Egypt, with its capabilities provided by the Suez Canal as well as its capabilities in providing reliable logistical services, will eventually become a gateway to the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region.
The country’s strategic location connecting Africa to Europe and the Middle East, and its plan to further expand transportation to neighbouring countries, makes it internationally important, according to Puttaporn Ewtoksan, Thailand’s Ambassador to Egypt.
Ewtoksan added that Egypt’s free trade agreements with many countries and its membership of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and COMESA, among others, has drawn interest from the international community, including Thailand, to engage more with Egypt.
The ambassador hopes that after the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic comes to an end, we will see more business, economic activities, and concrete outcomes between the public and private sectors in Thailand and Egypt.
Meanwhile, Ewtoksan assured that Thailand and Egypt’s relationship goes beyond economic cooperation, providing the example of education. He noted that Egypt’s moderate Islamic stance is another area which interests everyone, including Thai Muslims who wish to gain further religious knowledge.
The Thai Government supports Thai Muslims in studying moderate Islam in Egypt, especially at Al-Azhar University, which provides scholarships to Thai students every year, he explained.
In an interview with Daily News Egypt, Ewtoksan touched on all the cooperation aspects between the two countries, as well as the files he is giving priority to as ambassador.
How do you assess the longstanding relationship between Egypt and Thailand, particularly economic?
Thailand and Egypt established diplomatic relations in 1954. Egypt was the first Arab country with which Thailand established diplomatic relations.
Over 67 years, both sides have developed smooth relations and expanded their mutual cooperation in several areas through existing mechanisms, namely, political consultation at the senior official level and Joint Commission at the foreign ministerial level.
Furthermore, both sides are working to conclude the establishment of a Joint Trade Committee which, once established, could further enhance their economic relations.
Simultaneously, the private sectors in the two countries have been coordinating with each other. For example, the Thai-Egyptian Business Council recently organised a fruitful virtual business meeting with the Egyptian Businessmen Association (EBA) in Thailand.
Furthermore, both sides have signed agreements and Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) in several areas, such as: the promotion and protection of investments, the avoidance of double taxation; culture; education; and air services, among other things.
Thailand and Egypt are also currently working to conclude some draft MoUs in investments and on cooperation relating to fisheries.
In fact, Thailand’s main industries focus on the automotive, agriculture and aquaculture, food-processing, and tourism sectors, among others. The country is now working towards becoming a Bio-Circular-Green Economy (BCG) and digital economy, with sustainable development. It has also launched the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) as an area-based development initiative in Eastern Thailand, to facilitate economic growth.
This EEC industrial hub is also open to foreign investors. This is similar to Egypt’s own economic reforms that prioritise sustainable development and digital transformation. I have seen many of Egypt’s mega projects on infrastructure for energy, transportation, communication, and the like.
Furthermore, the Egyptian Government is expanding and developing agriculture and aquaculture areas. At the same time, the Egyptian Government is inviting foreign businesses to invest in several special economic zones, particularly the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZone), which has the potential to be a regional commercial hub.
Therefore, I think, with Egypt’s expertise in different areas, diversification in economic development and similar economic goals, Thailand and Egypt’s efforts can complement each other.
What is your view of Egypt’s economic development under the new reforms adopted by the government?
I visited Egypt three to four times before I arrived to perform my duty as Ambassador. In the six months I have been here, I have found it to be different from my earlier visits. Nowadays, I have seen a lot of mega infrastructure projects in transportation, communication, energy, and the like. Furthermore, the Egyptian Government is exploring and developing agriculture and aquaculture. To me, Egypt is making a big leap forward.
As a new Ambassador, what files are you giving high priority to? What are the cooperation files that need enhancing?
As mentioned earlier, both sides have several MoUs, but it is time we need to implement them.
I think economic cooperation should be prioritised, because both sides have potential to complement or support each other.
I am glad that the Thai Commercial Office in Cairo and I helped coordinate the Thai-Egyptian Business Council and the EBA’s efforts to organise the virtual business meeting on 30 March 2021.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope that the public and private sectors of both countries can exchange visits in the near future. Simultaneously, the Thai Commercial Office in Cairo is coordinating with both sides to conclude the establishment of the Joint Trade Committee. This is so the Ministers of Trade from Thailand and Egypt can meet to explore more business opportunities and pave the way to increase cooperation in trade and investment.
Furthermore, I wish to also emphasise agriculture and aquaculture, because each has its own capacity. I will do my best to push it forward.
Can you talk further on the discussions you had with Egypt’s Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation on strengthening agricultural cooperation between the two countries?
I paid a courtesy call on the Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation [Elsayed Elkosayer] to brief him about Thailand’s expertise in agriculture and aquaculture, including the use of satellites and drones in agricultural plantations and others.
Thailand’s agriculture, aquaculture, and food processing industries are globally recognised, and the country is ranked as one of the leading exporters of these sectors’ products in the world. We also position ourselves as the kitchen of the world.
Simultaneously, Egypt’s plan to expand its agricultural areas and further develop big fish farms, implies that the agriculture and aquaculture sectors play an important role in the country’s economy. Therefore, it could be a good opportunity for Thailand and Egypt to enhance cooperation and share expertise on these matters.
During the meeting, the Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation expressed areas of interests, such as growing rice with minimal water, vegetable seed development, veterinary vaccines, and aquaculture.
I proposed that both sides assign coordinators from relevant agencies to keep contact during the COVID-19 situation. Recently, Thai and Egyptian coordinators on fisheries have contacted each other to expedite the conclusion of the MoU on Fisheries Cooperation. After COVID-19, I hope we could see an exchange of visits of experts in the mentioned areas of interest.
How do you assess the Egypt-Thailand trade exchange during the first quarter (Q1) of 2021? What are the targets by year-end, and how can the two countries achieve a balance in trade exchange?
Trade relations between Thailand and Egypt have been strong. Our trade volume in 2019 and 2020 were approximately $965m and $890m respectively. Thai exports to Egypt in 2020 stood at $876m, consisting mostly of preserved fish, rubber products, chemical products, as well as motor cars and auto parts.
Meanwhile, Egyptian exports to Thailand in the same year stood at $13.4m, comprised mainly of vehicle parts, electrical machinery, fruits and vegetables, and other items. In fact, Egypt is Thailand’s strategic partner in the North African region, and covers around 40% of total trade between Thailand and the region’s countries.
I think there is an opportunity to expand trade between the two sides both in terms of quantity and variety of products. Egypt with its natural resources can provide Thailand with raw materials especially petrochemical, iron & ore, fertilizer, plastic components, cotton, fabric and textile for further manufacturing which would certainly help strengthen production capabilities.
There are various areas of cooperation in which the two sides can complement each other and receive mutual benefits such as tourism, medical treatment, agriculture, aquaculture development, information technology, and others.
The Thai Commercial Office in Cairo is more than ready to provide recommendations, information, and facilitate any Egyptian businessmen who are interested. In fact, both sides could serve each other as gateways to their respective regions.
For example, Egypt could be a gateway to the African continent with a population of 1.2 billion, while Thailand could be a gateway to the Southeast Asian region with a total population of 670 million.
Moreover, Thai enterprises could benefit from manufacturing finished products in Egypt both for the domestic market and third-country markets, especially those that have Free Trade Agreements (FTA) with Egypt. This covers agreements such as: COMESA; the Agadir Agreement; the Egypt-EFTA Agreement; the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA); and the Egypt-Mercosur FTA.
What are the main challenges that still prevent Thai companies and private sector entities from investing in Egypt? What are your recommendations for Egypt to attract more Thai companies?
In my opinion, the Thai private sector may face challenges in investing or doing business in Egypt such as the lack of information, facts, and awareness of local practices in relevant areas, such as the banking system, procurement system and others.
At the moment, over 90% of Thai entrepreneurs are small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and most of them are interested in trading rather than investment which involves more risk and consideration of other factors. Therefore, promoting and creating readiness for SMEs is essential for laying a good foundation for entrepreneurs to expand their business abroad.
Currently, there are some Thai entrepreneurs expressing interest in expanding their business in Egypt in the fields of renewable energy, animal feed additives, and aquaculture, for example, and they are studying the feasibility of the Egyptian market.
To attract more Thai companies, I would say that we should provide them with more information on opportunities, incentives, benefits, rights, and other important aspects to build interest and confidence for Thai investors and businessmen. This will also help to support the feeling of partnership.
Furthermore, promoting outreach programmes regarding investment opportunities and potential sectors in Egypt, through both government and private sectors, should be done at the same time.
Both sides should encourage exchange of visits from both the public and private sectors in order to create closer relationships and networking between related agencies. Facilitating trade and investment through simplifying procedures, whilst reducing trade obstacles to promote more market access between each other, should be prioritised as well.
How many tourists from Thailand visited Egypt during the first three months of 2021?
There were very few Thai tourists who visited Egypt during the first three months of 2021. However, in 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak, the number of Thai tourists to Egypt was around 20,000. On the other hand, around 20,000 Egyptian tourists visited Thailand in 2019.
We expect the number to bounce back when the situation improves.
Thailand’s success in combating COVID-19 has earned it praise from the World Health Organization (WHO). Could you elaborate more on Thailand’s experience in containing the virus? How can Egypt benefit from Thai expertise?
When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, our first priority was the health and safety of the people. Fortunately, our healthcare system was able to move swiftly right at the onset.
Cooperation between the public and private sector remains key to Thailand’s success. The COVID-19 safety measures were adopted as recommended, besides social distancing and work-from-home policies, among other measures, are still in place.
In the event that a person is found to be infected, timely quarantine and rigorous contact tracing is conducted right away. Another factor to the success is that there are around 1 million village health volunteers throughout the country who help monitor, provide guidelines, and assist those in need.
However, Thailand is currently in the middle of another outbreak, which has caused a rise in the rate of infection since April 2021. Nonetheless, field hospitals have been quickly established throughout the country to meet this new challenge.
The Thai authorities are tightening preventive measures to control the spread of the virus and accelerating the vaccination campaign. We believe that the situation will be under control and return to normalcy soon.
I myself admire Egypt’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been remarkable in balancing both the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. Both sides could share their expertise on these matters.
Culture is pivotal in strengthening ties between the two countries. What is your plan to enhance the Thai-Egyptian cultural exchange?
There is great potential in strengthening cultural exchange between Thailand and Egypt. Thailand is a country with rich and diverse cultures. Egypt, with one of the oldest and grandest histories and civilisations in the world, has a wealth of culture. The two countries have very different cultures and traditions and, in these differences, lie huge opportunities for better understanding and closer cooperation between the two peoples.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thai Embassy had actively participated in cultural events throughout Egypt, exhibiting cultural performances such as Khon or Thai masked dances, Muay Thai or Thai boxing, and musical performances with Thai instruments. In the past,
the Thai Embassy organised Thai Festivals open to the public, exhibiting multiple aspects of Thai culture from food to music to art.
Quite recently, the Thai Embassy participated in the Cultural Relations Initiative organised by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Culture and Ministry of Culture. Hopefully, once the pandemic ends, the Thai Embassy can resume organising cultural performances in full again for Egyptian fans to enjoy.
Of course, cultural cooperation is not just limited to performances. Media, food and other forms of art also constitute a country’s cultural background, and the Thai Embassy looks forward to exploring potential cooperation in these areas in the near future as well.
Education and human resources development are among the main areas of cooperation between the two countries. What are the fields of cooperation in this area?
Education is an area Thailand attaches great importance to. Egypt’s moderate Islam has been globally recognised. That is a reason the Thai Government encourages Thai Muslim students to further their Islamic studies in Al-Azhar University. Egypt hosts the largest number of Thai Muslim students who study abroad. While they are studying in Egypt, we encourage them to take part in social activities such as planting/cleaning public places, to show our gratitude to Egyptian society.
Furthermore, both sides are working on school diploma recognition. When finished, I hope it will provide an opportunity to bring more Thai students to study in universities in Egypt.
Besides education, the Thai side has provided training programmes/scholarships on sustainable development courses and postgraduate programmes in several areas for countries interested including Egypt. During 2017-2019, there were around 40 Egyptians who participated in these courses, and I hope there will be more Egyptians in these programmes in Thailand in the future.
What are the embassy’s plans for the next five years?
Thailand and Egypt have been in the process of negotiating several pending draft MoUs and agreements which could be a step forward to enhance our bilateral cooperation. Therefore, the Thai Embassy will continue to work closely with both Thai and Egyptian authorities concerned to expedite the conclusion of draft MOUs and agreements.
These include the MoU on the Establishment of the Joint Trade Committee (JTC), the MoU for Fisheries Cooperation, and the Agreement on Visa Exemption for Holders of Diplomatic Passports, among other agreements.
Furthermore, the Thai Embassy will coordinate with the relevant Thai agencies to organise the next Political Consultation and Joint Commission at the earliest occasion, to review and explore their areas of interests and cooperation.
Moreover, the Thai Embassy will continue to promote bilateral cooperation in mutually important fields, particularly in trade and investment, agriculture, and aquaculture. This will take place by encouraging and facilitating the relevant members of the public and private sectors to do more activities in these fields.
Lastly, the Thai Embassy will continue to work closely with Egyptian authorities to provide scholarships for Egyptian scholars to attend training programmes and postgraduate courses in Thailand.
Economic cooperation between Egypt and Thailand should be prioritised because both sides have potential that can support each other
Thailand and Egypt signed several MoUs, but it is time we need to implement them
I admire Egypt’s handling of COVID-19 pandemic, which has been remarkable in balancing between providing healthcare and easing economic impacts of pandemic