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The foreign ministers of 21 Arab and 14 Pacific countries met in Abu Dhabi recently to discuss economic and political relations, but why would the Middle East is interested in building links with the Pacific?
A Pacific Islands Partnership programme was launched by the UAE earlier this year following the visit of the UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to Pacific islands in February.
The UAE has committed $US50 million to development projects in the Pacific in key development areas including renewable energy, education, social and health care services as well as infrastructure.
Sheikh Abdullah also met privately with the leaders of Solomon Islands, Fiji, Niue, Vanuatu, Cook Islands and Tuvalu.
Radio Australia’s presenter: Geraldine Coutts speaks with Stephen Hoadley, associate professor of Political Studies at the University of Auckland
HOADLEY: The Arab countries are certainly wanting to raise their diplomatic profile. The Arab League in general and the United Arab Emirates in particular who in fact are bank rolling this particular exercise with their oil revenues - they want to advocate a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East - and therefore they need allies and perhaps votes in the UN General Assembly and other international institutions to bring pressure not only on Iran, but also on Israel, that is a nuclear-free zone cuts both ways and this is a highly contentious view. Arabs are building international support for their particular initiatives there. There are some very particular ones, the UAE has three islands that are occupied by Iran at the moment and they would like a little bit of diplomatic support for returning these islands to the UAE as sovereignty.
COUTTS: And given that the UAE has substantial resources behind it and the Pacific generally few and they are poorer economies. It's just the seats in the UN and the Security Council and even though they are smaller nations, they still have one vote which is valuable to the UAE - that is what your saying the basis is?
HOADLEY: That's exactly right Geraldine. One vote is one vote. The United States has one vote. Palau has one vote and this can be very useful. We see this for example, in the South Pacific with regard to whaling. The Japanese were able to use their cheque book diplomacy very successfully to get Marshall Islands, for example, to reverse its vote and to vote in favour of Japanese so-called scientific whaling. So cheque book diplomacy does work and it does yield results.
COUTTS: How genuine is it though if we're talking cheque book diplomacy, because it's been criticised when China and Taiwan do it?
HOADLEY: Certainly, it has. We have examples. In fact I was in a seminar over the weekend with Chinese representatives and academics and we discussed the question of Chinese aid, which is like the Japanese aid was - large scale infrastructure projects, big hospitals, big court houses, big sports complexes that tend to be expensive, hard to maintain, hard to staff and often they fall apart because the design for temperate circumstances and not for the tropical environment. So one has to look at these aid projects from generous donors with considerable caution.
COUTTS: In the past, there has also been criticism that aid projects and money have been handed out holus-bolus without any accountability. Is that likely to happen with this relationship with the UAE?
HOADLEY: It is very possible that it would. Certainly a lot of academic and journalistic writing has been devoted to this question of free VIP trips. For example, Commodore Bainimarama, the bad boy of Fiji, has been hosted in Beijing at least twice. This indicates that the Chinese as the people at my seminar on Saturday said we don't interfere with local affairs. What that means is they don't take any account of the quality of government as long as they accept the aid project and are friendly towards China. Now it is quite possible that the Arabs with relatively little familiarity and with authoritarian political systems themselves - there is no democracy in the Middle East, except Israel - can run somewhat rough shot over say the sensibilities of say Australia and New Zealand that are a little bit more concerned for good governance and for some sort of democratic representation.
COUTTS: Well Fiji has gone shopping all areas. The IMF, they are looking for a billion dollars there, and they are currently bankrupted their pension funds for different reasons. Is this a sign of desperate state of Fiji going to the UAE cap in hand again?
HOADLEY: Well, it's not just Fiji. Of course the UAE made the initial offer as you pointed out in your initial introduction the sheikh did come to the South Pacific. It was very much an Arab initiative and the Pacific Island countries of course are not going to say no to generosity and the possibility of infrastructural and alternate energy assistance. So it is not just Fiji, but Fiji certainly has been scratching around in all sorts of odd places, Malaysia as well, to get dollops of aid or diplomatic support for its peculiar position in the South Pacific. And as one South Pacific expert said in the seminar on Saturday it is likely to split the Forum, that is Fiji is going one way and the Pacific Islands Forum is going the other way more or less lining up with Australia and New Zealand in criticism of Fiji. Fiji is looking for extra Pacific sources of funding, non-traditional sources of funding. So this is not a good sign. The Arab entry into this complex equation may exacerbate that split.
COUTTS: Professor Hoadley, do we know if the money that the UAE is prepared to doll out for the Pacific comes with conditions?
HOADLEY: It will certainly come with some conditions. I note from the communique which I have in front of me now that it's going to be a gradual process, which I think is a good thing. It is not instant aid. There is to be a delegation in September coming to the Pacific Islands to call on, say tourism possibilities. They are going to have a further meeting next year. There is going to be a five year plan developed. There is a 50 million dollar fund that you mentioned will then be allocated project by project, country by country according to the five year program of action and hopefully integrated into the Pacific Island governments development schemes, not just cutting across the gradual and careful development projects that are already in line and say funded by Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the United States and the European Union.
COUTTS: Well they've wooed and apparently won the hearts of a number of Pacific Island nations who were already represented there. It is a good thing for the Pacific?
HOADLEY: Well certainly Palau and Tonga have been the two countries quickest off the mark. Palau has attracted a ten man delegation from the Emirates in September. They are going to look at tourism potential and of course renewable energy, which everybody agrees is necessary. Tonga on its side is also made a direct appeal to the UAE for a renewable energy project. Now what shape this project takes and how it will develop, how it will be financed and what political strings may come with it, we have to wait and see. Certainly I think the New Zealand government would be counselling caution to the small islands that are under staffed and somehow sometimes don't see the fish hooks in this bait that's being dangled in the South Pacific...
SOURCE: RADIO AUSTRALIA/PACNEWS
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