Policy to Profit: Shaping ASEAN-GCC Investment Dynamics in 2024

Posted by Written by Michael Barantschik Reading Time: 11 minutes

The global economic landscape is continuously shaped and reshaped by the dynamic interactions between various regional blocs. Among these, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) stand out for their unique contributions and growing interdependence in trade and investment.

ASEAN, established in 1967, is a regional intergovernmental organization comprising ten Southeast Asian nations. It aims to promote economic growth, cultural development, and regional stability among its members. The bloc includes diverse economies ranging from the highly developed Singapore to the rapidly emerging Vietnam, making it a pivotal player in the Asian and global economy.

On the other hand, the GCC, formed in 1981, is a political and economic alliance of six Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. The GCC is predominantly known for its vast oil reserves, but in recent years, it has been actively diversifying its economic portfolio, venturing into sectors like finance, tourism, and technology.

Brief History of Trade and Investment Relations

The trade and investment relations between ASEAN and the GCC have evolved significantly. Initially, the interaction was primarily centered around oil and labor. ASEAN countries imported oil from the GCC, while the GCC countries benefitted from the skilled and unskilled labor force from the ASEAN region. This partnership has evolved over time, transforming into a complex collaboration that spans numerous industries such as construction, finance, tourism, and technology.

The evolution of trade relations has been accompanied by a range of diplomatic efforts and trade agreements. These agreements aimed to facilitate easier market access, reduce trade barriers, and promote mutual investment. Various governmental initiatives, negotiations, and dialogues contributed to creating a more structured and beneficial trade environment for both regions.

Regional developments, such as political changes, economic reforms in the GCC, and the ASEAN integration process, have significantly influenced trade dynamics between the two blocs. While they have sometimes posed challenges, they have also presented new opportunities for collaboration. The expanding trade relations have had a notable economic impact on both regions, contributing to job creation, technological transfer, and overall economic growth.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift towards collaboration in newer sectors, such as renewable energy, digital technology, and sustainable development projects. The global shift towards a greener economy and the digital revolution has opened new avenues for cooperation between ASEAN and GCC countries.

The ASEAN-GCC relationship holds considerable weight in the global economy. The combined economic output of these regions constitutes a significant portion of the world’s GDP. Their collaboration has implications not just for regional prosperity but also for global economic trends, especially in areas like energy markets, infrastructure development, and cross-continental trade dynamics.

This relationship is also pivotal in the context of South-South cooperation, providing a model for inter-regional collaboration between developing and emerging economies. As both regions continue to evolve, their trade and investment ties are likely to deepen, offering mutual benefits and contributing to broader global economic stability and growth.

The future of ASEAN-GCC trade relations looks promising, with the potential for further expansion and diversification into new and emerging sectors.

Economic Profiles of ASEAN and the GCC

In understanding the trade and investment relations between ASEAN and the GCC, it is essential to examine the economic characteristics and strengths of each regional bloc.

The ASEAN region is characterized by its economic diversity, with member states ranging from high-income economies like Singapore and Brunei to lower-middle-income countries like Myanmar and Laos.

ASEAN membership states have been among the fastest-growing economies in the world. Nations like Vietnam and the Philippines have shown high growth rates, driven by manufacturing and services. The bloc is a major player in global trade, with membership states showcasing strong export-oriented economies. Key exports include electronics, textiles, and agricultural products while simultaneously attracting significant FDI, thanks to its strategic location, growing consumer markets, and increasingly skilled labor force.

The GCC economies in turn are predominantly known for their large oil and gas reserves, and while oil remains the backbone of GCC economies, there is a growing effort towards economic diversification and focus on sectors like finance, real estate, tourism, and renewable energy.

Initiatives like Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, UAE’s 2030 Agenda, and Kuwait’s Vision 2035 exemplify the region’s commitment to reducing dependence on oil revenues while contributing to global sustainability initiatives. The GCC states have substantial sovereign wealth funds, making them significant global investors.

The economic structures of ASEAN and the GCC are complementary in many ways. ASEAN’s manufacturing and agricultural strengths offer diverse opportunities for GCC countries looking to secure food and industrial products. Conversely, the GCC’s financial resources and energy capabilities are invaluable to ASEAN’s growing economies. Both regions are actively pursuing economic diversification, albeit from different starting points. ASEAN countries are increasingly moving up the value chain in manufacturing and services, while the GCC is reducing its reliance on oil and gas revenues through investments in technology, tourism, and renewable energy.

While each regional bloc has its unique strengths and challenges, its economic characteristics present numerous opportunities for deepening trade and investment relations.

ASEAN’s economic outlook

The economic outlook for ASEAN is influenced by external factors such as the global economic slowdown and China’s economic policies. The reopening of China’s economy has had a significant impact on the ASEAN region. In the short term, there are supply-chain bottlenecks and demand issues, but overall, improved Chinese growth is positive for the ASEAN region.

Singapore: Singapore’s economy has been projected to grow, with Goldman Sachs estimating a real GDP growth of 1.5% and a consensus estimate of 2.6% for 2023. The country’s developed economy and strategic role in global finance and commerce play a significant part in shaping its economic performance in the face of global economic pressures.

Malaysia: Malaysia is expected to see a GDP growth of around 4.0% to 4.3% in 2023. This growth is expected to be driven in part by the recovery of the tourism sector, which is returning to pre-pandemic levels, along with the overall improving global economic conditions. However, there is some uncertainty about the immediate return of Chinese tourists, even with the ease of travel restrictions.

Thailand: Thailand’s economy is forecasted to grow by 3.9% to 4.0%, largely attributed to a rebound in global tourism, which is a significant sector in Thailand’s economy, supported by significant FDI in various sectors such as crypto, fintech, blockchain, AI, healthcare, and medical tourism.

Indonesia: As the only G20 member in ASEAN, Indonesia boasts a growth projection of 4.4% to 4.9%. The country saw a record FDI of about US$43 billion in 2022, with a target to increase this figure in 2023. Indonesia’s abundant natural resources and large domestic market make it a long-term investment opportunity.

Philippines: The Philippines showed robust growth, with a GDP growth of 5.8% to 5.9% in the third quarter of 2023. This growth was primarily driven by strong domestic demand, as the country continues to recover from the pandemic, combined with a substantial increase in government spending.

Vietnam: Vietnam’s economy expanded by 8% in 2022, however, the IMF expects this to slow down to 5.8% in 2023 as it addresses high inflation challenges. The growth is indicative of the country’s economy, which has been increasingly attractive for international investors due to its competitive industries and easy market access, positioning Vietnam as a significant player in the regional economy.

Cambodia: Cambodia’s economy in 2023 is expected to grow, with projections ranging from 5.2% to 5.8%, driven mainly by the garment, footwear, and travel goods sectors, as well as construction, real estate, tourism, and agriculture. The government’s efforts in attracting FDI and diversifying export markets continue to be a key factor contributing to this growth.

Laos: Laos’s economic recovery continues with a projected GDP growth of 3.7%, up from 2.7% in 2022, supported by improvements in tourism, transport, logistics, and FDI. However, the economy faces challenges from high inflation, a depreciating currency, labor shortages, and the limited availability of foreign currency due to large external debt obligations.

Myanmar: Myanmar’s gradual economic recovery is forecasted at a GDP growth of 2.8%. This recovery, however, is fragile due to weak household incomes, import restrictions, and frequent power outages. The country’s key economic activities, including manufacturing and transport show improvement, however inflation remains significant projected at 14% in 2023.

Brunei: Brunei’s economic growth is forecasted at 2.8% after experiencing a contraction of 1.2% in 2022. The country is benefiting from higher global energy prices, aiding in its fiscal recovery and external economic position. Its focus on diversifying its economy, particularly in sectors like digitalization and green investment, is expected to strengthen its long-term economic resilience.

Overall, ASEAN countries have become increasingly attractive destinations for FDI. Multinationals are attracted by Southeast Asia for their competitive workforce, improving business regulations, and increasing domestic demand.

Singapore, with its highly developed economy, attracted about US$100 billion in foreign investment in 2021 alone, with key industries including IT, aerospace, electronics, pharmaceuticals, and professional services.

The economic outlook of the GCC

The World Bank projects a growth rate of 1% for the GCC in 2023 before picking up again to 3.6% and 3.7% in 2024 and 2025. This slower growth is attributed mainly to reduced oil and gas earnings and a global economic slowdown​​.

