Chairman Lee Tzu Yang

Professor Michael Hudson


Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

1                 Thank you for inviting me to speak today.  The Middle East Institute was established in 2007 and began modestly.  But it now shows promise and increasing relevance in helping us in Asia to better understand developments in the Middle East, especially given developments over the past year. This is in no small part due to Professor Hudson’s guidance and leadership. 

Developments in the Middle East

2                 More than a year after the Arab Uprising, the situation in the Middle East is still in full flux.  The most radical changes in the past year have taken place in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  But protest movements throughout the Middle East have preoccupied governments from Morocco to Oman, and Syria to Yemen.  The status quo has changed, and long entrenched regimes must face the challenge of remaining relevant or fall.  The genies of free expression and government accountability had escaped, and no future authority would easily be able to squeeze them back into the lamp.

3                 Looking back, the genesis of the mass protests appears obvious, if not intuitive.  Widespread unemployment, endemic corruption, absence of the rule of law, and the lack of government accountability have all been cited as some of the root causes.  These issues were not new signs but the signs were ignored – either from complacence, lack of political will, political expediency or other reasons.  One year on, many of the causes for unrest still remain unresolved.    

4                 The regional security environment has also deteriorated in the past year.  We face the combustible mix of Iran’s nuclear programme and Israel’s threat of a pre-emptive strike.  The Sunni-Shia divide has become more pronounced, with sectarian problems bubbling under the surface in many countries including Syria and Iraq.  Meanwhile, terrorist groups and militant non-state actors like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas continue to be influential.    

5                 Against this background, this annual conference will have a rich harvest for discussion.  Over the next two days, we will be taken through the origins of the uprisings, how they spread across the region, and outline possible paths they might take in the future.  For me, I would also be interested to hear what the esteemed panellists see as possibilities and opportunities that the Arab Spring has presented.  Perhaps the discussions could also explore how other Asian countries can be involved without getting their fingers burnt.

Asia’s role in the Middle East

6                 On my part, I am convinced that the emerging Asian powers, including India and China, will have an increasingly substantive relationship with the countries of the Middle East.  However, the nature of that relationship, the role we would play, and our perspective of the issues, may differ – quite naturally – from the West.  In other words, we would not be replacing the West, but rather build new relationships based on our own interests and our own value systems, and shaped by our own perspective as developing nations.  Most Asian countries have taken a very pragmatic approach towards the Middle East.  And being pragmatic, they have largely focused on their economic interests in the region, ignoring any possible political, security or mediating role.  In fact, I understand that Asia has largely not been involved in the historic Judeo-Christian-Islam triangle of conflict.  After all, if the pre-eminent power, the United States, and its allies in Europe, have been unable to resolve the complicated political issues of the Middle East, most Asian countries, seized with their own domestic pre-occupations and development agendas, would not presume to do better.

7                 This is not to suggest that Asia in general has no role to play in the Middle East, or that it has not played an active or constructive role in supporting specific efforts to address problems in the Middle East or in the vicinity of this region.  In fact, Asia has had a long history of engagement with the Middle East.  The overland and the maritime silk routes linked China with India, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Arab Caliphate.  Together with trade came cultural influences from Asia to the Middle East and vice versa. 

8                 Another example that comes to mind is Asia’s contribution to international efforts to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden.  China, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia have all deployed naval assets to support anti-piracy initiatives there.  In economic terms, the GCC’s trade with the rest of Asia jumped from just 10% in 1980 to 36% in 2009.

9                 Though Asia’s role has often been guided by its own recognition of its limitations and focused on specific areas of functional and economic cooperation, this does not mean a less significant role.

Singapore’s Linkages with the Middle East

10                The Arab Uprisings have encouraged a number of Middle Eastern countries to “look east” in order to learn from successful Asian models of governance and development.  Traditionally, most Asian countries have limited their political engagement with the Middle East to offering ideas from their own political and developmental experience.  Some of the more developed Asian countries have also been playing a more prominent role in helping to build infrastructure – rail, water, power, waste management plants, and so on – in the Middle East.  Increasingly, South and East Asia are becoming the primary markets for Arab oil, gas and commodities.  Notably, China has become the largest importer of Saudi oil, which accounts for about 20% of all oil imported by China in 2009 and 2010.  Even as Western demand for Middle East oil declines, the Middle East is expected to account for up to 70% of China’s oil imports by 2015. 

11                Despite the political turmoil in some parts of the Middle East, Singapore has also taken a long-term view in developing relations with the Middle Eastern countries.  As a small country with no aspirations to play a role in global politics, Singapore aims to be friends with all