Opportunity Knocks

Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry

The Chamber has fostered strong links with Australian state and federal governments since it was founded in 1975. With head office in Canberra and chapters around the country, its mission is to “assist Australian companies exporting to or expanding into Middle East and North African (MENA) markets and Arab companies looking to invest in Australia. We specialise in providing members with commercial intelligence, business matching and networking opportunities. Our program of members’ events features Australian and Arabic speakers with MENA-focussed business expertise.” These events present wonderful networking opportunities for AACCI members to get up-to-date information on the Arab business world.

First we should note the distinction to be made between the ‘Arab’ and the ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ world. The Chamber concentrates on the 22 states that form the Arab League, so does not represent, for example, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, nor Iran or Afghanistan. But it does include all the Gulf states and many of the countries of North Africa – an area ripe for dramatic expansion of trade and industry, as we shall see later.

Secondly, we should take note, as the diplomats tend to say, of the ‘elephant in the room’ and dismiss the political connotations – not all accurate by any means, according to Roland – that are synonymous with ‘Arab’. The Chamber is dedicated to fostering two-way trade and is apolitical. Membership is encouraged among the entire business community – anyone interested in expanding their business horizons is welcome.

Roland Jabbour is well placed to advise the Chamber, having had extensive involvement developing and facilitating business and trade relations and partnerships that work to promote stronger ties between Australia and the Arab world. He is a recipient of an Australian Medal for the centenary of federation of Australia and was once nominated for the Australian of the Year award.

He has a distinctly upbeat message regarding Australia’s place in trade with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). In the Far East (especially China), Australia is seen in a highly positive light – responsible, stable, advanced and well educated, and yet without the “baggage” attached to the US or the EU. Lacking a history of imperialist tendencies, Australia is ideally positioned to share its own specialities and expertise with the Arab world. “Traditionally, Australia had a focus on trade with its neighbours in Asia. More recently, over the past decade, there has been a shift in focus as the economy has been globalised and the Arab region presented an excellent opportunity for Australia to broaden its scope in terms of trade relations. It always played a prominent role in the international arena.”

Australia is seen as “a perfect alternative for the region.” Roland points out that many people around the world overlook another advantage – Australia is an English-speaking country too. “Australia is very well positioned to give our competitors a run for their money,” he says. There remains a perception that it is too far away but in fact it’s no further than the US in geographical terms and communications have been improved immensely in recent years by – not coincidentally – airlines of the stature of Etihad, Qatar Airlines and Emirates, the latter of course now intimately associated with Qantas with more than a hundred flights per week from our cities to their hubs.

Exports to MENA have almost quadrupled – albeit from a low starting point – which “demonstrated the potential which existed for Australia in that part of the world. I think we are only scraping the surface at this point in time in terms of the size of the potential.”

At present, the biggest trading partners with Australia are the United Arab Emirates, followed by Saudi Arabia which has the largest area as well as population (roughly a quarter of the size of Australia and with a population just a little bit higher at 26 million). Roland says the Arab world is rich in resources and has a number of other things going for it: enormous budgets, developing economies and “an exceptionally young population.” More than 70 per cent of the people of Saudi, for example, are below the age of 29 and 40 per cent are below age 19, “which clearly presents an enormous opportunity for trade relations and further engagement.”

This young population brings a chance to flaunt Australia’s education system – so often criticised locally but the envy of many countries, especially at the tertiary level with many world-class universities. There will be a continuing need for Arab countries as they develop to reach out to other nations for resources and exchanges of ideas, technologies and systems. “The Gulf region in particular has had a focus on engaging with the rest of the world – especially the West – in developing the skills qualifications of their citizens, reflected clearly by a number of scholarship programmes which send thousands of students abroad each year with an enormous budget.” explains Roland. In Saudi, the young people who travel to study return “not only with academic qualifications but experience of exposure to an alternative environment, a different society.” This in turn is creating “a level of transformation in some of those countries, which are becoming more open societies, more creative and innovative as a result of these additional skills being obtained from the West.”

But is that a welcome development? After all, the Saudi culture and society has always been conservative. Roland says there is now plenty of evidence and “a clear intent for the leadership to try to broaden the scope of society and open up to the rest of the world.” However, successive Canberra administrations have not helped the Australian cause, he believes – having aligned themselves too clearly as following US foreign policies to the exclusion of Australia’s own interests (he believes this is also reflected in the way Australia votes at the UN Security Council). He would clearly welcome a liberation and greater independence of thought at the foreign-policy level.

By the time you read this, a large delegation of Aussie business people will be on a trip organised by government and implemented by the AACCI to a number of Gulf states; many of them will then fly further to the Maghreb states of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. In light of January’s horrific hostage-taking in Algeria’s huge and empty desert, this might be considered a hard sell, but the rewards could at least match the risks. These countries (as well as the rest of North Africa – Libya and Egypt are not on the agenda this time but are not to be overlooked either) are considered fantastic prospects, not only in petrochemicals and mining but also in agriculture – including the vital expertise of water management – renewable energies, communications, IT, and education – not only sending kids to Aussie universities, but building the schooling systems needed for the next generations.

The AACCI organises a wide range of events and trade missions and also supervises inbound trade from Arab countries – from clothing to nuts and, of course, oil – although the balance of trade is, and is expected to remain, overwhelmingly outbound. By remaining aloof from geopolitics and refraining from entering the frequently misconstrued cultural arguments fanned by the more sensational media, the Chamber does its best to lead enlightened Australian businesses toward partnerships with a region teeming with opportunities for Aussies to do what they are good at. Prime Minister Gillard spoke at the end of last year about the importance of addressing “the Asian century”. Perhaps she should have said, “Asian AND Arab”.

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November 24, 2017, 5:19 AM AEDT

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