Urgently Needed: Strategic Elevation of Philippines-Middle East Relations

Overseas job ads outside a recruitment agency in Manila, Philippines. Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila


The election of President Bongbong Marcos Jr. as the 17th and current President of the Philippines is welcomed by a larger percentage of Filipino electorates. Voters hoped the president could transform the country’s pandemic-wrecked economy into a thriving one.

The president’s series of foreign travels in 2022 indicate his resolve to strengthen the country’s relations with the international community and attract foreign investors. However, the Philippines might find its options limited as today’s global power competition – signified by the US-China competition – may easily derail the Philippines’ interest should the Marcos Jr. administration fail to play the balancing game.

Instead, the Philippines should cast its sight beyond the usual suspects. The Philippine should take advantage of Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in terms of sourcing foreign capital investment, energy supply and external market for its exported products. Given that foreign policy orientation of the Philippines in the previous decades vis-à-vis the MENA region was concerned more on Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), the Marcos Jr. administration should start tapping MENA as the source of investments and market for Filipino products.

The recent creation of the Department of Overseas Workers should not only signal the rationalization of commitments and services to OFWs, but also an opportunity to expand the Philippines’ economy into other sectors. Fortunately, the MENA region offers ample opportunities to further these agendas.

MENA’s Relevance to the Philippines

Since the 1970s, the MENA region has constantly been the source of crude oil supplies to the Philippines as well as the market for Filipino workers. The Philippines first opened its diplomatic doors with the regimes in MENA during the time of former President Marcos Sr., after which the Philippines started sending its workers to the region.

It can be surmised that the newly installed president should also be familiar of this historical milestone in the country’s foreign relations. Therefore, Marcos Jr. should consider making the MENA region an important component of his foreign policy priority in the next six years.

A question remains: did Marcos Jr. inherit his father’s diplomatic skills and tact? This is a question that only time itself would answer.

Diversifying Priorities

Recent geopolitical flux in the Asia-Pacific region requires the Marcos Jr. administration to be selectively strategic in exercising foreign policy options. This could mean that while the Philippines dances with both rival giant economies, it has to profoundly diversify foreign policy options in the name of national interests and gain more opportunities for the Philippines outside the ambit of global power competition.

MENA is perhaps one of the regions in the globe that for decades have been underrated in the Philippines’ foreign policy priorities. Although it is true that the Philippines has sent millions of OFWs to as well as imported much of its fossil fuel from the region, there are certainly many more opportunities to explore.

Given that the country’s foreign relations in the past decades were very much centered on Cold War geopolitics, its ability to explore other opportunities was thus limited. Because of this, the country was unable to access more capital investment from as well as export its products to MENA region.

The Philippine government and its officials should begin thinking beyond the Cold War mentality and embrace new options available in MENA. Embracing such options can provide the Philippines not only with ample opportunities to reassert its true identity and purpose, but also a momentum to adopt new innovative approaches in conducting foreign relations.

Fortunately, some recent developments could provide a window for the Philippines to explore these new opportunities with MENA.

Internally, the Philippines has just succeeded in passing into law the creation of the Department of Migrant Workers, a department which has long been awaited by many OFWs to cater to their needs and issues. Before this, the OFWs were the primary responsibility of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), in collaboration with other labor agencies of the government. The Department of Migrant Workers may take away some of the responsibilities on this matter off the Department of Foreign Affairs, therefore giving the latter more space to focus on diplomacy and improve relations with other countries.

The Department of Migrant Workers will now have a full working capacity in addressing OFWs concerns and issues. Although it needs to work on its structure as well as its budget in the coming months or so, it is seen by many as an alternative department that could seriously cater to the interests of Filipino overseas workers.

Externally, the MENA region has seen better prospect for cooperation between Israel and Arab countries.

The signing of the Abraham’s Accord may be seen by many Muslim countries to be a half-cooked initiative for peace and would probably fail in the coming years due to its limited partnerships. Some, however, see it as a good opportunity to kickstart the cooperation between Israeli and Arab partners that for many decades has been tainted by the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

The normalization of Israel-Arab ties may lead to false claim on creating peace in the region, but it can somewhat contribute for better work opportunities for Filipinos in service industries to increase opportunities to employment as well travel and effective facilitation of commercial goods.

The normalization of relationship between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, Egypt as well as Jordan may possibly increase the prospects for peace and cooperation between the former antagonists. This could be a strategic boon to the Philippines, giving the country an opportunity to better expand its relations with both sides with little attention to the geopolitical issues that have defined these relationships in the past years.

The Philippine recognizes that the expansion of the Abraham’s Accord to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regional countries could be an important component for creating a better prospect for peace and cooperation. However, the steps that have already been taken provide the Philippines an optimistic signal to explore deeper commercial and labor cooperation with Israel and Arab countries.

Way Ahead

The idea of an independent foreign policy, that former President Duterte espoused during his term, should continue and be the bedrock of Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy strategy vis-à-vis the MENA region. In addition, the Philippines should exercise asymmetrical balancing to give itself a chance to explore and expand cooperation beyond the traditional oil and foreign workers portfolios when it comes to dealing with MENA. 

Given that an estimated number of two million Filipinos are working and living in the MENA region currently, it is a vital interest of the Philippines to prioritize their welfare.

Furthermore, the Marcos Jr. administration needs to come up with a strategic plan of action on how the Philippines can take advantage of the MENA market as well as attract their capital investment.

Aside from India and China, four other countries in the Southeast Asia, namely Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and Indonesia, have seen a considerable rise of Arab investment since 2012, while the Philippines has largely been ignored. This is despite some opportunities that are available. For example, MENA countries can invest in several economic areas in the Philippines such as in agro-industry, mining, halal products, renewable energy and agroforestry, innovation, as well as information technology, among others.

In addition, tourism industry is a strategic area that the Philippine can promote to MENA countries. Records shows that MENA tourist frequently travels to Southeast Asian countries such as to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Given that the Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, it has to prepare its facilities to attract more Muslim tourists from the Middle East region. In addition, it has to increase tourist accreditation as well as improve the country’s halal industry.

Saudi Arabia leads the MENA region in terms of the number of tourist arrival in the Philippines, both pre- and post-pandemic. For example, in 2019 it ranked number one among the Philippines’ source markets in the Middle East, with 43,748 visitors. Since the Philippines reopened, Saudi Arabia has contributed as many as 9,424 arrivals.

Given this, the Marcos Jr. administration should double its effort in attracting MENA tourists and include tourism as a strategic industry to generate revenues and create jobs for local people.

Finally, the government should continuously consult and partner with academic and research institutions, business sectors as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in order to come up with an effective strategic plan of action that will help promote the interests of the Philippines in the MENA region.

Some steps have been taken, such as the signing of the Philippine-United Arab Emirates (UAE) investment promotion and protection agreement. The agreement is expected to generate around 7.1 billion worth of investment and 2,500 jobs for Filipinos. More positive measures such as this are needed, however.

Organizational restructuring helps as well. The newly formalized Department of Migrant Workers will give 100% of its attention in addressing OFWs concerns, thus enabling the Departments of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Industry, Tourism, as well as Science and Technology to pursue these matters above. On a final note, the Philippines-Middle East relations need to move beyond the traditional areas of cooperation and start consider a more strategic, elevated and mutually beneficial partnerships where both sides can gain. The time to do that is now.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Prof. Henelito A. Sevilla, Jr. is the current dean at Asian Center, University of the Philippines Diliman. He serves as the president of the Philippine-Middle East Association (PMESA).