x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

'Middle East' is pulled towards Asia by economics and affinity

The old and none-too-precise term "Middle East" disguises the growing reality of ties between this region (most notably the GCC states) and fast-growing economies and societies in Asia. A more precise term for this region would be West Asia.

This newspaper is published in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, a city in the Middle East. Why is that so? Because an early 20th century American naval strategist decided it would be so - not the part about the newspaper or the city, but the region's name: the Middle East.

In the year 1902, Alfred Thayer Mahan published an article that popularised the term "Middle East". He wrote: "the Middle East, if I may adopt a term of which I have not seen", should be an area of emerging strategic interest for the British navy, mostly because of its location halfway to India. But Mahan may not have been the first to use the term, which was already sometimes used by the British India Office, to suggest a middle territory between Europe and the Asian subcontinent and the Asian Far East.

This was the pre-oil era and before the "strategic value" era of the Middle East. The "middle" in the term simply meant that it was halfway between more important areas of the world.

Today, when we speak of the Middle East, we are broadly referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council states (GCC), as well as Iran, Iraq, the Levant and North Africa. This has become the standard regional paradigm in the minds of strategists and political leaders, in the western world and also in, well, the Middle East. In fact, one of the leading pan-Arabic newspapers, a Saudi-owned daily, is called Asharq Al Awsat, Arabic for "Middle East," and Arabs and Iranians regularly refer to their region as the same.

There is a problem with this regional name, however, particularly in regard to the GCC countries. While it only marginally captures a sense of the political geography of the region (the world can look a lot different from Marrakech to Muscat), it fails entirely to capture the region's commercial geography or its cultural geography of historic intermingling with India, Iran and even China in the early years of Islam. But more relevant to today, GCC trade with Asia far surpasses trade with the Arab world.

In that sense, the GCC states might better be considered part of West Asia, which is technically the case. This will be even more relevant in the decades to come as East Asia and South Asia - especially China and India - emerge as the GCC's largest trade partners. A new Economist Intelligence Unit report notes that Asia will be the biggest GCC trading partner by 2017. By that time, it will account for a greater volume of trade than the industrialised, western-heavy Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

In this New Silk Road, India, China and Indonesia will account for half of the GCC's trade with Asia and while Japan is often forgotten in the rush to anoint India and China as the newest commercial behemoths, it remains one of the top three economies in the world and its ties with the GCC are strong.

Western commentators have taken to calling the 21st century "the Asian century". By this, they usually mean the rise of China and India combined with the steady growth of the Asian tigers like South Korea and Singapore alongside emerging Asian economies like Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. But "the Asian century" needs oil and gas to fuel its growth, and that's where West Asia comes in. Already, the GCC sends more oil to Asia than anywhere else in the world, and energy-hungry China and India will increasingly rely on GCC producers to fuel their growth stories. There will be no "Asian century" without West Asian oil producers. Furthermore, massive investments in value-added industries such as petrochemicals, steel and plastics across the GCC hinge on rising demand in Asia.

But the story is growing deeper than just manufactured goods from Asia landing in the GCC and petroleum-based products calling on East Asian ports. GCC sovereign wealth funds have become significant investors in emerging Asia, and the growing Asian middle classes, especially from China, are flocking to tourist cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There is also growing academic exchange. At the newly launched King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, the largest contingent of foreign students are not Arabs or Europeans, but Chinese, while GCC states are sending record numbers of students to study in China.

A glance at the arrivals and departures boards at GCC airports also reveals the Asian ties. A dizzying array of cities from India to China to Thailand glimmer across the boards, carrying tourists, businessmen, labourers or simply long-haul travellers changing flights - the GCC truly has become a "middle" hub between Asia and the West for flights.

And the ties that bind West Asian GCC nationals and the rest of the Arab world are profound. Language, of course, is the most powerful of cultural adhesives, not to mention shared memories of films, music, poetry and shared concerns (such as the plight of Palestinians). But surveys have also shown more GCC travellers vacationing in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand, and the Saudi petroleum minister Ali al Naimi recently accepted an honorary doctorate from a Chinese university, referring to himself in his speech as "an Asian" from "the West Asian" state of Saudi Arabia. That would not surprise the Chinese foreign ministry: they already refer to the Middle East as West Asia.

Then there is the issue of GCC populations, which are overwhelmingly Asian. Indian expatriates and marvel at Bollywood awards ceremonies in Dubai or Miss India pageants in Abu Dhabi. Oman's cultural richness owes much to its encounter with India, while the footprint of Oman can be seen in architecture and culture in Mumbai.

The rise of Asia just might be one of the most consequential geoeconomic and geopolitical trends since the 19th century Industrial Revolution lifted Europe and the United States to economic prominence. The growing ties between West Asia and East Asia will drive this growth. It's time we put a forward-looking commercial geographic lens on and put aside the tired geographical misnomer of a long deceased imperial strategist.

 

Afshin Molavi is a fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank