Analyzing President Rodrigo Duterte’s Foreign Policy Approach towards the MENA Region

The Middle East and North African region is significant for the national interests of the Philippines, not just in terms of the country’s labor migration but also in the area of crude oil imports as well as in terms of maintaining socio-religious affinity with the Islamic world given the considerable number of Muslim Filipinos in the southern Philippines.

Significant evidence on these contemporary relations can be traced back to the 1970s when the Philippines was experiencing a low rate of jobs relative to demand from young Filipino university graduates. In addition, the 1973 global oil crisis, which created financial opportunities for the MENA crude suppliers to accumulate petro-dollars, ignited widespread interest for foreign labor, including Filipinos, to come and work in many Middle East and North African countries. Although the MENA policy associated with the internal push factor to employ Filipino workers overseas was seen as a band aid solution, it has become a permanent systematic approach to employment and generating national revenues.

In addition, dependency over importing crude oil to run industries in the Philippines has also become a permanent feature in the Philippines’ external relations with MENA. Furthermore, the emergence of the secessionist movement in the Southern Philippines in the early 1970s,      which led to the signing of Tripoli Agreement in the 1976 between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Philippine government with facilitation by the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), was an added key element in these relationships.

Overseas foreign workers, oil, and Muslim relations have comprised three central elements that have guided much of the Philippines’ foreign policy approach towards the MENA region.


In short, overseas foreign workers, oil, and Muslim relations have comprised three central elements that have guided much of the Philippines’ foreign policy approach towards the MENA region since the 1970s. Given this, it is critically important to ask now: 1. How has the Duterte government’s foreign policy approach vis-a-vis the MENA region taken shape?; 2. Has there been a real improvement in terms of policy approaches and strategies of the Philippines      towards the MENA region?; 3. How does Duterte’s foreign policy differ from his predecessors?; and 4. What other areas of collaboration remain unexplored in Philippine-MENA relations?                                   

Uncharted Territory: Changes in the Philippines’ Foreign Policy Approach Under President Rodrigo Duterte

The unprecedented victory of President Duterte as the 16th President of the Republic of the Philippines was shocking to many Filipinos because he was not a well-known politician in the national political circle. His populist appeal and promises to Filipino voters had made him a favorable contender among the 2016 presidential candidates. Duterte’s first few months in office prioritized two important policy agendas: first, ‘the war on drugs’[i] and second, his version of an independent pro-Philippine’ foreign policy.[ii] These two aspects appealed not only among Filipino voters who were in the Philippines at the time of the election but also to Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). However towards the end of his term, his independent foreign policy suffered from public criticism as it lacked clarity and clear guidelines[iii] as his administration forged closer relations with China while constraining the country’s long-term political and security relations with the United States.

Duterte’s version of an independent foreign policy suggests that the Philippines should diversify its foreign policy options in light of the changing geo-political landscape of Asia.


Duterte’s version of an independent foreign policy suggests that the Philippines should not rely mainly on its traditional allies but rather, accommodate with other major powers such as China and Russia in order to diversify its foreign policy options in light of the changing geo-political landscape of Asia. The Philippines also needs to strike a balanced approach to ensure that its domestic economic interests are promoted while at the same time securing the welfare and lives of Filipinos working and residing abroad such as in the Middle East and North African region.

However, maintaining a balanced approach to foreign policy is easier said than done. While Duterte envisages a diversified foreign policy, he is unable to make a remarkable impact  in really exercising a truly independent foreign policy that would give him an edge from his predecessor.

President Aquino’s move to submit the South China sea issue to the international tribunal constrained Philippine-China bilateral political relations. The decision of the tribunal favoring the claim of the Philippines has exposed the country’s sovereign tendency to assert its national interests against a powerful China. The International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) recognized the Philippine “sovereign rights over the West Philippines Sea.”[iv]

Although Duterte’s administration has been able to forge closer relations with China and Russia, Filipino relations with the United States and Europe have been somewhat affected by his constant “antagonistic tirades.”[v] As one author lamented, Duterte’s foreign policy shift is more about “political survival”[vi] rather than grounded on ideas that have been deeply studied, deliberated, and carefully selected through public consultations and debates.

Given the current economic reality, forging closer relations with China and Russia is good for the country, but it is still premature to suggest, however, how many political, economic and trade gains the country has so far achieved in the past five years. After more than five years in office, Duterte is still “struggling” to prove that the Philippine is benefiting from his friendship with China.[vii]

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing, China on October 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, Pool).

Duterte’s Foreign Policy Orientation towards the Middle East

The independent foreign policy of the Duterte government is hoped to make landmark changes in Philippine-MENA relations, particularly regarding protecting Filipino citizens overseas, improving bilateral relations, having the Philippines benefit from Arab investments, as well as promoting Philippine tourism opportunities to people from the MENA region.

Crucial areas in Philippine–MENA relations that could take advantage of Duterte’s independent foreign policy would be the expansion of Philippine bilateral relations with Iran. Philippine relations with Iran since the early 1980s to the present have been constrained by the Philippine’s close geopolitical alliance with the United States. The United States’ economic and political sanctions on Iran have greatly limited the ability of the Philippines to assert its sovereign independence by strengthening and diversifying its bilateral relations with Iran, and thereby seize the economic and trade opportunities that Iran can offer the Philippines. For similar reasons, the Philippines is also unable to take a strong stand against the Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories.

The Philippines under the Duterte government is still constrained by its continued sending of domestic workers to the Middle East.


A closer examination, however, suggests that, on many occasions, the Philippines under the Duterte government is still constrained by other factors; mainly, its continued sending of overseas foreign workers – particularly domestic workers – to the Middle East region. This is in spite of the fact that it is open and shared knowledge that many Filipinos who are employed domestically are prone to abuse, compared to Filipinos who are employed in other sectors. The inability of the government to remedy the lack of jobs locally available for Filipinos in the very far flung areas in the Philippines such as in Mindanao, coupled with increasing prices of basic commodities with low purchasing power, have forced Filipinos, particularly women, to seek domestic employment in the MENA region. About a one third, or one every four of 10 million OFWs, are women working in menial jobs, which are widely known as domestic helpers.[viii] This number could be higher if we include those who are undocumented. Like his predecessors, Duterte’s government’s approach to help Filipinos caught in undesirable situations due to conflict or war in the MENA region is still more reactive than proactive.

Although efforts are seen in promoting the Philippines’ interests in the area of trade and investment, tourism, as well as cultural cooperation, substantial results in these areas are still lacking.


In addition, attempts to significantly improve relations with Middle Eastern countries, against the previous approaches of his predecessors, have not taken off substantially. Like his predecessors, the policy approach of Duterte’s government particularly in the repatriation and in providing safety to Filipinos in the MENA in the advent of conflict and or war is still a reactive one rather than a proactive policy that encourages consultation and debate in the academe and congress, defined in laws, and articulated in details in the policy guidelines to make some strategic impact on the way OFWS are deployed, safeguard and protected. In addition, although efforts are seen in promoting the Philippines’ interests in the area of trade and investment, tourism, as well as cultural cooperation in the past and during Duterte’s term, substantial results of gains in these areas are still lacking. The old approach, which predominantly focused on the areas of labor migration, crude importation and Islamic connection with the Muslim Filipinos in the southern Philippines remained. 

This inability to expand beyond the previous approaches beyond oil, OFWs and OIC can be attributed to the low level of priority that Duterte’s administration has accorded to other areas of mutual interests in the MENA region, particularly in trade and investment, agricultural, and scientific areas. Even if we promote other products to the region, the Philippines is still constrained by the inability of the country to offer other products that are deemed competitive in the Middle Eastern markets. Manufacturing, agricultural, and marine industries are not well developed in the Philippines compared to other countries in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and, as a result, the Philippines does not possess a competitive advantage. Even in the promotion of cultural values, the Philippines has not seen to be proactive compared to its neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. Cultural diplomacy can be a good alternative to promoting Philippine interests in the Middle Eastern countries, but budget considerations may limit the ability of the country to take advantage of this medium to promote and expand relations with the Middle East region.

Duterte’s Approach to Protect Filipino Workers in Middle East

The “Philippine Foreign Service Act of 1991” mandates the Philippine state, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, to implement three foreign policy pillars: 1. the preservation and enhancement of national security; 2. the promotion and attainment of economic security; 3. the protection of the rights and promotion of the welfare and interest of Filipinos overseas.[ix] The Act can be said to be the articulation of what the sovereign Philippines will always want to pursue on the foreign stage to preserve its national interests while maintaining cordial relations with members of the international community. As this Act encapsulates the spirit of the country’s independence and sovereignty, it is therefore expected that an implementation of one pillar complements the purpose of the other pillars. However, reality shows that, with regards to Philippine relations with the Middle East and North Africa, the third pillar has always overshadowed the first two pillars: there has been a consistently greater focus on the area of labor migration.

Filipinos are the third largest expatriate community of the UAE (Filipino Times).

Observing the historical events that have unfolded in Middle East region since the 1970s, much of the Philippines’ government efforts and resources have been accorded to the protection and preservation of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), and President Duterte’s call for the creation of the Department of Overseas Filipino Workers is a simply testament of this reality. Excerpts in his State of the Nation Address in 2017 and 2018, the President has consistently asked the Philippine Congress to pass a law creating this department. The bill on this is still in Congress and it is hoped that it will come to fruition before the President’s six year term in office is over.

For the President, the creation of the Department of Overseas Filipino Workers is needed and will benefit more than ten million OFWs. Duterte’s states that OFWs are “suffering, they suffered not only yesterday but they are still suffering now with so many inadequacies, in both our government response, including the monetary assistance-to ensure that there is a department that is solely focused on addressing the needs and taking care of the welfare of our countrymen abroad.”[x] This call is a reflection of the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs has been too preoccupied by assisting the wellbeing of OFWS instead of diverting their efforts and resources in exploring other opportunities that are beneficial to the country.  It also begged an organizational question about whether the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs, which is currently under the DFA, should be transferred to the newly formed department. In addition, the Department of Labor and Employment can also focus its time on creating local employment for a much bigger workforce.[xi] Besides, this will have the further benefit of eliminating “overlapping function and budgetary redundancies given the plethora of agencies offering to OFWs.”[xii]

However, some critics would argue that the creation of the department is not actually a solution to the lingering problem faced by the OFWs in day to day situations. They argue that the creation will just ‘duplicate’[xiii] existing government agencies that cater to OFWs’ needs. It would      signal that labor migration, which was conceived to be a temporary solution to the unemployment problem in the 1970s, is already here to stay.[xiv]

Market structures, dynamic regional political systems, social–cultural orientation, and geo-strategic values have not been fully studied and reflected in the country’s policy priorities.


The emphasis of the third pillar of Duterte’s policy towards the region reflects the poverty of strategic options for the country to strike positive gains from the region apart from labor, crude importation, and Islamic factors. These concerns may be attributed to the prioritization of policy on OFWs as well as to the limited knowledge of Filipino decision makers about the region. Market structures, dynamic regional political systems, social–cultural orientation, and geo-strategic values have not been fully studied and reflected in the country’s policy priorities. In fact, the reflective insufficiencies of the country’s policy towards the Middle East region is a continuation of Duterte’s predecessors’ lack of priorities vis-a-vis the region.

Since the mid-70s, countries in the Middle East received foreign workers to work in various sectors such as in oil fields, hospitals, engineering sectors, schools as well as at home. Although these kinds of transactional arrangements have created an increasing degree of middle class Filipinos, the rate of abuse experienced by these migrant workers, particularly women, is also undeniably increasing.

The increasing employment of Filipino women being deployed in greater Middle East region should not be seen only from their constructive contribution in the receiving countries as well as their remittances to the Philippines, but more importantly a sustained feminization of migrant labor, which begets a lack of serious thinking on the part of the Filipino leadership especially with regards to the negative social impact that their children experience growing up without parents. Migrant workers who are employed at home as domestic aids are more prone to abuse than others that are working outside the employers’ home. This condition is not only experienced by the Filipino workers but also shared by Indonesian[xv], Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan, and Ethiopian ones, whose countries of origin also encouraged migration for work.

Although some workers have decent living conditions, many others do not. The abusive immigration policies of the host Middle Eastern countries have exposed many of these workers to danger. Separation and overworking have “driven many of them to exhaustion, illness, depression and some to suicide.”[xvi]

One factor that contributes to this abusive behavior of employers and which is constantly cited by many scholars and policy makers is the practice of Kafala, or sponsorship.[xvii] The Kafala is generally described as the relationship between the kafeel (local sponsor or employer) and the foreign workers. The local sponsor or the employer is responsible for providing travel expenses, housing (or, in the case of domestic helpers, the sponsor’s home). Given that the legal jurisdiction of such practices is under the interior ministry and not under the labor ministry of one country, the foreign workers are denied protection under the host country’s labor law. In addition, workers’ residency permits and working visas are linked only to their sponsors; hence, the sponsor has total control over the renewal and termination of workers’ permis. As a result, the foreign workers under this kafala system are exposed to abuse and exploitation by the sponsor.[xviii]  In the case of the domestic helpers, passports are usually being taken by the kafeel upon workers arrival at home. Hence, foreign domestic helpers cannot easily leave or escape the domestic work place once they suffer abuse from their employers. The kafala system is practiced in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, and all Gulf Arab states except Iraq.

A protest against the kafala system in Beirut, Lebanon in 2018 (Getty).

The incidents of Filipino domestic helpers in Kuwait, namely of Jeanelyn Villavende[xix], who was allegedly sexually abused and Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found inside a freezer in an abandoned apartment[xx] are few cases of abuses that led President Duterte to threaten to ban  sending OFWs to Gulf countries.[xxi] Because of the “unjust” nature of the Kafala system, President Duterte, in his speech before the 76th United Nations General Meeting,[xxii] reiterated his call to the Middle Eastern government to end the Kafala system.

Conclusion

The changing geo-political and economic realities in Asia today will require regional countries to reassess their foreign policy priorities to reap at least the minimum benefit they can gain from these developments. Moreover, many small countries are simply unable to create changes in their policies as they are not fully equipped economically, politically and culturally to take this option.

The Philippines is no exception. Like his predecessors, President Duterte, since the beginning of his term, has wanted to create an independent foreign policy for the Philippines with regards to the MENA region, specifically in the area of labor migration. He has threatened to ban the employment of domestic helpers to Kuwait in light of several abuses suffered by Filipino domestic helpers and even went further to call upon Arab countries to stop the practice of the kafala system.

This political gesture may seem to be a brave position and an expression of his independent foreign policy over the labor migration issues in the MENA region. In reality, however, such a policy lacks detail on how the Philippines can sustain the banning of OFWs in the absence of alternative economic mechanisms that are available at home to cater to thousands of unemployed Filipinos. In addition, the population rate of the country is increasing quickly, prices of basic commodities are also increasing, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippine economy (like other economies around the world has suffered negative), thus also contributing to pressure for many Filipinos to go abroad and work.

It is therefore important that any administrations after Duterte should think about how areas of mutual interests between the Philippines and MENA region can be expanded beyond oil, OFWS and OIC to include areas such as trade and investment, as well as in tourism, and academic, agriculture and marine collaboration. The expansion of relations to new areas of cooperation will require the tapping of regional academic, economic and cultural experts to help the Philippine government come up with holistic strategic policy guidelines vis–a-vis the MENA region for the next two decades.

These strategic policy guidelines should be proactive rather than reactive in nature and should help determine the Philippines’ priorities, including the manner in which priorities are to be implemented. Finally, more research on the Philippines’ various areas of interests in the MENA region should be encouraged from among think tanks and the academic community. This may also mean that the government provides financial support to increase the viability of conducting research vis-à-vis the MENA region in the Philippines.

[i]Philippine war on drugs, Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/tag/philippines-war-drugs
[ii] Duterte’s Independent Foreign Policy is a  Pro-Philippine Policy, IDSI, The Manila Times, July 21, 2019, https://www.manilatimes.net/2019/07/21/opinion/analysis/dutertes-independent-foreign-policy-is-a-pro-philippine-policy/587349
[iii] Denise Daylan Miram, A Search for Independence in  in President Duterte’s Foreign Policy, Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 543, December 16, 2020, East-West Center, https://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/search-independence-in-president-duterte%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy
[iv] Matikas Santos, PH Wins Arbitration Case over South China Sea, Inquirer, July 12, 2016. https://globalnation.inquirer.net/140358/philippines-arbitration-decision-maritime-dispute-south-china-sea-arbitral-tribunal-unclos-itlos
[v] Jenny Balboa, Abstract,  Duterte’s Foreign Policy Pivot and its Impact on Philippine Trade and  Investment: An International Political Economy Perspective, Philippine Political Science Journal, 06 November 2020 Online publication, https://brill.com/view/journals/ppsj/41/1-2/article-p127_7.xml
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Yen Nee Lee, Four Years On, Philippine President Duterte is Still Struggling  to Show the Benefits of being pro-China, CNBC, September 7, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/08/philippine-president-duterte-fails-to-produce-results-from-pro-china-stance.html
[viii] Corrine  Redfern,’I want to go home’: Filipina domestic workers face exploitative condition, January 27, 2021.The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/27/domestic-workers-philippines-coronavirus-conditions
[ix] https://dfa.gov.ph/80-transparency-category/75-philippine-foreign-policy
[x]https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/2021/07/26/rodrigo-roa-duterte-sixth-state-of-the-nation-address-july-26-2021/, See also, Michelle Abad, Does the Philippines need an OFW department?, Rappler,  July 28, 2021. https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/iq/does-philippines-need-department-migrant-workers-overseas-filipinos/
[xi] Susan Ople, Should there be a New Department for Overseas Workers?, Business Mirror, July 17, 2019, https://businessmirror.com.ph/2019/07/17/should-there-be-a-new-department-for-overseas-workers/
[xii] Ibid.
[xiii] Cristina Eliosa Baclig, Explainer: A New Department for OFWs, Migrant Filipinos, What is it?, Inquirer Net, , June 1, 2021. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/1440018/edited-explainer-a-new-department-for-ofws-migrant-filipinos-what-is-it
[xiv]Carmela Abao, A Separate Department for OFWs. Should We?, Department of Political Science, Atene de Manila University , October 22, 20219. https://www.ateneo.edu/ls/soss/political-science/news/research/separate-department-ofws-should-we-2-part-blueboard-column
[xv] Max Walden, Despite migration ban, Indonesian domestic workers still face forced labour and abuses in the Gulf – Equal Times, September 7, 2017, Equaltimes.
[xvi] Rothna Begum,  Domestic Workers in Middle East Risk Abuse Amid Covid-19 Crisis,  Human Rights Watch, April 16, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/06/domestic-workers-middle-east-risk-abuse-amid-covid-19-crisis
[xvii] Kafala-systematic seizure of migrant worker’s passport upon arrival. The Kafala or sponsorship,  provides a systematic control of workers passport by the employers. It made the work conditions of migrant
[xviii] Kali Robinson, What is the Kafala System, Council on Foreign Relations, March 23, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/what-kafala-system
[xix] Anjo Calimario and Vince Ferreras, Slain OFWS in Kuwait was Sexually Abused Autopsy report shows, January 12, 2020, https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2020/1/12/NBI-autopsy-sexually-abused-Villavende-.html
[xx] Pathricia Ann Roxas, Senators Condemn Rising incidents of Abuse, death of OFWs, Inquirer,  February 21, 2018, https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/970330/ofw-filipino-workers-middle-east-kuwait-senator-abuse-death-demafelis
[xxi] Rothna Begum, Duterte threaten to Ban  Labor Migration to the Middle East, Human Rights Watch, Duterte Threatens to Ban Labor Migration to the Middle East | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org)
[xxii] Duterte Renew call to Abolish Kafala System,  September 22, 2021,  CNN Philippines, https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2021/9/22/Duterte-abolish-kafala-system.html

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.