Gulf Investors Begin To Eye Up Potential Of Cambodia
Along the Tonlé Sap riverfront in the center of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, the flags of Qatar, Kuwait and other Gulf countries flutter in the breeze. They are lined up alongside the standards of dozens of other countries that stretch alongside Preah Sisowath Quay; some of them, ragged and torn, have clearly seen better days.
This corner of Southeast Asia has been largely overlooked by the Middle East until now, but there are signs that things are beginning to change, with the major Gulf airlines leading the way. Plans to boost tourist numbers in Cambodia have drawn the interest of Dubai-based Emirates Airline, which announced last month that it was to start daily flights between Dubai and Phnom Penh from July 1. It will join Qatar Airways, which has been flying to Phnom Penh since 2013.
The Cambodian government has set a target of attracting 8 million tourists by 2020, up from 5 million last year. But while Cambodia could have much to gain from new air links with the Gulf, the Middle East itself is unlikely to provide many more tourists. Instead, it is the one-stop connections the airlines provide to other countries in Europe and the Americas which will be most important.
Middle East tourists typically spend more than most visitors to Cambodia but their numbers are small, with just 17,537 visitors in 2016 according to the Ministry of Tourism. The biggest source market is Israel, followed by Jordan; the Gulf countries each account for just a few hundred tourists a year.
It is no surprise that locals in the main tourist town of Siem Reap – the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples – say they see few Arab visitors. Instead, Chinese tourists dominate the scene.
Until now, Gulf involvement in Cambodia has often focused on aid, although there have been a few commercial deals. In both arenas, Kuwait has tended to be the most active of the Gulf countries.
Kuwait Zakat House has funded a $350,000, 400-student school for contemporary sharia studies in Phnom Penh, where building work began in March 2013. More recently, in early 2016 the Cambodia-Kuwait Friendship Hospital opened in Kandal province. The cost of the project was estimated at just under $1m in March 2013, at the time of the official ground-breaking.
The Kuwaiti government has also funded the construction of the Kuwait Islamic Institute for Girls, where construction began in April 2016. And the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) has been involved in the country too, funding feasibility studies into an irrigation project in the Stung Sen river basin.
In terms of commercial engagement, Kuwait signed a series of agreements covering economic and technical cooperation, trade and investment with its Cambodian counterpart in 2008. That was followed, in 2011, by Kuwait’s Pima International forming a joint venture with the Indian firm D&D Pattnaik to invest in exploration for gold and iron in Cambodia. The two companies were slated to invest $10m-25m in mineral exploration in Kampong Chhnang, Kratie and Mondulkiri provinces.