At a time when economic tensions are never far from the world’s headlines, the role of trade as a tool for promoting mutual growth can seem a distant memory. And yet amidst this increasingly competitive and inward-looking landscape, some respite can be found in the Middle East, an innovative and fresh region of nations racing to diversify their economies away from hydrocarbons. The diversification of the region helps boost the Middle East market and make it an emerging champion for trade.
Boosting non-oil exports and foreign investments are essential steps for diversification. Over the last two decades, Gulf nations have sought to forge closer ties with one another, removing non-tariff barriers and entering into international trade agreements as an integrated group. As well as a GCC-wide Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the broader Greater Arab Free Trade Area to promote intraregional trade, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) currently holds FTAs with Singapore and the EFTA states of Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The cooperation council is collectively negotiating several more, including with:
- New Zealand
- The European Union
First of its kind FTA
As well as entering into international Free Trade Agreements collectively, GCC members have also forged new partnerships independently. Of particular note is Bahrain’s FTA with the US – the first US FTA with any GCC country. Last year saw USD 1.2 billion total in imports and USD 683 million in exports from this trade agreement alone. Furthermore, it has been a boon to Bahrain’s rapidly growing manufacturing sector, attracting international companies seeking to benefit from the Kingdom’s low-cost business environment, advanced infrastructure, supportive regulation, highly skilled workforce and access to both the US and growing USD 1.5 trillion Gulf markets.
Tariff-free competitive edge
Take Confectionary giant Mondelez, which chose the Bahrain International Investment Park for its sixth global mega-plant – a ‘Factory of the Future’ the size of 300 football fields. According to Plant Director Omar Nassef, “The US FTA grants the Bahraini business a competitive edge of having tariff-free access to the giant economy of the US.” Every year Mondelez produces some 60 million Oreo cookies – around 72 metric tonnes – and is generating some USD 70 million of revenue coming from the Middle East market and its tariff-free edge.
Or take 205-year-old US home textiles producer WestPoint Home. According to COO Steven Burns, most of the company’s competitors are in countries like Pakistan, China and India. Having set up in Bahrain to take advantage of the ease of doing business, access to decision-makers and skilled workforce (they employ more than 160 Bahrainis) they now export 90 percent of their production, duty-free, to the US.
Take the example of Bell Racing Helmets, which according to Executive Director & Chairman Stephane Cohen set up in Bahrain to take advantage of the supportive infrastructure for entrepreneurs and businesses and the high quality of life. They have been benefiting from the US FTA ever since.
Bucking the global trend
The results of attracting these international businesses are starting to show. The latest World Investment Report (WIR 2019) from the UN Conference on Trade and Development found that global flows of foreign direct investment (FDI) had sunk to their lowest level since the global financial crisis. Despite this, the West Asian subregion, which includes the Middle East, bucked the global trend, seeing a three percent rise in FDI to a total of USD 29 billion. The report singled out Bahrain, which saw a 6 percent increase in FDI inflows, attributed in large part to growing interest in its manufacturing sector.
Strengthening relations at home and abroad
The Middle East has long been seen as one of the world’s most fractious regions. Yet the need to evolve and adapt to a rapidly changing world has brought many Middle Eastern countries closer together, boosting the Middle East market. It is an irony of the digital era that while we are more connected than ever before, there is a growing trend towards nationalism and protectionism. In such a climate, there may be lessons to learn from the Middle East, which is strengthening relations at home while forging new alliances and visits across the world. And growing stronger because of it.