Is a blue economy the future of Mideast-Asia partnerships? - opinion

Blue economy is an emerging concept for ocean governance that harnesses the economic capabilities of oceans in environmentally sustainable ways.

 PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid and US President Joe Biden attend the first virtual meeting of the I2U2 group, with leaders of India and the UAE, in Jerusalem, last month.  (photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid and US President Joe Biden attend the first virtual meeting of the I2U2 group, with leaders of India and the UAE, in Jerusalem, last month.
(photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)

As tensions between the United States and China flare in Asia, Middle East-Asia cooperation continues to develop, offering a different, more positive outlook. A creative idea that has the potential of bringing cooperation to new levels is one focused on blue economy. This is an emerging concept for ocean governance that harnesses the economic capabilities of oceans in environmentally sustainable ways. It is broadly defined as all economic activities related to oceans and seas, which constitute 71% of the earth’s surface and covers a wide range of sectors and issues.

The blue economy could address some major regional issues of concern, including transformation to a knowledge-based economy, climate change, food security, and economic cooperation to expand regional and global connectivity.

Amid an uptick in mini lateral partnerships, like the I2U2, involving India, Israel, the US and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a blue economy agenda could be a game changer. It becomes pertinent as the UAE, for example, has signed Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreements with India, Israel and Indonesia during the first half of 2022, and is negotiating similar agreements with at least another six countries.

The UAE is also broadening economic engagement with China, Japan and South Korea, among others. Setting a blue economy agenda as a basis for a  mini lateral block among the new middle powers on their own or in conjunction with the superpowers is likely to accelerate such agreements.

Several Western countries, including the United States and, as well, China, are investing substantial resources into developing blue economy strategies. Even India introduced SAGAR (‘Security and Growth for all in the Region’ or meaning “ocean” in Hindi) in 2015, to focus on cooperative measures for the sustainable use of oceans, especially in the Indian Ocean region.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid and US President Joe Biden before their meeting with UAE and India leaders for the first I2U2 meeting. (credit: PMO) Prime Minister Yair Lapid and US President Joe Biden before their meeting with UAE and India leaders for the first I2U2 meeting. (credit: PMO)

Areas primed for a blue economy

Some pressing areas where a blue economy could foster cross-regional Middle East-Asia cooperation include:

  • Climate change: The potential of microalgae for carbon sequestration has proven to be 400 times more than trees. An acre of microalgae can absorb up to 2.7 tons of CO2 per day. Removing the cost of land and freshwater usage, this becomes an economically-viable and environment-friendly option for countries aspiring for carbon neutrality.
  • Food security: Algae are also an important part of the ecosystem that promotes fish farming. Moreover, certain types of seaweed and microalgae have protein yields comparable to soybean, without pressuring freshwater resources. Protein paste will be the basis for 3D food printing, thus promoting food security.
  • Energy and advanced technologies: Seabed excavation offers huge potential for energy resources. Oil and gas estimates increase because of new excavation techniques in ocean depths. The China Science Academy, for example, invests in excavation of methane hydrate, a future energy, in the South China Sea.
    Apart from fossil fuels, oceans provide substantial potential for renewable solar energy and water current energy that can make floating platforms energy-sufficient, as well as convert them to blue hydrogen.

Japan, Israel and the UAE

AS DEMAND for Middle East energy remains high, Japan, Israel and the UAE can use their technological and infrastructure strengths to improve real-time detection and risk analysis of maritime movements. Strengthening real-time risk assessment based on AI capabilities, and human and machine interaction, a joint task force could define the risks, examine existing tools that analyze the risks and improve current solutions. As water becomes scarce, desalination projects also fall within the scope of a blue economy.

  • Marine urbanization: Using AI and robotics can help run energy self-sufficient floating marine platforms for unmanned microalgae cultivation for food security, CO2 sequestration and deep-sea excavation for energy, rare earth minerals and scientific research.
    Marine urbanization is increasingly becoming a framework for addressing the population increase and dire global warming impacts for coastal areas. China has already established an underwater base for marine research at 10,000 feet. The UAE has also been experimenting with artificial islands and underwater real estate development.
  • Global connectivity: The bulk of global trade uses sea routes, which ensures employment for millions. Among the most significant economic consequences of COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine War is disruption of vital supply chains. Hence, there is a vested interest in reestablishing and maintaining functioning trade routes and supply chains. This requires modern governance tools for complex systems, including marine spatial planning.
    The UAE is positioned in the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Its ambitious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, and its significant investments in AI and the transformation to a knowledge economy position it as a pivot to cross regional cooperation. It is deepening strategic partnerships with China, India, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan, while the Abraham Accords have broken new ground with Israel.

A blue economy is the natural choice

All these make a blue economy the perfect platform for creating a cross-regional economic connectivity alliance that can be expanded worldwide. Israel, too, is strengthening its blue economy capabilities, particularly in research and technology development. Its cooperation with the Gulf following the Abraham Accords, as well as its relations with India, Japan, South Korea and others in Asia are accelerating.

The UAE and Israel are in a unique position to establish, together with key partners across the Middle East and Asia, a  mini lateral fund for a blue economy that includes financing initiatives, joint developments and the implementation of solutions. This will bring together the know-how and services of the public sector, private sector, think tanks and academia in a unique partnership to form an out-of-the-box relationship to tap the potential of two-thirds of the planet’s resources.

Oceans can be an area of great competition or cooperation. The UAE, Israel, India, Japan and other partners in Asia and beyond, can pave the way towards reaping the rewards of partnerships, thus avoiding the pitfalls of intensifying geopolitical rivalries.

Mohammed Baharoon is director-general of B’huth (Dubai Public Policy Research Centre). Dr. Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), in Israel. Dr. Narayanappa Janardhan is senior research fellow at Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, in Abu Dhabi, and non-resident fellow at Arab Gulf States Institute, in Washington.