of ASEAN playbook, experts said at a conference on Monday.

Dr. Nasser Saidi
Photo: Dr. Nasser Saidi, President Nasser Saidi & Associates speaks at Session of New Developments & Frontiers in Growth of Asia’s Financial Markets, Boao Forum for Asia – China.

Nasser Saidi, who heads consultancy firm Nasser Saidi & Associates, said if Middle Eastern states could behave like the 10-member regional trading bloc, it could pave the way for a regional free-trade agreement with China to further improve trading volumes and future infrastructure investments from the Chinese. Working together would also help the region battle the ongoing threat of terrorism, said Nasser, who is based in Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

Middle Eastern Governments always think about their own interests in geopolitical terms and try to boost their individual status in the region, Duke University Professor Bai Gao said;

But among ASEAN nations “there is a stronger self regional identity that often unites these countries together to pursue their common interests when they deal with external great powers.”

In contrast, some Middle Eastern countries fight for their own interests by relying on an external superpower like the United States or Russia, instead of developing common interests as a region, said Gao, who is also a visiting Professor at Peking University.

The two experts were among 300 global academics, legal experts and business leaders who gathered in Singapore for a two-day conference on the role of China and economic opportunities available in the Middle East in light of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

A point raised by at least two academics was that the waning influence of the US in the Middle East, which spans from Turkey to Oman, is an opportunity for China to gain a stronger foothold.

For instance, the US has been drained by war efforts in the Middle East and has since announced its decision to withdraw troops from Syria. The growing oil exports from the US has also reduced the country’s dependence on the Middle East.

Observers at the conference noted the trade relationship between China and the Middle East was largely characterised by energy exports from the Middle Eastern to China. There was, however, room for partnerships in the areas of e-commerce and Fintech given China’s expertise in these areas.

But with this, the experts then noted that the Middle East would have to learn how to balance between the US and China.

Beijing and Washington are locked in a range of trade, technology and security. China and the US have set a March 1 deadline to work out a trade deal to end trade tariffs disputes, while other ongoing tensions include the technological race to outpace each other in artificial intelligence advancements and setting global 5G telecommunication standards.

The South China Sea dispute among China and some ASEAN states has also seen the US sending its warships to the contested waters to signal its presence.

Most recently, the US called on China to release two Canadians who were detained in an apparent attempt to pressure Ottawa to release Huawei Executive Sabrina Meng Wanzhou. Meng is facing possible extradition from Canada to the US for allegedly flouting sanction rules against Iran.

Professor Wu Bingbing, a Middle East expert from Peking University, however, reiterated the different approaches taken by China and US in building a relationship with the Middle East.

The Qatar Chair Professor in Middle Eastern Studies said: “China believes in partnerships and does not take sides with any single country.” He described the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious global infrastructure push, as a “network of partnerships (and) projects” with different countries which aims to be beneficial for the entire Middle East region. The intention is also not to compete with US but to cooperate, he said.

Dr Altay Atli, an international relations lecturer from Istanbul’s Koç University, agreed there was no cause for concern that there is a shift away from the West, particularly in the case of Turkey.

He pointed out that 70 per cent of foreign direct investment in Turkey was from Europe, and just one per cent from China. Institutional capabilities might also not be ready for partnerships with China at the moment, added Atli.

“We (Turkey) still aim to diversify and not put all our eggs in one basket, so that not everything can be broken at the same time,” he said.