“If you want [our] soldiers under your command, I’m willing to send you one battalion, one regiment, one division to protect you. Just say the word,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, with characteristic chutzpah, said before a bedazzled audience in Bahrain. “We want to repay you. … We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the oil, but we can offer our lives to you.”
Days later, Duterte made a similar offer before a group of businessmen in the uber-rich sheikhdom of Qatar, vowing to send a “very disciplined military” to “protect and defend” the Persian Gulf state. In fact, Filipino soldiers have been regularly stationed in the region as part of United Nations peacekeeping missions.
The comments were typical Duterte-style bravado, given his gratitude for oil-rich Arab states decades-old provision of large-scale “employment and…contribution to the gross national product of [the Philippines].” Per usual, senior Filipino officials were quick to clarify and ‘contextualize’ Duterte’s controversial statements, which could have been misinterpreted by neighboring states which have geopolitical tensions with smaller Persian Gulf states.
Duterte’s national security adviser, Hermogenes Esperon, quickly clarified that the Philippines was instead exploring joint military training rather than mutual defense treaties with Bahrain and Qatar. Both Gulf states have some of the region’s best-equipped militaries, with large-scale American ground and naval forces permanently stationed in the area.
Despite his advanced age, Duterte has rapidly become one of the most well-travelled leaders in the world. After a series of high-profile trips across Asia, visiting China, Japan and key Southeast Asian nations, Duterte just concluded a weeklong tour of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. (The United Arab Emirates, which hosts close to 700,000 Filipinos, was surprisingly not on the itinerary.)
Duterte secured around US$1 billion in pledged investments during his trip, which could potentially generate as many as 26,000 jobs for Filipinos. The oil-rich countries are particularly interested in the Philippines’ tourism, agriculture and healthcare sectors, according to reports.
Duterte also discussed prospects for closer counterterrorism cooperation, especially in light of the feared expansion of Islamic State (ISIS) to his home-island of Mindanao. Earlier this year, Kuwaiti intelligence officials reportedly helped the Philippines to apprehend a Middle Eastern couple in Manila who were suspected of working for ISIS.
There were few details, however, on any specific new agreements on intelligence-sharing, logistical support, curbing terror-financing or other forms of counterterrorism cooperation, despite rising concerns about ISIS gaining a foothold into insurgency-prone areas of the southern Philippines. ISIS-affiliated groups have recently stepped up operations in porous maritime border areas of the Philippines.
Saudi Arabia, a major player in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, could potentially play a key role in facilitating peace negotiations between the Philippine government and Islamic rebel groups. Cash-rich Gulf states could also fund development projects in the conflict-ridden regions of Mindanao, where widespread unemployment and poverty provides a conducive environment for extremist ideologies.
Among Filipino officials, though, there are also growing concerns over the spread of puritanical interpretations of Islam brought about by Filipino citizens schooled in Gulf religious centers or Gulf-based organizations active in Southeast Asia. For centuries, Mindanao, similar to neighboring states like Indonesia, has been home to a more syncretic, cosmopolitan and moderate version of Islam.
Yet the apparent highlight of Duterte’s trip was securing the repatriation of hundreds of Filipinos, many of whom had endured abuse at the hands of their employers. Others had struggled to find new jobs and secure work visas amid the global oil price decline, which has hurt the economies of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in particular. More than a hundred of them accompanied Duterte on his flight home.
It was the first visit by a Filipino president to the region in over eight years. In fact, it was a particularly emotional trip for Duterte, who was eager to show solidarity with and support for millions of his countrymen in a region which is responsible for one of the highest rates of violence and abuse against Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), particularly domestic helpers, who suffer from limited-to-none legal protection in their host countries.
Since the mid-1970s, the Philippines has deployed millions of skilled and blue-collar workers to the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone hosts 760,000 Filipinos, many of whom work in the health, construction and hospitality sectors.
What started as a supposedly temporary measure to stem economic troubles under the Ferdinand Marcos regime has since become a major pillar of the Philippine economy, which has been buoyed by $27 billion in annual remittances from an army of OFWs who financially support their families back home. Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates are the second and third largest sources of Filipino remittances after the United States.
Despite a recent uptick in the Philippine economy, the majority of the population still lives in poverty while a tiny elite still dominates key sectors of the economy. As few as forty families have gobbled up three-quarters of newly-created wealth, the highest level of wealth concentration in Asia. By some estimates, more than 6,000 Filipinos leave the country everyday searching for greener pastures in foreign lands.
Duterte greeted tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters in the region with a mélange of songs, jokes, laughter and hugs. He even promised to create a new ministerial position to exclusively cater to Filipinos working abroad. The Filipino president described, quite sentimentally, his visit to the region as “his most productive ever.” OFWs have been among Duterte’s staunchest supporters.
In last year’s election, Duterte was the runaway favorite (garnering 80% of votes) among registered OFWs who were desperate for political change at home. Though broadly criticized abroad for his unorthodox rhetoric and controversial campaign against illegal drugs, Duterte’s Middle Eastern swing cemented his image, at least among his millions of supporters, as a sincere and caring leader who hasn’t abandoned his most vulnerable compatriots.
Over the long-run, however, many expect him to create more jobs at home so that Filipinos are no longer forced to seek work abroad in places like the Middle East, which has proven to be both a land of opportunity and peril for millions of Filipinos.