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Pacific Islands-Arab Relations Are at a Potential Turning Point


Pacific Islands-Arab Relations Are at a Potential Turning Point

The Pacific Island countries (PICs) and the (predominantly) Arab countries could be on the brink of stronger relations. Following the Second Ministerial Meeting between Members of the League of Arab States (LAS) and the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) on 11 and 12 June 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, what should be expected from and recommended for closer ties between the Arab and Pacific regions?

The Pacific Island countries (PICs) and the (predominantly) Arab countries could be on the brink of stronger relations. Following the Second Ministerial Meeting between Members of the League of Arab States (LAS) and the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) on 11 and 12 June 2023 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, what should be expected from and recommended for closer ties between the Arab and Pacific regions?


Relations between the states of the two regions might come as a surprise to many readers given the physical distance that separates them and the cultures and geographies that differentiate them. However, relations are not new. In the decade spanning from 1965 to 1974, merchandise imports of Pacific Island small states (a World Bank regional grouping) from low- and middle-income economies in the Middle East and North Africa fluctuated between 4.1 percent and 0.6 percent [1]. (Since 1977, such imports have been negligible.) In 2010, the UAE hosted the first ministerial meeting between Pacific islander and Arab foreign ministry officials; it built on that meeting by launching the UAE-Pacific Partnership Fund, which provided $50 million in grants to cultivate and support renewable energy projects on 11 PICs [2]. Moreover, Kuwait and the UAE extended funding for the first meeting of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) in 2013 [3]. Qatar has since a 2017 PIDF gathering expressed interest in working with PICs in development work [4], and in March 2023 it hosted the fifth UN Conference on the Least Developed Countries, the declaration of which was affirmed at the ministerial meeting in Jeddah. Egypt acknowledged the importance of PSIDS in the lead-up to COP27 in 2022 [5].

Similarities and Differences

The strains of climate adaptation and mitigation are testing the Arab and Pacific peoples, businesses, and governments, as well as other residents of the lands. For example, water-related issues are among the grave problems that the two regions are at high risk of facing within the next two decades. The Arab region is largely water-scarce and dependent on food imports. The PICs are surrounded by water—and parts of their lands may disappear due to rising sea levels. As the rate of temperature rise in the Arab region is double the global average, which could make human settlement unbearable there, so are Pacific islanders faced with ocean acidification that could devastate their blue economies [6].

Such watery ordeals are not the only cause for concern for peoples in the two regions. Both are sites of geopolitical contestation between the US and China, in conjunction with increased attention on the part of the EU, India, Japan, and South Korea. Their economies and politics have also been shaped by historical colonial endeavors that continue to impact their decisions and capabilities today.

Intra-organizational tensions have occurred in the Pacific and SWANA within the past two decades, such as the suspension of Syria and Fiji from the LAS and the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF); the self-willed departure of Micronesian states from the PIF, and their return; and some Arab countries placing and later lifting an embargo on Qatar. Arab and Pacific states are not well integrated into their respective regional frameworks.

The peoples of the two regions also emphasize the importance of community and religious values; for example, they identify with their Arab and (Blue) Pacific heritages.

Despite the similarities, the PIF members occupy around 20 percent of the earth’s surface [7], wherein lie extensive fisheries and other natural resources. Nevertheless, some are among the least developed and most impoverished countries in the world. This is juxtaposed to the resource-rich countries of the GCC, whose energy-generating resources have contributed to fueling economic productivity around the world and increasing carbon emissions therein as well. As major energy players, GCC and other LAS states have accumulated wealth that has been translated into domestic and international investments in infrastructure and advances in the health, education, and technology sectors.

Meeting Outcomes and Moving Forward

The recent second ministerial meeting saw participants note the state of relations between Arab countries and the PSIDS. Participants affirmed the need for closer coordination on international matters of concern and cooperation in addressing climate and sustainable development issues. (Some Arab countries (Qatar, Kuwait, and Egypt) also explicitly mentioned the plight of the Palestinian people and called for support for them.)

In the end, the Riyadh Declaration was announced, as was an effort to establish a memorandum of understanding between the LAS and the PSIDS. The declaration covers an array of fields of mutual interest. It also notably registers PSIDS support for Saudi Arabia to host World Expo 2030 [8].

