The historic Summit of Leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was held towards the end of October in Riyadh. By all accounts, it was the first in history to draw up a new strategic plan for closer integration of two substantial and influential blocs. Two well-known figures chaired the summit: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
The Riyadh conference established platforms for political discourse, security cooperation, climate change mitigation, and people-to-people interactions, despite the fact that the main focus was economic cooperation. By the way, the two organizations convened multiple meetings in both regions and beyond after starting their institutional discussion in 2009 in Bahrain and agreeing on a unified action plan a year later in Singapore. All of this has been done to encourage integration among the action plan’s primary areas, which include agriculture, food security, trade and investment, tourism, and education.
Saudi Arabia called the current summit in an effort to elevate the relationship between the two blocs to a strategic level by bringing together heads of state or government. Following the summit, a decision was made to convene every two years, with Malaysia hosting the subsequent gathering in 2025.
Similar to how the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established in 1981 in response to significant security disruptions in the Gulf at the time, ASEAN was established to seek ways to guarantee regional security. To provide a united front against the rise of communism, five Southeast Asian nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand—formed ASEAN in 1967. Since then, the number of its members has doubled thanks to the addition of Brunei (1984), Vietnam (1995), Laos and Myanmar (1997), and Cambodia (1999). The next nation to join ASEAN will be Timor-Leste. The country applied for membership in 2011 and was given observer status in 2022; it is expected to become a full member by 2025.
Top officials from both blocs attended the summit in Riyadh with the exclusion of Myanmar, whose participation in such gatherings has been halted by ASEAN following its rejection of the peace plan of the organization to end the civil war in this troubled country. However, José Ramos-Horta, President of Timor-Leste, attended it, despite the fact that his country remains an observer. The emphasis on Southeast Asia has evolved as the organization’s membership has grown. It is no longer concerned with the spread of communism, as some of its new members are led by local communist parties, but instead focuses on economic integration. However, ASEAN states, like the GCC, take their political independence very seriously.
The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), which the participating nations signed in 1976, places a strong emphasis on respect for one another and refraining from meddling in the internal affairs of other nations. The TAC has been adopted by every ASEAN member. Participants from ASEAN welcomed the GCC states that had joined the TAC during the conference in Riyadh. Given that ASEAN’s home nation of Thailand was the epicenter of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the organization’s shift in emphasis to economic issues was even more logical. In order to deal with the crisis, bloc members attempted to further integrate their economies. ASEAN is interlinked and integrated more than ever before, but it hasn’t created a monetary or customs union yet.
These two blocs rank among the world’s largest economic entities. The GCC has a gross domestic product of $2.2 trillion, while ASEAN has a GDP of $3.4 trillion. Their combined markets are worth approximately $6 trillion, making them the world’s fourth largest after the United States, China, and the European Union, if completely integrated. ASEAN and the GCC are among the fastest growing regions in the world. Trade and business relations between the two regions are extensive. The Saudi Crown Prince emphasized the large and quickly expanding amount of economic interchange. $137 billion of bilateral commerce, or around 8 percent of all international trade in the Gulf, transpired in 2022. In recent years, trade has increased significantly with countries like Vietnam and Indonesia. Approximately nine percent of all exports go to the Gulf, while six percent of all imports come from ASEAN.
Over the previous 20 years, GCC investment in ASEAN nations has totaled $75 billion, or around 4 percent of GCC investment outside. With $25 billion invested in the Gulf, ASEAN accounted for around 3.4 percent of all foreign investment. With over 650 million people, the economies of the ASEAN are expanding quickly, making them a desirable market for investors and exporters from the Gulf. ASEAN and GCC leaders, speaking at a summit in Riyadh, urged Gulf investors to take advantage of the great opportunities their economies offer each other.
New ideas were included in the comprehensive seven-page joint statement released following this significant meeting, many of which were expanded upon by the leaders who spoke during the Riyadh Summit. They welcomed Saudi Arabia’s application and its candidacy for the Riyadh Expo 2030 to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup. It was emphasized how crucial it is to plan such regional and global gatherings to foster trade and cultural connections between Southeast Asia and the Gulf countries.
Commencing constructive modifications in their collaboration, the two factions decided to have frequent discussions about matters of politics and security, as well as to investigate working together to stop and oppose cybercrime, terrorism, extremism, and transnational crime. The summit praised Southeast Asian workers for their “positive contribution” to the GCC and urged collaboration in order to support “orderly, safe, regular, and responsible labor mobility.” Concern over the actions of recruiting agencies in the countries where workers are originally from has led to an emphasis on the concurrent strengthening of cooperation in the fight against human trafficking with regard to recruitment practices. By promoting intercultural communication, the leaders hoped to “build trust, mutual understanding, and greater respect for diversity, thus contributing to a culture of peace.” Comprehensive procedures to promote integration, connectivity, and communication between the two groups during the next four years (2024–2028) in the areas mentioned in the joint declaration are included in the GCC-ASEAN Cooperation Framework, which was approved at the summit.
When both parties started talking about Israel’s war on Gaza and the need to adopt a principled stance appropriate for such a significant high-level event, the new relations had been subjected to a test. In the past, meetings between the two organizations have avoided public comment on such complex issues. In this scenario, certain ASEAN members have close relations to Israel and have employees there, including victims and hostages abducted during the conflict. Despite these problems, they were able to deliver a strong separate statement on Gaza after hours of debate. The statement denounced all attacks on people and demanded a long-term ceasefire as well as access to humanitarian aid and other relief supplies. It also urged for civilian protection and progress toward a two-state solution, and it backed Saudi Arabia’s initiative to revive the peace process.
According to all accounts, the summit exceeded even the organizers’ hopes in terms of promoting integration and interconnection between West and East Asia, whose linkages are entrenched in history and common culture but have eroded in recent decades as a result of global polarization and conflicts. They can now freely and clearly pursue their integration, and they will be able to occupy their proper position in the emerging multipolar world.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.