Despite challenges in the energy sector, the GCC’s non-oil economy is forecasted to grow by 3.9% in 2023 and 3.4% in the medium term. This growth is driven by private consumption, strategic investments, and supportive fiscal policies. However, the oil economy is expected to contract due to OPEC+ production cuts and global economic challenges​​.

Saudi Arabia: Saudi Arabia’s GDP is expected to contract by 0.5% in 2023, with a forecasted rebound in 2024. The non-oil sector, however, is expected to grow at 4.3%, offsetting the contraction in the oil sector, supported by a change in fiscal policies and strong private consumption growth.

The UAE: The UAE economy is anticipated to grow by 3.4% in 2023, with the non-oil GDP projected at 4.5%. This is primarily due to the country’s economic diversification efforts which resulted in growth in sectors such as tourism, real estate, construction, transportation, and manufacturing.

Bahrain: Bahrain’s growth is projected to be 2.8%, and while the oil sector is projected to contribute a marginal 0.1%, the country’s non-oil sector, encompassing areas such as tourism, banking, and technology, is expected to continue driving economic growth by nearly 4%, demonstrating a diversified economic base.

Kuwait: Kuwait’s economic growth is set to decelerate significantly to 0.8% in 2023. This slowdown is attributed to a decline in oil production, influenced by global market conditions and agreed OPEC+ production cuts. Despite this, the non-oil sector is projected to expand by 5.2%, supported by increased private consumption and eased fiscal policy.

Oman: Oman’s economic growth is expected to slow largely due to the impact of OPEC+ agreements and a global economic downturn. However, the medium-term outlook is good, fueled by extensive structural reforms. Overall growth is expected to be 1.4% in 2023, while growth in non-oil sectors, driven by construction, renewable energy investments, and tourism, is expected to exceed 2%.

Qatar: Qatar’s GDP growth is forecasted at 2.8% in 2023. Despite challenges in the construction sector and a tighter monetary policy, the country is well positioned to see robust growth in non-hydrocarbon sectors, especially tourism, driven by its emerging status as a global sporting destination. The oil sector is expected to grow by 1.3% this year.

The inflation outlook for the Gulf countries is more muted compared to many major economies, expected to be between 2.1% and 3.3% in 2023. Most GCC economies are still expected to enjoy double-digit current account surpluses despite slower oil production, with only Oman and Bahrain predicted to have surpluses in single digits.

There’s also been a significant increase in female labor force participation in countries like Saudi Arabia, a positive development attributed to effective reform initiatives like Vision 2030. This trend indicates a broader shift towards more inclusive economic policies in the region.

Investment Flows and Collaboration between ASEAN and the GCC

Investment flows and collaborative ventures between the two regional blocs have been pivotal in strengthening their economic relations.

There has been a significant flow of investments from the GCC to the ASEAN region, primarily focused on infrastructure, real estate, energy, and banking sectors. These investments are driven by the GCC’s need to diversify its economic base and seek profitable ventures beyond its regional boundaries. Investments in infrastructure development, among them airports, seaports, and highways are crucial for the ASEAN countries’ export-led economies.

Investments from ASEAN to the GCC are less pronounced but growing, with a focus on sectors like technology, retail, and hospitality. ASEAN investors are attracted by the GCC’s stable economic environment and strategic location as a gateway to Africa and Europe. The real estate and hospitality sectors in both regions have seen considerable investment, with GCC countries investing in ASEAN’s booming property market and ASEAN investors tapping into the GCC’s growing tourism industry.

The energy sector remains a primary area of investment, with the GCC investing in ASEAN’s renewable energy projects and ASEAN countries exploring energy partnerships in the oil-rich GCC. These investments have a significant impact on local economies, contributing to job creation, technology transfer, and infrastructure development. Collaboration in sectors like renewable energy is also fostering sustainable development in both regions, aligning with global efforts to combat climate change.

The pandemic significantly disrupted global supply chains, affecting trade between ASEAN and GCC countries. However, it also accelerated digital transformation, creating new opportunities in sectors like e-commerce, digital health, and remote working technologies. It once again highlighted the importance of diversification in both regions, particularly for the GCC, which faced challenges due to fluctuating oil prices and demand.

Fluctuations in oil prices have a direct impact on GCC economies, which in turn affects their investment capabilities and trade dynamics with ASEAN countries. These shifts encourage GCC countries to diversify their economies, leading to increased investments in non-oil sectors, including those in ASEAN countries.