Thus, the expansion of ties between the two groups of states could help both to pursue their interests by growing their networks and enlarging their pool of potential partners from whom they can receive support in international fora: The PSIDS is a relatively large bloc of states that are also connected to the more encompassing Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS); when they are united, they wield clout on international matters, as the Arab collection of states could do as well. Consequently, as statements from the ministerial meeting foretell, PICs and LAS states can join forces in pushing for the placement of their choices in UN leadership positions [9].

Relations are a necessity considering the front-line status of many PICs in climate-related effects, discussions, and negotiations; the focus on climate and sustainable development in the international arena; and the UAE’s hosting of the upcoming COP28 later this year.

Given that the gap between the two ministerial meetings lasted more than a decade, words will need to be translated into action.

For example, the percentage of merchandise imports from the Arab world has hovered between 0 and 0.1 percent of all PI small states (the World Bank grouping that is one state short of the PIDF) merchandise imports since 2010 [10]. (PI small states exports to the Arab world have fared only slightly better: between 0.2 percent and 1.7 percent, the latter only being registered for the year 2014 [11].) 

Moreover, relations will need to take into account the regional dynamics of PICs and the Arab portion of Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA), as well as affairs in surrounding areas. They are composed of states at varying levels of economic development and social makeup and different forms of government.

In the Pacific, regional entities with different numbers of members abound. The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) is the foremost political regional gathering and is made up of the PSIDS and other countries, whereas the PIDF is a major economic and environmental body whose members are the 12 PSIDS UN states and two organizations. The Pacific region consists of three principal sub-groups–Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia—and some islands are legally associated with larger states, such as the US, France, and New Zealand. As for the Arab region, it includes the Gulf, the Levant, and North Africa. The PSIDS UN bloc (consisting of 12 states after excluding two PSIDS countries that are not UN members) and the states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been particularly active in international affairs recently.

Due to the greater independence with which Arab countries have engaged in the international arena in recent years—such as by seeking deeper partnerships with non-Western states—the long-term outcome of the second ministerial meeting may prove to be much better than that following the first meeting.

This might be the case, particularly for those Arab countries (GCC states) that are geographically closer to the PICs. Pacific Islands-Arab relations are at a potential turning point.

Recommendations for Stronger Relations

Cooperation between the two sides will build relationships and foster trust. There is a desire for greater connections: out of seven regional markets around the world and the two nearby markets of Australia and New Zealand, the Middle East was the only region for which the percentage of Pacific Island exporters seeking new markets increased between 2020 and 2022 [12]. Moreover, there is room for growth in the tourism sector: International tourism expenditures in PI small states fell from a high of 7.5 percent of total imports in 2010 to 6.2 percent in 2019, before the pandemic struck [13].

Given the preponderance of wealth in certain Arab states, as well as the presence of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) headquarters in the UAE and the focus on energy transition among the LAS membership, Arab states must finance renewable energy projects in PICs. They could, for example, fund the SIDS Lighthouses Initiative [14]. Pacific and Arab countries could together also focus international attention on certain aspects of the renewable energy transition and test solutions that could be used in coastal areas around the world.

Arab states have been interested in fisheries development as a means of building food security [15]. They have also had to contend with illegal fishing [16]. PICs, with their fisheries management experience and their contributions to maritime governance by establishing agreements related to fishing, could supply ideas for their Arab counterparts. Pacific islanders could also assist with coral reef protection in Arab waters.

As for security-related governance, PICs and LAS members are both dealing with drug trafficking problems. An area of cooperation would entail anti-trafficking enforcement training. Additionally, as the Qatari delegation to the ministerial meeting noted, the PICs possess the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty, which was established in 1985. Arab states could find insight from that treaty for establishing a Middle East nuclear-weapon-free zone, an idea that has been around for decades.

Ultimately, relations between LAS and PSIDS countries will require deeper diplomatic interactions that are enhanced by direct flights between the two regions and exchanges of people, for example in the educational realm and specifically inclusive of a Pacific regional accomplishment, the University of the South Pacific [17].

Now is the time to work together towards a more secure, prosperous, and inclusive future.


