PM to visit Middle East as ties to the Gulf grow

September 15, 2008 at 2:07 am Leave a comment

The Phnom Penh Post – September 13, 2008

Written by Sebastian Strangio and Vong Sokheng

PRIME Minister Hun Sen will make a state visit to the Middle East next January, in what foreign ministry officials and local Muslim leaders are describing as a consummation of Cambodia’s growing economic relationship with the Muslim world, following visits from two Gulf state delegations earlier this year.

“Hun Sen is scheduled to visit the Middle East in January next year,” said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Sin Bunthoeun.

“The aim of the visit is to strengthen our political and economic links with Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.”

Friends with benefits
Such links have grown apace with oil-rich Gulf states pledging Cambodia over US$700 million in soft loans and investment already this year.

“We need a relationship with the Middle East because the Gulf states have oil and money, and Cambodia needs soft loans and grants in order to develop its infrastructure,” said Ahmad Yahya a government adviser and the president of the Cambodian Islamic Development Association.

For  Ahmad Yahya, there is an economic logic to Middle East relations that is hard for the government to ignore.

“We need a relationship with the middle east because the gulf states have oil and money.”

“All the countries in the Middle East are desert countries, and they need to make sure if something happens they don’t starve. So they are keen to plant rice [in Cambodia] and export it back to their countries,” he said, referring to an emerging new global trend of wealthy non-arable nations investing directly in crops in developing nations.
While critics have warned that such practices risk jeopardising food security in the developing world, the government is busy doing deals, spurred on by the knowledge that its vast swaths of under-utilised farmland make it an extremely attractive trade incentive for largely desert Gulf states.

In April, the Qatari prime minister announced a $200 million investment in Cambodia’s agriculture sector, while Kuwait last month pledged $546 million in soft loans to upgrade irrigation systems and roads throughout the Kingdom.

Sith Ibrahim, secretary of state in the Ministry of Cults and Religions, said Cambodia’s commitment to religious freedom had further increased its attractiveness to Muslim nations. “We are open to all Muslim countries,” he said, adding Cham leaders have played an vital role in breaking the ice with Muslim governments. 

“There are 19 Cham associations across the Kingdom, and they are playing an important role in helping improve our relationship with the Middle East,” he said, adding that the Chams were benefiting in turn.

“Cham Muslims have received direct benefit from the government’s political and economic links with countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait,” he said.

In addition to its development loans, the Kuwaiti government has also pledged $5 million for the renovation of the International Dubai Mosque at Boeung Kak lake, and the construction of a Islamic studies centre nearby.

Who really wins?
But some are less optimistic about the flow of cash from the Middle East. Son Chhay, chairman of the National Assembly’s Commission on Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation, Information and the Media, said the recent growth in the relationship with the Gulf states was a result of two things – Cambodia’s valuable land concessions, and its offshore oil deposits.

“At the moment, I cannot say how the country will benefit from the growing relationship. I agree that the government should pursue relations with Muslim countries, but at the same time, [it] has to thoroughly examine the economic and religious effects,” he said.

One such possible effect – growing Islamic radicalism amongst the Cham community – also has some Western governments preaching caution on the growing links with the Islamic world.

“The United States has excellent relations with many Middle Eastern countries and we would expect that Cambodia will have the opportunity to develop positive relations in that region as well,” said US Embassy spokesman John Johnson by email.
“However, we do need to look out for groups that teach intolerance and violence, and who provide funds in an effort to change the atmosphere and attitude of Cambodia’s Cham Muslim minority.”

But Mohammad Younis Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador in Phnom Penh, said that while Cambodia’s Chams were a natural point of linkage with other Muslim countries, long-term commitments were based more on economic considerations than religious ones.

“People like to help their Muslim brothers, particularly with aid for mosques and so forth,” he said.
“But it’s not the Cham Muslim minority here that attracts countries like Kuwait or Qatar, it’s Cambodia itself.”


Entry filed under: Economy and Trade, Politics. Tags: .

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