The Arab world holds the key to global stability

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The UK’s Foreign Policy is set to come under the post-Brexit spotlight tomorrow with a debate at Policy Exchange called ‘East or West: where does the future of UK foreign policy lie?’

Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs correspondent of the Financial Times, will describe the global shift in gravity from West to East that is tackled in his new book, Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century.

He will be joined by two of the UK’s most respected defence analysts and writers in Con Coughlin of the Daily Telegraph, and Deborah Hayne of The Times, on a distinguished panel not short on strong opinions or expertise.

Any serious policy discussion that looks at East vs West is however starting from an out-of–date dichotomy, and must take into account a third part of the world: The Middle East.

For the prospects of the West slowing the East’s march towards dominance, or influencing its geopolitical trajectory, will be determined in part by their respective relations with the Middle East.

There are three central reasons why the Middle East is critical to the dynamic between East and West and deserves consideration at Policy Exchange this week.

Energy is the first. The Middle East is the largest exporter of energy to China and India, with Saudi Arabia alone providing China with over 6 million barrels per day, or 15% of its needs. Japan, Asia’s second largest economy, is also hugely reliant on Qatari LNG and Saudi oil. India and Indonesia are also significant importers.

Energy is a driver of growth rates, and the impact of energy prices on Asian economies influences appetite and demand for buying Western debt.

Many Western economies also rely on energy suppliers from the Middle East; Saudi Arabia is the biggest supplier of oil to the US providing 17% of total imports, and also leads the UK’s suppliers with 5% of annual imports.

People are the second. The birth rate is higher in Middle East than China and many parts of Asia, with the region expected to reach 300 million in the near future. They represent a new market for Western and Eastern goods and services, located close to European countries and in similar time zones.

With such a fast growth rate, roughly half this population is under the age of 15. While immigration remains a controversial issue in today’s political climate, many European populations are in decline and will need immigrants to maintain numbers. Many will come from the Middle East.

Thirdly, but perhaps most importantly from a security perspective, is religion. Leadership of the Islamic world lies with Saudi, home to the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. China and India face decades-old challenges from the integration of their Muslim populations, as do other Asian countries such as Myanmar.

Islam plays a role in South East Asia, home to the world’s largest Muslim country Indonesia. There are already 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and Islam is set to overtake Christianity as the world’s biggest religion in 2070.

Saudi Arabia plays a critical and under-appreciated role in countering Islamic extremism, something that is of great value to the East and West. Iranian challenges to Saudi Arabia’s oversight of the Hajj over the last few weeks should seen through the prism of geopolitics rather than religion.

It is the East, not West, that has fully appreciated the importance of the Middle East. The four Eastern economies in the G20 – China, Japan, India and Indonesia – have all courted Middle Eastern countries in recent years. The visit of Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Asia resulted in 15 agreements with China and a similar number with Japan to fulfil his 2020 National Transformation Plan.

Plucky Singapore – where I spent time as a visiting academic – with no natural resources to rely on, sought out Free Trade Agreements with the Gulf’s two biggest economies, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Britain would be well advised to follow this lead as it build post-Brexit international trade.

The UK has a long-standing and historical relationship with many Middle Eastern countries and is viewed positively in the Gulf. It should leverage these ties and play a leading role in ensuring the West’s interests are supported by Arab countries.

How the West fares against the East, after all, will be shaped in part by its relations with the Middle East. What we know, with each day passing and each cooperation agreement with Asia, is that the Arab world is evermore becoming “West Asia” and not the Middle East.

Professor Dr. Malik Dahlan is an International Trade Lawyer at Institution Quraysh and Professor of Policy and Dispute Resolution. He has been a visiting Fellow at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, Al Azhar University, Cairo, and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

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