Published: 19 May 2022
Mr Bilahari Kausikan,
Chairman, Middle East Institute
Ms Michelle Teo,
Executive Director, Middle East Institute
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. Good evening.
2. Thank you for inviting me to deliver this keynote address here today.
3. Over the last couple of years, there have been significant geopolitical changes in the Middle East. You can say that ever so often about the Middle East, but you can also say that about many other parts of the world – you can talk about Asia and Europe in the last few years, and before that – significant changes as well.
4. Coming back to the Middle East, on 28 April, Turkish President Erdogan visited Saudi Arabia – the first time he has done so in years. The visit is being viewed by observers as an attempt to repair ties.
5. Syria, which had been shunned by the Arab world, now looks to be on its way back into the Arab world. In March, the Syrian President met the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
6. But perhaps, the most substantial change has been the Abraham Accords. The UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan have formalised ties with Israel. And others have their ties growing stronger, but on the quiet.
7. Now, trade and people-to-people ties are growing. Arab and Israeli business delegations, tourists, are travelling to and from. Israel and the UAE are reportedly concluding a Free Trade Agreement. Next month, on 23 June, Emirates will begin daily flights from Dubai to Tel Aviv.
8. And in March, Israel hosted the Negev Summit. It was attended by the Egyptian, Emirati, Bahraini, and Moroccan Foreign Ministers, and their Israeli and American counterparts. The once unthinkable has become more than thinkable. It has become reality. Facts are changing fast.
9. The details about the Summit are few, but they point towards further normalisation of the Arab-Israeli relationship.
10. In the wake of the Abraham Accords, the question many are asking is: Which countries will be next? In particular, what will Saudi Arabia do? There are signs of warming relationships between the two. And in the context of all these changes, how will the Muslim-majority countries in our region react to these changes?
11. In parallel with the geopolitical changes, there are also significant experiments on taking a different economic and social approach. Saudi Arabia and UAE are trying this.
12. In Saudi Arabia, women are no longer required to put on the hijab, and some don’t. Saudi women are allowed to drive and work. Concerts by Western acts and cinemas have also made a return in Saudi Arabia.
13. I went to the World Expo in Dubai this year. At the Saudi Arabian pavilion, there was a film that was shown, that was quite interesting. It gives a sense of the social changes taking place.
14. The film is about seven minutes long, and stars John Travolta. You can find it online. I will have a short excerpt played, it’s about one and a half minutes. Pay close attention to the language used, and how the women are depicted in the film.
15. If you see, the women, none are wearing the hijab. The language, let me quote, “One of the greatest melting pots in the world.” “One of the greatest melting pots in the world.” Another quote, “Building a sustainable future for everyone.” Another quote, “Transform how mankind interacts with nature, technology and each other.” It’s aspirational language. Five years ago, even three years ago, I think one would not have automatically associated such language like “One of the greatest melting pots” with Saudi Arabia. Even now, it is aspirational, waiting to be turned into reality.
16. This is a vision. Observers have commented, it is coming from the top, it has to percolate down and be accepted, and that is work in progress.
17. Saudi Arabia has also set out its ambitions for the future green city of Neom and Saudi Vision 2030, and it has invested substantially into these projects.
18. The UAE, likewise, has charted a new path, and some might say a bold, new path. It is moving towards having some rules based on a more secular footing. It has, for example, decriminalised alcohol consumption, cohabitation by couples who are not married, amongst other things. The approach is that Dubai in particular, is a cosmopolitan place, it’s open for business, welcomes people from all over the world.
19. I was just in Dubai about a month ago. There is a buzz, an energy, a drive to change and move.
20. The UAE is also promoting itself as a nation of interfaith tolerance. There are active congregations of other faiths, while the UAE’s Ministry of Tolerance spearheads a drive for religious harmony.
21. Some changes are also taking place in other countries in the Gulf, on a different scale.
22. The World Cup kicks off at the end of this year, in Qatar. The World Cup and the presence of thousands of fans will in itself create a changed dynamic.
23. The changes in the Gulf are driven in a large part by the countries in the region seeking to diversify their economies.
24. They are looking to change attitudes, change the social compact, bring in talent from around the world.
Impact of These Changes
25. What is the impact of these changes? It’s a big question, with several ifs. One key question is if the changes can be continued through, and whether the forces unleashed by the changes can be managed, or whether the reactions might be very strong and difficult to manage? What we can say is that the leaders in charge seem to know what they are doing, and they will seek to manage them.
26. What is the impact of these geopolitical and socio-economic changes if they continue?
27. First, these regional re-alignments will likely have an impact on the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran has always been a key player in the region. But it is not a given that the shifts that we see will result in the region being divided into two blocs, with Iran on one side and its allies, and the Gulf states on the other. The states will act in their best interests, depending on the issue, issue by issue. Saudi Arabia and Iran held a fifth round of direct talks recently, and a two-month truce in Yemen is still holding. So, it is not a certainty to suggest that they will be opposed, but nor is it clear that the sides are any closer despite these diplomatic initiatives. But many think that there is room for some guarded optimism.
28. Second, the impact of these changes will not just be in the Middle East. They are also being watched closely in South-east Asia for example, amongst other regions. Muslims in this region, including in Singapore, have long looked to the Middle East as Islam’s centre of gravity. The countries of the Gulf are taking steps to prepare themselves for a very different world in the decades to come, in a bid to stay prosperous, vibrant, and attractive, and they have set out to reform not just their economies, but also their societies. As the practice of Islam in the region evolves, how will Muslims throughout South-east Asia react? That can have significant social consequences for our region, South-east Asia.
29. Third, the economic inter-relationships between the Middle East and South-east Asia are likely to grow. They are likely with big investments in this region. Because this is a region with 600 million people – a continuing, growing economy – and it is already one of the top ten economies in the world, if you take South-east Asia as a whole, with a young population. So, there are plenty of opportunities, and the Middle East has fair capital to invest. The UAE, for example, has made massive investments in Indonesia. Opportunities will grow, and there will be competition, including for talent. The Gulf, for example, is already attracting a large number of Asians to work, play and live there. And that is part of the reason they are changing their whole environment. Trade between the two regions will also continue to grow.
30. What will all of this mean? It creates many different imponderables, and these are key questions for us.
31. I have raised some questions. The next Panel is on “The Abraham Accords, and its Implications for ASEAN”. I think we have an opportunity to consider some of the questions I have raised.
32. Thank you.