EconoMatters, Global HotSpots

Asia and the Overrated Gulf Countries

The Khashoggi crisis highlights why investment in Asia is more productive than in the Middle East.

Image by Przemek Pietrak

Takeaways


  • In the wake of the Khashoggi crisis, there is growing Western political and corporate reluctance to be associated with Saudi Arabia.
  • Saudi Arabia has gravely damaged confidence in its ability to reform and diversify its oil-based economy.
  • Asian nations have fewer natural resources than the Gulf states, so they focus on managing investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability.
  • Asia’s economic success comes from policies focussed on social and economic enhancement. There is a big lesson in that for virtually all Gulf rulers.

In the wake of the suspected killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, there is growing Western political and corporate reluctance to be associated with Saudi Arabia.

The Khashoggi crisis puts a spotlight on the fact that much of investment in the Gulf — irrespective of whether it is domestic, Western or Chinese — comes from financial, technology and other service industries, the arms industry or Gulf governments.

It is focused on services, infrastructure or enhancing the state’s capacities rather than on manufacturing, industrial development and the nurturing of an independent private sector.

Western technology, media, financial and other services industries are now worried that association with the Saudi regime will significantly tarnish their international reputations.

Arms industry not worried

By contrast, the U.S. arms industry, with Donald Trump’s encouragement, has proven so far less worried about reputational damage.

In highlighting differences in investment strategies in the Middle East and the rest of Asia, the fallout of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance goes beyond the parameters of a single incident (such as the drop in attendance at the recent Davos in the Desert conference, a high-profile investors’ conference put on in Riyadh).

It suggests that foreign investment ought to be embedded in broader social and economic policies as well as an environment that promises stability. On that basis, one can ensure that foreign investment is productive, contributes to sustainable growth and benefits broad segments of the population.

That is not the case in the Gulf region. With the exception of state-run airlines and DP World, Dubai’s global port operator, the bulk of investment is portfolios managed by sovereign wealth funds, trophies or investment designed to enhance a country’s international prestige and soft power.

The Belt and Road initiative

China’s US$1 trillion, infrastructure-driven Belt and Road initiative may be the Asian exception that comes closest to some of the Gulf’s prestige-oriented soft power investments.

Even so, the Belt and Road initiative — designed to alleviate domestic over-capacity by state-owned companies that are not beholden to short-term shareholder demands — contributes to productive economic growth in the People’s Republic itself.

To be sure, the Gulf states with their small populations focus more narrowly on services and oil and gas derivatives rather than on manufacturing and industry in general.

Nonetheless, that too requires an education system that encourages critical thinking and the freedom to question, allow one’s mind to roam without fear of repercussion, as well as free, unfettered access to information.

These are all increasingly in short supply in a part of the world in which, despite its immense material riches, freedoms are severely curtailed.

Asia: Focused on stability

In contrast, Asian nations are far less well endowed in terms of natural resources. That has equipped them with a natural focus on managing investors’ expectations in an environment of relative political stability.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia — due to the Khashoggi murder and the completely inept, if not outright deceitful handling of the matter by the country’s leading authorities — has gravely damaged confidence in its ability to reform and diversify its oil-based economy.

This is all the more devastating economically as it comes after repeated delays and finally suspending indefinitely plans to list 5% of its national oil company, Saudi Arabian Oil Company or Aramco, in what would have been the world’s largest ever initial public offering.

No wonder that foreign direct investment in Saudi Arabia last year plunged to a 14-year low.

All of this is not to say that the rest of Asia does not have its own questionable policies to contend with.

However, with the exception of China’s massive repression of Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang, none of these are likely to fundamentally undermine investor confidence, derail existing social and economic policies that have produced results or produce situations in which avoidance of reputational damage becomes a priority.

Conclusion

At the bottom line, China is no less autocratic than the Gulf states, while Hindu nationalism in India fits a global trend towards populism and illiberal democracy.

Nevertheless, what differentiates much of Asia from the Gulf and accounts for its economic success are policies that ensure a relatively stable environment that is broadly focussed on social and economic enhancement — rather than primarily on regime survival.

There is a big lesson in that that virtually all Gulf rulers still have to grasp.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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