Both ASEAN and GCC are exploring emerging markets and sectors. For instance, ASEAN’s growing digital economy offers opportunities for GCC investors, while ASEAN countries are interested in the GCC’s renewable energy projects. The focus on sustainable and green technologies is creating new avenues for collaboration.

Stability in both regions is crucial for maintaining strong economic relations. Economic policies, such as trade agreements and foreign investment regulations, play a significant role in shaping the nature of ASEAN-GCC economic relations. The evolving global economic landscape, including the shift towards a multipolar world, may lead to more significant South-South cooperation, with ASEAN and GCC playing key roles.

Challenges and opportunities in ASEAN-GCC trade and investment relations

The economic partnership between ASEAN and the GCC has evolved substantially over time, presenting a blend of challenges and opportunities that are reshaping their relationship in trade and investment. This evolution reflects the complexities and dynamics of modern international economic interactions.

One of the primary challenges in this partnership is navigating the diverse regulatory landscapes that characterize each region. This includes a variety of tariffs, non-tariff barriers, and differing legal and business practices. These regulatory hurdles pose obstacles to seamless trade and investment flows, requiring concerted efforts to harmonize standards and simplify procedures.

Another challenge lies in the cultural differences between the two regions. The distinct cultural backgrounds of ASEAN and GCC countries may lead to misunderstandings in business negotiations and practices. These differences, if not properly managed, have the potential to hinder effective communication and mutual understanding, which are critical for successful international partnerships.

Economic and political stability is another concern, particularly given the GCC’s reliance on oil revenues. The economies of GCC countries are vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices, which can have a ripple effect on their economic relations with ASEAN countries. Similarly, political instability in some ASEAN nations poses risks to investors, making it crucial to develop strategies to mitigate these uncertainties.

Despite these challenges, there are numerous opportunities for ASEAN-GCC partnerships. Both regions are actively pursuing economic diversification. The GCC’s investment in sectors like tourism, sports, and renewable energy opens new opportunities for ASEAN investors. Meanwhile, the fast-growing economies of ASEAN countries are attractive destinations for GCC investments, especially in fields like infrastructure, manufacturing, and services.

Technological collaboration represents another significant opportunity. The ongoing digital transformation offers a vast scope for cooperation in areas such as fintech, e-commerce, and smart city initiatives. This digital collaboration could spur innovation and growth in both regions.

Sustainable development is another area of promising collaboration. The global trend towards sustainability and renewable energy aligns with the strategic interests of both regions. Working together on sustainable projects and green technologies not only contributes to environmental conservation but also opens up new economic avenues.

Future prospects of ASEAN-GCC relations

The future prospects of ASEAN-GCC relations reflect a landscape ripe with both challenges and opportunities for economic collaboration. This partnership, if strategically nurtured, harnessing the collective strengths of both regions, is likely to yield significant benefits and foster mutual growth.

In the face of global economic shifts, ASEAN and GCC countries find themselves at a crossroads where their capacity to adapt and innovate will shape the trajectory of their relations. The need to diversify their economies and explore new avenues for joint ventures is more critical than ever. This adaptability is crucial in navigating the changing global economic landscape, where technological advancement and sustainable development are increasingly paramount.

Looking forward, the trajectory of ASEAN-GCC relations seems geared towards a more integrated economic relationship. This progression is fueled by a shared commitment to embrace global economic changes, with particular emphasis on sustainable practices and technological innovation. These focal points are not only essential in keeping pace with global economic trends but also crucial in securing a stable and prosperous future for both regions.

The potential of the ASEAN-GCC partnership extends beyond regional implications; it holds significant promise for influencing global economic dynamics. By addressing challenges with practical solutions and capitalizing on collaborative opportunities, this alliance is in a strong position to set new standards in international economic cooperation. It represents a model of how diverse regions can come together to create a more interconnected and thriving world economy.

About Us

ASEAN Briefing is produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm assists foreign investors throughout Asia and maintains offices throughout ASEAN, including in Singapore, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Da Nang in Vietnam, in addition to Jakarta, in Indonesia. We also have partner firms in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand as well as our practices in China and India. Please contact us at asean@dezshira.com or visit our website at www.dezshira.com.