Published: 23:24, February 10, 2023 | Updated: 09:55, February 13, 2023
John Lee's Middle East trip rife with potential
By Andrew KP Leung

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu led a delegation of senior government officials and 30 high-level representatives from various sectors on his first overseas trip this year to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As post-pandemic Hong Kong reopens to the world, the visit enhances connections between Hong Kong and the two Arab countries, with vast business opportunities expected for the city.

Business aside, the visit is pregnant with wider implications, not only for Hong Kong but also for the motherland and beyond.  

First, the visit signifies a long-awaited quest to diversify and broaden Hong Kong’s economy by embracing new industrialization and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterized by 21st century knowledge-based businesses and the internet of things, and to make Hong Kong into a more livable city. 

Lee said these countries were picked for their visions and blueprints in finance, innovation and technology, as well as infrastructure and logistics.

Coming to mind are Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and the UAE’s Dubai Industrial Strategy 2030, both rich in transformative developments including visionary cityscape and high-value manufacturing processes such as aerospace, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. 

The Arab diversification visions were probably inspired by the late Saudi energy minister Sheikh Yamani, who famously said in 2000, “The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” 

This has turned out to be prophetic. Both oil-rich Arab nations have long embarked on diversification and sustainable development. 

Saudi Arabia’s 2030 plan is geared toward “net zero” emissions by 2060, including such goals as sustainable agriculture, safe and high-quality local foods, water balance, biodiversity and livable green cities such as The Line in Neom. 

Abu Dhabi’s Environment Vision 2030 identifies five priority areas — climate change; clean air and noise pollution; water resources, biodiversity, habitat and cultural heritage; and waste management. 

In line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, our nation’s China Dream embraces visions of a beautiful China and building a global community of common destiny for mankind. Hong Kong has put sustainable development and the environment on our list of priorities, including building Hong Kong into a more-livable city.  

Clearly, there is plenty of common ground, including but not limited to business and investment opportunities on all sides, for the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, and the two Arab nations to explore and develop in the years to come, not just stock listings, solar panels, electric vehicles and smart cities. 

Second, Lee followed in the footsteps of President Xi Jinping’s groundbreaking Saudi visit in December last year, as part and parcel of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative. These hark back to China’s ancient Silk Road extending to the Arabian Peninsula 3,000 years ago. It also recalls Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Muslim Admiral Zheng He’s pilgrimage to Mecca during his fourth voyage in 1413-15. 

As pointed out in my China Daily op-ed of Dec 23 last year, Toward a Better World Order, China’s reconnection with the developing world signifies “a return to the future” of a more-inclusive world order no longer dictated by Western powers, which only rose to dominance relatively late in the last millennium. 

According to Goldman Sachs research, by 2075, seven of the top eight-largest economies will be today’s developing nations (with the United States in third position). Such a world is likely to be more focused on peace and development, and less hijacked by ideological exceptionalism. 

Third, deepening connection in the developing world showcases the ancient Chinese philosophy of “harmony despite differences”. This concept is hardly appreciated by Western powers fixated on blackening and strangling China, fanned by binary geopolitical and ideological confrontation reminiscent of the medieval Crusades. Examples include twisted Western narratives that China’s attempt to build a community of common destiny for mankind is a disguise to seek “world domination”, as put forward in such works as The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy, by Ian Easton, senior director at the Project 2049 Institute based in Arlington, Virginia, the US. 

Deeper re-engagement with and between Arab and other developing countries is a resuscitation of ancient Eastern philosophies that countries dissimilar in culture and influence should and can work together, and even compete, in harmony. This is progressing fast as exemplified by closer ties such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) (the world’s largest trading bloc) within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their main trading partners, the Arab League, the African Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). 

Indeed, developing countries across the globe are scrambling to join the SCO in one form or another. So far, nine countries have joined the group as members, including China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran. It also has three observers — Afghanistan, Belarus (expected to be a member this year), and Mongolia; and nine dialogue partners — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Türkiye, Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The UAE reportedly wants to join the SCO as a member, bypassing other accession conditions. Syria, Iraq, Israel, Bangladesh and Vietnam also hope to join as dialogue partners or observers, according to Arab News. 

Similar enthusiasm surrounds BRICS. Applications have been received from Algeria, Argentina and Iran, with Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, Egypt, Afghanistan and Indonesia expressing keen interest. Other likely contenders include Kazakhstan, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Senegal, Thailand and the UAE.

Fourth, Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” is an example of harmony with the motherland despite differences in systems. As part of China, Hong Kong is well-positioned in the developing world as the latter gains increasing solidarity and global gravitas. It is a smooth-functioning international travel, transportation, logistics and business hub connecting both East and West. Its unique common law legal system underpins its status as a sophisticated international financial and arbitration center supporting China’s global Belt and Road Initiative. Its topographical diversity with breathtaking natural sceneries and its multifaceted cultures never cease to delight and amaze. Its excellent business infrastructure, including a vibrant international stock exchange, thrives as a haven for global corporations and enterprising individuals wanting to tap the fast-expanding and globally connected Chinese economy. 

All told, John Lee’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE is as timely as it is strategically meaningful, not only for Hong Kong and the mainland but for the rest of the world. 

The author is an international and independent China strategist, and was previously the director-general of social welfare and Hong Kong’s official chief representative for the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, Russia, Norway and Switzerland.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.