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Beyond petropolitics: the Philippines – Saudi Arabia strategic relations

This article was written in collaboration with José Mikhail PEREZ. José is an assistant professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Manila and a resident fellow at IDSC, a Manila-based think tank.

Last 20 October 2023, Philippine president Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ R. Marcos Jr. attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, the first ministerial meetings between two emerging regional blocs in Asia. Although, ASEAN was born in 1967 in Bangkok while GCC was only established in 2009 in Bahrain―the economic networks of important multilateral groups from West and Southeast Asia offer sizable potential trade in the world economy.

President Marcos Jr.’s eye on Saudi Arabia, as he inked investment pledges collectively worth more than $4.26 billion, on the sidelines of a summit and amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East, comes from a playbook from his father when the late Filipino dictator opened the diplomatic channels in Riyadh in 1969. Manila paved a way for the inaugural of a mission in Jeddah in 1973 and the Saudi government reciprocated the goodwill in the Philippines a year after.

It is true that today more than a million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) toil in construction, nursing homes, and as domestic helpers in Saudi Arabia that opened a window of opportunity for the Philippines to export its human resources. This economic intervention that began in 1970s under the first Marcosian ruler helped institutionalize the now Department of Migrant Workers in Manila aimed at protecting the rights of the OFWs in Gulf nations and promoting the welfare of Filipino migrant workers abroad. Given the increasing role of Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia, the Marcos Jr. administration has repeatedly stated that his government will prioritize the rights of Filipino workers overseas as part of the administration’s core foreign policy agenda.

However President Bongbong Marcos wanted to expand the vision of his father and elevate the strategic relationship of the Philippines with Saudi Arabia to widen the scale of cooperation to energy, digital industry, Islamic financial services, and food security. For this reason, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has recently stated that the revitalization of foreign relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries can help mitigate several geopolitical concerns of the country, particularly on the rising oil prices that may disrupt the global supply chain in the region.

On the other hand, Riyadh’s major interests with Manila clothed on ensuring the welfare of Muslims in the archipelagic country through peace and development in southern Philippines, supply of Philippine skilled workforce to the Kingdom, and promotion of Islamic education. The increasing number of Filipino Muslim pilgrims who visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina as part of their Hajj as a pillar of Islam yielded the need to strengthen diplomatic relations of both Asian countries before the arrival of the 21st century. In fact, around 8000 Filipinos have joined the pilgrimage annually from 2015-2019 before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos.  

This reinvigoration of Philippine foreign relations to the Gulf emirates, particularly Saudi Arabia, should not be viewed as something new since the country serves as the top destination of OFWs according to recent Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) data last year. Instead, this can be regarded as an opportunity to develop strategic relations among the two friends where the Philippines’ national strategy is inevitably linked to its economic development. Thus, the Philippines-Saudi Arabia vibrant business communities pledged to encourage cooperation through increased joint investments to attract more foreign direct investments (FDIs) to the Southeast Asian nation, particularly in certain industries such as halal, oil refinery, and educational training.

Such matters were also highlighted in the said round-table summit where regional leaders between the ASEAN and GCC countries exchanged views on a wide range of regional and global insecurities, resulting in the adoption of the ASEAN-GCC Framework of Cooperation 2024-2028 along with a joint statement. The prospects of increased cooperation between the two countries fosters a strategic partnership in the future, with president Marcos Jr. announcing that the meeting between the Filipino and Saudi economic leaders during the ASEAN-GCC summit ‘a successful and productive visit’, signaling more collaborations in the near future. 

The recent diplomatic developments between Manila and Riyadh demonstrate the resiliency and realities of a country’s national security in terms of its non-traditional security. After the Cold War, the sudden paradigm shift of national security in protecting the state as the referent object of security through military means has already placed people as the current referent object through economic security and non-traditional means, introducing the idea of human security― while safeguarding the OFWs which turns out to be one of the primordial national interests of the Philippines.

In sum, the increased strategic relationship between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia under the Marcos Jr. administration is a step in the right direction that goes beyond the imports of petroleum or petropolitics. Emerging economic threats such as energy insecurity and labor issues are slowly becoming a matter of concern for Philippine foreign policy. Thus, strengthening diplomatic relations in the bilateral and regional levels is necessary to attain the Philippines’ foreign policy objectives in the long run.

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