Published: 27 October 2021
His Excellency Omar Saif Ghobash,
Assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs, United Arab Emirates
Mr Bilahari Kausikan,
Chairman, Middle East Institute
Ladies and Gentlemen,
1. A very good afternoon to all of you.
2. It is a privilege to be with all of you today for this S R Nathan Distinguished Lecture, organised by the Middle East Institute.
3. Our Distinguished Speaker today is His Excellency Omar Saif Ghobash, who currently serves as the Assistant Minister for Cultural Affairs for the United Arab Emirates. Previously, he was Ambassador to France (2017-2018) as well as Ambassador to Russia (2008-2017).
4. His Excellency is also the author of a very interesting book, titled ‘Letters to a Young Muslim’. It has been very favourably received and reviewed, and it addresses some of the key questions that many young people, young Muslims, ask, and it is a question of how Muslims can find a voice that is true to Islam, while actively engaging in the modern world.
5. I am standing between you and his remarks. I have been asked to say a few things to set the context as it were. My remarks will be relatively brief. I will touch on three areas which are quite important to us:
Current Developments in the Middle East
6. People who have been observing the region will notice that is undergoing a key transformation in the economic, socio-cultural as well as geopolitical fields.
7. On the economic front, countries in the Middle East are dealing with two major issues: oil prices as well as demographics.
8. There has been a spike up in oil prices in recent days. But, in general, the forecast for the price of oil is something like US$55 per barrel in 2023 and beyond. That is below the fiscal break-even price for many oil-producing countries, and that can be a big challenge for some of the countries in the Gulf.
9. Second, on demographics. Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council have one of the fastest growing, youngest, populations anywhere in the world. However, many of those young people are also facing difficulty in finding employment.
10. So, when you have a combination of a young population, large numbers of young people, and high youth unemployment – that brings a set of unique challenges and will have to be managed very carefully.
11. So, the questions are – and there are many – how will the countries transform their economies to reduce the dependency on oil and gas, and also deal with the rising expectations of a young population?
12. And, if you turn to the socio-cultural sector, changes are also being made at that level.
13. The UAE for example, has announced some significant moves in the context of how Islam has been practised in the Middle East, and in many other places in the rest of the world. For example, just last year, the United Arab Emirates announced a law to allow unmarried couples to cohabitate, and it also loosened the alcohol restrictions.
14. It will be both important and interesting to see how these changes interplay with the various other dynamics in the respective societies. Other dynamics including the practice of Islam and some sections of the societies, the clerics, various factors.
15. At the same time, it seems likely that religion will continue to play a major role in the region.
16. The Arab Youth Survey last year, 2020, shows that 40% of young Arabs regard religion as the most important aspect of their personal identity – ahead of family, ahead of nationality, and ahead of gender.
17. Others in the region, including Iran and Turkey, are also likely to rely on religion in reinforcing their own legitimacy.
18. If you come to the geopolitical, Middle East countries have traditionally depended on the United States for defence-related issues, but they are also deepening their economic links with China.
19. So, in addition to managing regional tensions and the ambitions of different regional actors, Middle East countries will now also have to navigate the US-China relationship carefully.
Links Between the Middle East and South East Asia
20. The second point I wanted to make, in South East Asia, we are watching these developments in the Middle East very closely.
21. South East Asia has deep economic ties with the Middle East region.
22. And for Singapore, bilateral trade with the Middle East countries was nearly S$60b in 2019, and growing at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 4.2% over the last five years.
23. Across the region, it is a positive picture of strong growth in trade and economic links.
24. But the role of the Middle East and its impact on South East Asia goes beyond trade and economic links.
25. Both regions are linked on the track of common religious identities and consciousness.
26. South East Asia is home to close to 300 million practising Muslims.
27. Many Muslims across the world see the Middle East as the seat of Islam and a point of reference on religious matters.
28. The cultural and religious interactions between the Middle East and South East Asia are extensive and goes back centuries.
29. But these close links also mean what happens in the Middle East can have a powerful effect and impact in this region.
30. For example, the conflicts in the Middle East have led some people in this region to make their way to Middle East and join extremist groups. They receive training and are further radicalised, and pose a threat to regional security in this region when they return to back to South East Asia.
31. In this context, His Excellency’s book ‘Letters to a Young Muslim’ is especially instructive.
32. His Excellency wrote the book for his then-teenage sons, to help them navigate the complexities of the modern world and insulate them from the draws of radicalism.
33. I quote a passage from the book: ″I want my son′s generation of Muslims to realise that they have the right to think and decide what is right and what is wrong, what is Islamic and what is peripheral to the faith.”
34. The book’s core message, to keep an open and critical mind to meet the challenges of the 21st century, is extremely important and encouraging to us, and something which I hope people in this region – both Muslims and non-Muslims – will understand.
Implications for South East Asia
35. As the Middle East continues to deal with the challenges, the changes they are making, one key question is the direction in which Islam in South East Asia will move.
36. Should there be tensions in the Middle East, that can also influence this region.
37. There are many questions, fewer certainties, and a very dynamic situation.
38. In conclusion, we can ask many questions, and these are the questions that we have opportunity to engage in, in this S R Nathan Distinguished Lecture series.
39. I hope all of you will have a rewarding experience and I look forward to the speech by His Excellency.
40. Thank you.