As I mentioned in a piece last year, Qatar has become increasingly interested in pursuing a “Look East” policy of expanding and strengthening relationship with the countries of Southeast Asia. This has been primarily driven over the past several years by an increased acknowledgement of the region’s significant growth and large potential markets that Southeast Asia has to offer. It has deepened considerably due to significant development and industrialization pressure, and to a lesser degree, by the momentary cessation of Western markets after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Qatar’s interest in Southeast Asia has been further invigorated by the rise of China, the 2008 financial crisis, as well as growing instability in the Middle East.
One aspect of this Look East is Qatar’s relations with Thailand, a potential market of almost 67 million customers. In terms of bilateral trade, trade volume between the two countries amounted to around $4 billion last year. Qatar’s exports are dominated by energy products, while Thailand’s major exports include jewelry, furniture, automobiles, and electronics. Aware of the potential of stronger economic ties, the two countries are also trying to conclude a tax treaty, which would enhance trade and investment opportunities.
Not surprisingly, energy cooperation has been the axis around which Thai-Qatar ties revolve. In 2011, Qatargas delivered the first shipment to Thailand’s first and only LNG receiving terminal, Map Ta Phut. Thailand’s state-owned PTT is doubling the capacity of the country’s LNG import terminal, and inked an agreement with state-owned Qatargas last December to purchase two million tons of LNG each year for twenty years, beginning this year. This is Qatargas’ first long-term contract in Southeast Asia. The first shipment arrived in Map Ta Phut early this year. What is interesting is that as fuel imports in Thailand have risen 45 percent, Qatar has quickly replaced Yemen as Thailand’s biggest supplier of LNG. Acknowledging the potential for future partnership, Qatargas has also decided to open a representative office in Bangkok. On a different note, Siam Cement Group of Thailand and Qatar Petroleum International have jointly invested in the Integrated Petrochemical Complex project in Southern Vietnam.
But while trade and energy lie at the heart of Qatar-Thailand relations, ties are also expanding into different fields. The Gulf Times has reported that the government in Bangkok has also shown interest in offering its expertise in agriculture and aquaculture, including hydroponics, to support Qatar’s food security program last year. It is also reported that Thailand is close to approving a $75 billion loan bill to fund long-term infrastructure projects in the country, with a focus on railway networks.
Although not as widely reported, Bangkok and Doha maintain strong cultural and educational links with each other. The Thai embassy carries out a number of social programs in the country. This year, for instance, it organized Thailand’s Cultural Night 2015 in which Thai culture and traditional foods were showcased. The embassy also participated in the ASEAN Festival held in Doha early this year. More interesting is that education is now emerging as a major component in the bilateral relationship. The Thai Embassy in Qatar told The Diplomat that the number of Thai students is close to 50 and it is expected to increase going forward.
Undeniably, people-to-people exchanges have contributed significantly to the growing ties between Doha and Bangkok. While estimates vary, there are approximately 4,000 Thais working in Qatar, including around 2,500 skilled and semi-skilled workers in the construction sector. The remainder include Qatar Airways employees, entrepreneurs, spas, housewives and students. On the other hand, it is estimated that around 30,000 Qatari tourists visits Thailand every year, mainly for medical services.
Even though the issue of labor has been a crucial edifice in Doha-Bangkok relations, the past several years have witnessed the emergence of a number of significant issues related to the treatment of migrant workers under existing Qatari labor systems. These issues have negatively impacted overall political ties. Acknowledging the stakes, the two countries have ratified an agreement that covers the employment of Thai workers.
The agreement is also associated with the lead-in to the FIFA World Cup 2022. As the government in Doha plans extensive infrastructure construction, the predicted number of overseas workers could increase as demand rises. There is little doubt that Qatar will be interested in seeking more labor from Southeast Asia, including Thailand.
The growing Qatar-Thailand relationship has been aided by increased air connectivity. In recent years, Qatar Airways has increased the number of direct flights to Thailand. The carrier now also has a codeshare arrangement with Bangkok Airways on flights from Bangkok to several cities in Thailand and in the region. It has established a representative office in Bangkok as well.
Remarkably, the Doha-Bangkok relationship has been bolstered by aid and assistance. In 2011, for example, Qatar Charity, in collaboration with Thai-based Awn Al Muslim Association, implemented a project for affected people by floods in Nong Shok, west of Thailand. Even though fostering two-way ties is not an easy process, through the use of humanitarian aid, the bonds between two countries could expand to other spheres.
Economically, Qatar-Thailand relations are expected to continue to grow and strengthen over the coming years, with greater energy reliance and investment constituting crucial pillars. There is also an opportunity, assuming current trends hold, to develop a meaningful strategic relationship.
The growing partnership is not one- way. Thailand has growing energy needs, and Qatar is one of the world’s major energy producing nations. Thailand also requires billions of dollars in investment to overhaul its economy and slash unemployment. A strong relationship with Doha could also offer Thailand indispensable aid and assistance, which Qataris have been increasingly willing to make available.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat has lived in the Middle East for eight years. He holds a B.A. in International Affairs from Qatar University and an M.A. in International Politics at the University of Manchester.