[1] World Bank staff. “Merchandise Imports from Low- and Middle-Income Economies in Middle East & North Africa (% of Total Merchandise Imports) – Pacific Island Small States.” World Bank Open Data, 2023. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/TM.VAL.MRCH.R4.ZS.

[2] UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “UAE-Pacific Partnership Fund | Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” United Nations. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://sdgs.un.org/partnerships/uae-pacific-partnership-fund

[3] Tarte, Sandra. “A New Pacific Regional Voice?: The Pacific Islands Development Forum.” In The New Pacific Diplomacy, edited by Sandra Tarte and Greg Fry, 79–88. ANU Press, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt19w71mc.13.

[4] Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry and Communication Dept. Qatar Participates in 2nd Ministerial Meeting Between Arab Countries and Pacific Island Countries, June 12, 2023. https://www.mofa.gov.qa/en/all-mofa-news/details/1444/11/23/qatar-participates-in-2nd-ministerial-meeting-between-arab-countries-and-pacific-island-countries

[5] Egypt Today staff. “Egyptian Deputy FM Urges Coordination between Arab States, SIDS amid Global Polarization.” EgyptToday, June 13, 2023. https://www.egypttoday.com/Article/1/125051/Egyptian-deputy-FM-urges-coordination-between-Arab-states-SIDS-amid

[6] UN Press. “With Climate Crisis Generating Growing Threats to Global Peace, Security Council Must Ramp up Efforts, Lessen Risk of Conflicts, Speakers Stress in Open Debate.” United Nations, 2023. https://press.un.org/en/2023/sc15318.doc.htm

[7] Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent.” forumsec.org, 2022. https://www.forumsec.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/PIFS-2050-Strategy-Blue-Pacific-Continent-WEB-5Aug2022.pdf

[8] AlHamawi, Lama. “Ministerial Meeting of Arab League and Pacific Island States Issues Riyadh Declaration.” Arab News, June 13, 2023. https://www.arabnews.com/node/2320931/saudi-arabia

[9] Carter, George. “Establishing a Pacific Voice in the Climate Change Negotiations.” In The New Pacific Diplomacy, edited by Greg Fry and Sandra Tarte, 205–20. ANU Press, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt19w71mc.23.

[10] World Bank staff. “Merchandise Imports from Economies in the Arab World (% of Total Merchandise Imports) – Pacific Island Small States.” World Bank Open Data. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/TM.VAL.MRCH.AL.ZS?locations=S2

[11] World Bank staff. “Merchandise Exports to Economies in the Arab World (% of Total Merchandise Exports) – Pacific Island Small States.” World Bank Open Data. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/TX.VAL.MRCH.AL.ZS

[12] PTI Australia team. “Pacific Islands Export Survey 2022: Export Dynamics in the Pacific Islands.” pacifictradeinvest.com, 2022. https://pacifictradeinvest.com/media/iqvbcn1v/pti-australia-pacific-export-survey-2022-full-report.pdf

[13] N/A. “International Tourism, Expenditures (% of Total Imports) – Pacific Island Small States.” World Bank Open Data. Accessed July 31, 2023. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/ST.INT.XPND.MP.ZS?locations=S2

[14] IRENA. “SIDS Lighthouses Initiative: Progress and Way Forward.” World energy transitions outlook 2023, 2023. https://mc-cd8320d4-36a1-40ac-83cc-3389-cdn-endpoint.azureedge.net/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2023/Mar/IRENA_WETO_Preview_2023.pdf?rev=c4c2398e169a4243ad37cf67dc441fa8

[15] Fathelrahman, Eihab, Aydin Basarir, Mohamed Gheblawi, Sherin Sherif, and James Ascough, II. 2014. “Economic Risk and Efficiency Assessment of Fisheries in Abu-Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE): A Stochastic Approach” Sustainability 6, no. 6: 3878-3898. https://doi.org/10.3390/su6063878

[16] Oumansour, Brahim. “Illegal and Unreported Fishing in Arab Zones.” ORSAM, 2022. https://www.orsam.org.tr/en/illegal-and-unreported-fishing-in-arab-zones/). 

[17] Köllner, Patrick. “‘Micronexit’ Overshadows Golden Anniversary of the Pacific Islands Forum.” giga, 2021. https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publications/giga-focus/micronexit-overshadows-golden-anniversary-of-the-pacific-islands-forum. 




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