I have just spent the last week travelling to three Gulf States as part of a CEO delegation that accompanied Trade Minister Andrew Robb on a visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. I am spending my last day in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, so I thought I’d take a moment to catch you up on my travels.
The key purpose of the Minister’s visit to the region was to kick-start the recommencement of negotiations on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which have been stalled since 2009. Minister Robb also invited a group of Australian CEOs and senior executives from leading Australian firms and institutions to join him as he toured the region, providing an opportunity for Australian and Arab businesspeople to get to know each other and to deepen business links between Australia and the Gulf States in a very hands-on way. All this took place within the framework of the Australia Unlimited MENA mission, Austrade’s flagship annual promotional campaign in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region aimed at raising Australia’s profile.
Over several days, we visited investment promotion agencies and authorities, met with chambers of commerce and industry and touched base with local business people and Australian diplomatic and trade staff in three countries.
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Personally, I found the trip extremely useful. Business in this part of the world is heavily dependent on relationships and personal contacts, and the visit enabled our delegation to meet people who we would otherwise have been unaware of and unlikely to meet. I think it would also be fair to say that it was an eye-opener for those who hadn’t spent time in the Middle East before and provided some great insights into the possibilities for expanding the trade between Australia and the Gulf States.
Throughout the visit, the Minister highlighted three key points which Middle East ‘old hands’ are well aware of, but which might come as a surprise to people new to the region. Having surveyed the bi-lateral trade between Australia and the GCC, the Minister concluded that it was “underdone” – total two-way trade stands at just $US11.27 billion – and that there was scope to do much more. He also highlighted the complementarity of the Australian and GCC economies and emphasised that each side had the ability to meet the other’s needs, particularly in areas such as education, healthcare, food security and infrastructure.
Lastly, Robb pointed out that the possibilities for increased cooperation and collaboration were enormous. He noted that Australia could benefit from Gulf States’ willingness to invest in (for example) agricultural, natural resources, and infrastructure projects, while the Gulf economies stood to gain from Australia’s significant food production capabilities and its expertise in education, health services and the creation of major infrastructure.
While the official talks were taking place, business meetings were going on in the margins. I was pleased to see the enthusiasm for exploring the possibility of expanded engagement with Australia from business people in all three countries, most notably in Saudi Arabia. I certainly came away with a few ideas to pursue. It was also a privilege to be able to promote the Australian Arab Business Forum, which I am convening with colleagues at the University of Sydney on May 22.
Wrapping up the tour in Riyadh, I headed back to the UAE, where I spent a couple of days catching up with colleagues, including several of our associates, in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I even managed to sneak in a trip to the beach in Abu Dhabi, which was quite a treat!
I’ll be heading home tomorrow, but I’m looking forward to being back in the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia again soon.
Cynthia Dearin is managing director of Dearin & Associates, a boutique international market entry consulting firm.