Cambodia's diplomatic embrace of Gulf states is in full swing, with the
PM set to visit the Middle East in January, but just why is the Kingdom
so keen to befriend Arab nations?
A young Cham Muslim girl skips through a mosque in Takeo province on
Monday. Prime Minister Hun Sen is set to visit the Middle East in
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
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
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."