Why did no-one notice Duterte’s US$925 million of Middle Eastern deals?

Businesses in Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have pledged to pour millions of dollars into infrastructure projects and industry in the Philippines.

by Francesca Ross

New investment deals with Middle Eastern governments and businesses will bring around 62,000 jobs and US$925 million dollars of investment to the Philippines, said government sources.

The wave of foreign cash comes after President Duterte took a week-long tour through Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar in April. This is the birth of the “Dutertenomics” which will improve the standard of living for all, said the administration.

The Philippines already has strong relationships with Middle Eastern countries

Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez explained that existing relationships were being developed as the Middle East is “an expanding market for key Philippine products and services.” Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar are already the main sources of oil and oil products coming into the Philippines.

Direction of trade between the Philippines and the Middle East 2010 to 2013 (US$ million)

Duterte played a good game on this trip. He reminded his friends in the Middle East that the Philippines would be steering ASEAN towards full economic integration while he held the chairmanship in 2017. Investors in his country would be able to access both the Philippines’ national market of 105 million people, and the bigger ASEAN market of up to 620 million customers, he hinted.

Among the investments agreed on this visit are a US$90 million retirement village in Tagaytay which will employ 1,250 people. There was another US$60 million for a retirement village in Visayas. UAE’s Penguin Group committed to a US$10 million agroindustrial project in Palawan.

“Qatar wants to diversify their investment. They (companies in Qatar) are looking towards the Philippines as a good place for investment,” Philippine ambassador to Qatar Alan Timbayan said.

Project Investor Value
A retirement village in Tagaytay Blackleaf Qatar Consortium US$90 million
A retirement village in Visayas First Qatar Real Estate Development Company (FQRDC) US$60 million
Development projects in Mindanao Qatar Sovereign Fund US$1 billion
An agro-industrial project in Palawan Penguin Group US$10 million
13 business to business deals with Qatari enterprises No details available US$206 million

Source: Gulf News

Governments and businesses are both keen to invest in the Philippines

Duterte’s administration will also sign an Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (IPPA) with Qatar. This makes the country eligible for a US$1 billion investment from the prosperous country’s sovereign wealth fund. The cash is intended for agriculture and infrastructure projects in Mindanao.

Moving forward on Mindanao was an important part of this trip. The President had said he would use the opportunity to appeal to the three majority-Muslim countries for support.

In Bahrain, Duterte saw the signing of a memorandum of understanding on a US$250 million deal which will expand the RP Bahrain Harvest Inc. banana operation in Sarangani up to 10,000 hectares. This will provide 40,000 jobs, export US$280 million of goods every year, and support Duterte’s peace and development agenda in the troubled region.

Trade Secretary Lopez said Middle Eastern companies were also investing in the production of halal products, agriculture, engineering, and logistics. This interest in agriculture is part of the administration’s plans to boost economic growth outside of Metro Manila. Vegetables and food products currently make up two of the top three exports from the Philippines to the Middle East region.

Deals covered many different areas; overseas workers are a key issue

The deals Duterte brought home had been nine years in the making and were wide-ranging in their focus. The President signed agreements on “investment, labour cooperation, strengthening of diplomatic ties, air services, avoidance of double taxation and cooperation on culture, health and technical vocation education and training,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said.

The deals on development and business are significant but buried among the propaganda was a more important point for the Filipino economy. Filipino families receive the highest level of remittances from relatives working in the Middle East, but many of these overseas foreign workers suffer abuse and exploitation. This is often due to a lack of legal protection.

There are about 760,000 Filipinos in Saudi Arabia and 60,000 in Bahrain. These people have suffered from collapsing oil revenues and a slowdown in major projects. Over 5,000 Filipino workers were repatriated from Saudi Arabia in 2016, often without the wages they had worked hard for.

Duterte’s deals on training are supposed to support this vulnerable group. He has also promised to explore requests to build a hospital for these people. Financial support may be available to them if they return home, he said. This deals with the surface issue, but is he sacrificing real action for cash for his shiny new economic policy?

The Philippines needs leadership, not catchphrases

Dutertenomics needs to be more than just a headline. The problem the no-nonsense Filipino leader has is that the media enjoy talking about his weaknesses more than his obvious success. After all, he makes it easy for them with his catchy but controversial statements. He brought home US$925 million of deals and the media barely mentioned it for days – they were too interested in his tussles with members of the Liberal Party.

This means he is being dragged into a public relations war that he does not need. His legacy will be in his ability to make a difference to lives from Manila to Mindanao. It is a hospital for those that are far from home and starved of a salary. It is an agricultural job for someone at risk of joining a militant group. He does not need catchy names for his ideas; he needs to lead with his heart. His country knows him, sees him, and will follow.