Interview: Surapong Tovichakchaikul

What is the outlook for Thailand’s economic and cultural relations with the global Arab community?

SURAPONG TOVICHKCHAIKUL: Thailand has long enjoyed close relations at all levels with countries in the Middle East. Our ties have been further strengthened by an increase of high-level visits, trade volumes and cultural exchanges.

While Thailand views Middle Eastern countries as important strategic partners, they also consider Thailand a reliable partner. In terms of economic relations, the majority of Thailand’s oil imports come from the Middle East, particularly the UAE – which was the first country I paid an official, bilateral visit to after I assumed office last year – followed by Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, Middle Eastern countries have become export markets for Thai goods, such as food products and electronic parts. Furthermore, several Middle Eastern countries serve as distribution centres for Thai products that are then re-exported onwards to neighbouring regions, particularly Europe and Africa.

Additionally, the public and private sectors in the Middle East have greatly increased their international investments in Asia, benefitting the region as a whole.

It is clear from the statistics that Thailand has also become a favourite destination for Middle Eastern tourists. More than 665,000 visitors from the region come to Thailand each year, most of whom come for a vacation and, at the same time, seek high-quality medical services at an affordable cost. Meanwhile, there are 85,000 Thais working in the Middle East. This will help bridge knowledge and cultural ties.

What factors have historically been key to the relationship between Thailand and Bahrain?

SURAPONG: Bahrain and Thailand both have royal families, which makes our relationship very close and strong. During the recent flooding, the Prime Minister of Bahrain donated roughly $2m of his own money for relief. He is a friend of Thailand and also a close personal friend of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Only a couple of weeks after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was appointed, the Bahraini Prime Minister came to visit Thailand. He is especially fond of Phuket.

Has the Arab Spring had an impact on Thailand’s relationship with the Middle East and North Africa?

SURAPONG: With regard to the Arab Spring, Thailand has been following the situation closely, as it has changed the political dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa. The current political transformation or leadership transition will not affect the relationship and cooperation between Thailand and these countries. The firm bilateral relations between Thailand and countries in the Middle East and North Africa will be maintained and further enhanced, based on the strong foundation we have built over the years.

How does government policy interact with the growing Thai investments in the region and beyond?

SURAPONG: To compete and grow, businesses in Thailand need to look beyond its borders. Indeed, many Thai companies, both state and privately owned, are exploring and expanding into foreign markets, not only in our immediate neighbours, but also in emerging giants such as China and India, and regions further away such as Europe, the Middle East and Africa. According to the Kasikorn Research Centre, outward investment for 2011 could be as high as $10bn, a 100% increase over the $5.1bn figure reached during 2010.

The government therefore attaches importance to its role as a facilitator for Thailand’s overseas investment. The Board of Investment and the Foreign Ministry provide Thai companies with information they need, particularly about places where it is difficult for them to obtain detailed research, such as Africa and Latin America. At the same time, we also try to open doors and pave the way for our private sector to enter into new markets. Business delegations often join the Prime Minister or me on our visits abroad. In this way, Thai firms have an opportunity to meet with their counterparts and discuss new economic opportunities.