Hong Kong’s eyes have traditionally been more focused on the West and mainland China. For decades, Hong Kong thrived by serving Western firms that wanted to invest on the mainland and Chinese firms seeking Western markets.

But this started to change with the outbreak of the US-China trade war and the deterioration of diplomatic and economic relations between China and the Western world. It forced Hong Kong to seek non-Western alternatives, in particular encouraging a pivot towards the Middle East, a focal point of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
By repositioning Hong Kong as China’s superconnector to the world, the city has not only increased its engagement with the Middle East economically but also its educational and cultural exchanges.


Dubai prince who made waves in Hong Kong appears to have alter ego as singer in Philippines

Dubai prince who made waves in Hong Kong appears to have alter ego as singer in Philippines

But in the rush to explore a new land of opportunity, to what extent does Hong Kong understand the Middle East, its economy, culture and politics? The controversy over the Maktoum family office plans – from issues of official sensitivity and prudence to how much due diligence to expect – has revealed gaps to address if Hong Kong’s campaign to court the Middle East is to succeed.

In recent years, Hong Kong has organised cultural exchanges with the Middle East, including through the Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s annual “Asian Ethnic Cultural Performances”. Most activities hosted so far, however, appear to have been one-time exchanges. They were also not targeted at building a local talent pool familiar with the Middle East.

For example, Hong Kong’s last Asia Cultural Co-operation Forum held in 2022, which included representatives from Iran and Saudi Arabia, was a useful platform for ministers and officials to exchange ideas. But it had a limited impact in helping Hong Kong build a comprehensive knowledge of the Middle East.

Even the more long-term activities cannot seem to escape the framework of cultural exchange. These include subsidies for co-productions under the Hong Kong-Asian Film Collaboration Funding Scheme, and scholarships for students from belt and road countries. These are all important programmes to improve civilian exchanges – but they have limited usefulness for Hong Kong to systematically build its Middle Eastern knowledge.


Saudi tech minister says China a ‘success story to replicate’ during Hong Kong visit

Saudi tech minister says China a ‘success story to replicate’ during Hong Kong visit

What might be useful is a deeper revision of Hong Kong’s school curriculum. Since the 2020/2021 school year for junior secondary students, the Education Bureau has added the topic “The rise of Islamic civilisation and cultural interactions between Europe and Asia in medieval times”. However, the extent to which local teachers are equipped with the knowledge to teach Islamic civilisation and culture should be examined.

The lack of Islamic culture studies in secondary and university education has left the city unprepared for an increase in demand for teachers qualified to teach such subjects. The government must conduct a comprehensive analysis of the available teachers and introduce training programmes if necessary.

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The Education Bureau has sought to develop and deepen its teaching resources in Islamic studies by engaging experts from tertiary institutions. Yet, universities in Hong Kong still lack a stable core of Middle East experts. Chinese University has a Centre for the Study of Islamic Culture but its latest activity appears to be a lecture series back in 2021. And the centre’s latest locally published Chinese books on Islamic study are from 2020.

The University of Hong Kong is the only one in the city that offers a minor in Arabic studies. For most other universities here that offer any Middle Eastern modules, it is limited to the Arabic language. Though there are exchange programmes between local universities and Middle Eastern ones, the effect of these programmes and their popularity among students are questionable.


Hong Kong leader John Lee sees commercial opportunities with Middle East countries

Hong Kong leader John Lee sees commercial opportunities with Middle East countries

The Hong Kong government is clearly eager to engage with the Middle Eastern business sector. But, so far, local education and research on Middle Eastern affairs seem to be largely confined to history and language. What’s more, Hong Kong has far fewer scholars on Middle Eastern affairs than on Western and Chinese culture.

The government’s plan to engage the Middle East is driving demand for local talent who are experts on Arabic business practices, Middle Eastern societies and the Islamic culture and economy, but this demand can hardly be said to have been well met.

For Hong Kong to successfully position itself as the bridge between China and the Middle East, it must equip itself with knowledge of both sides. Though some progress has been made, more needs to be done.

John Hanzhang Ye is a PhD student in science and technology history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, and also holds an MPhil degree in sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong