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Published 09 July 2012 05:42, Updated 11 July 2012 05:48
Sometimes complete strangers hit it off. It can work well for people but isn’t so good between countries.
A mate met his future wife outside a nightclub in New York. They had mutual friends and she was already inside with them when he turned up at the door. Because some clubs in NYC don’t welcome single men, she was sent out to meet him and bring him in. He had never before met this woman but she came out, gave him an authentic-looking – if somewhat awkward – kiss and led him inside past the gatekeepers. Cue happy ending.
Trade doesn’t work like that. Well, it can – just look at eBay – but bilateral trade isn’t usually conducted via online auctions.
It takes time to build up a relationship. Go back 30 years, when the Japanese economy was on the rise and we fretted about Australians’ lack of “Asia literacy”. We’re doing a better job in the current age of China rising. But not at all with the Middle East.
There isn’t a big existing trade relationship with the region. The DFAT report on Australia’s trading relationships last year shows little mention of Middle Eastern countries. Our major trade partners are China, Japan, the US, Korea, India, Britain, Taiwan, New Zealand, Thailand and Singapore. Only in the category of unprocessed food does Iraq (which bought $371 million worth of wheat) and Egypt (which bought $243 million worth of wheat and $98 million in vegetables), rank highly, at 9th and 10th, respectively.
The United Arab Emirates is the second-largest source of fuel imports (we bought $3.7 billion in crude oil) and Saudi Arabia comes 10th on the list of export markets for manufactured goods (in this case, $567 million worth of cars). But in the big scheme of things for Australia, the Middle East doesn’t really rank.
Official interest in the region is limited. We have none of the formal agreements that pave the way for private sector interest to follow and have served us well in Asia. There has also been a lack of transport links between Australia and the region. Qantas flies straight over it. It wasn’t until airlines such as Emirates and Etihad started flying into Australia that we could go there directly.
But where does the level of interest start? Most Australians have little knowledge of the region beyond the current daily headlines of impending civil war in Syria or Egypt’s new president.
Still, there are more Arabic speakers in Australia than many might expect. Last year’s census showed there to be 287,174 people, or 1.3 per cent of the population (and 34,561 Persian speakers). This is fewer than the 336,409 Mandarin speakers who make up 1.6 per cent of the population, but still significant. There is a trove of language and cultural talent that could be put to use.
There are potential new opportunities. Granted, they are in a region that is foreign to many Australians and demands a lot of awareness on the ground. And as Arab trade consultant Fiona Hill points out, the lack of knowledge also goes both ways.
“People in the [Middle East] region do not know Australian products and services very well or the Australian style very well.”
In short, trading relationships are just like any other. They take time and commitment. Australia needs to put more effort into a region of 340 million-plus consumers. But it pays off. My mate and his wife now have two children.
HOW THE FIGURES STACK UP
|EGYPT’S PRINCIPAL EXPORT DESTINATIONS 2011||EGYPT’S PRINCIPAL IMPORT DESTINATIONS 2011|
|IRAQ’S PRINCIPAL EXPORT DESTINATIONS 2009||IRAQ’S PRINCIPAL IMPORT DESTINATIONS 2009|
|UAE PRINCIPAL EXPORT DESTINATIONS 2009||UAE PRINCIPAL IMPORT DESTINATIONS 2009|
|SAUDI ARABIA’S PRINCIPAL EXPORT DESTINATIONS 2010||SAUDI ARABIA’S PRINCIPAL IMPORT DESTINATIONS 2010|
|(DATA NOT AVAILABLE - DFAT)||1||US||13.1%|