The Hon. Mark Vaile, MP
The Hon. Mark Vaile, MP


Canberra, 16 August 2006

Council for Australian-Arab Relations


Very pleased to be here tonight to launch the Council for Australian-Arab Relations' Strategic Plan for 2006 to 2009.

Minister Downer and I established the council at the end of 2002 to promote the mutual interests of Australia and the Arab world and to build understanding between our peoples.

It's an important mission, and one that the council rightly emphasises in its new strategic plan.

Today, Arabic is the fifth most important language in Australia. In the 2001 Australian census, a quarter of a million people declared that they had Arab ancestry.

Meanwhile, the recent tragic events in Lebanon have highlighted the number of Australian citizens who are in the Middle East. The Government evacuated about 5,200 Australians, permanent residents and their families.

It took 16 voyages and six chartered ships. It was the largest evacuation of Australian civilians that DFAT has ever organised.

Supporting more trade
Australia and the Arab world share very strong trade links. Over the past year, Australia's exports to the Middle East have increased by almost 20 percent.

Traditionally, our trade to the region has involved livestock, meat and dairy products, but today our largest export is passenger motor vehicles, which increased 17 per cent in 2005-06.

Australia's high-quality education services are also gaining a good reputation, and tourism is becoming increasingly important.

One important element of the council's work is promoting trade opportunities in both Australia and the Arab countries.

It works closely with local chambers of commerce, it runs a visiting business speakers' programme, and publishes information to help Australian SMEs do business in the Arab world.

There is enormous potential for Australian manufacturers to supply the region with products like food, machinery and pharmaceuticals. A good place for new exporters to start is in the Gulf, where countries like the United Arab Emirates have been opening theirs doors to foreign trade and investment.

In June, Australia and the UAE agreed to consider a request from the Gulf Cooperation Council to incorporate our FTA negotiations into a wider agreement. The Gulf Cooperation Council consists of the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

At my request, DFAT is undertaking an analysis of the economic and trade implications of a free trade agreement with the GCC.

It is an important and growing market for Australia. Our exports to the GCC in 2005-06 were worth $4.9 billion, which makes it a bigger market than Singapore or Thailand.

A free trade agreement with the GCC would have the potential to lock in our exports of primary products and motor vehicles to the Gulf. It could also deliver immediate opportunities in education, health care, construction and tourism.

Any free trade agreement would need to be comprehensive and cover all our areas of trade, including goods, services, investment and government procurement. It would also have to be comparable in scope and standard to the initiatives that the GCC is taking with its other trading partners.

Building stronger people-to-people links
I want to turn now to another one of the council's objectives, which is to create partnerships that promote people-to-people links between Australia and the Arab countries.

I think the new Chair of the council, Pru Goward, will have an especially important role in promoting these links and greater understanding, because of her enormous communications experience.

The council's work will help show that the culture, religion and politics of the Arab world are remarkably diverse and sophisticated.

Very often, the only news that we get from the Middle East involves suicide bombers and terrorism. The exchanges and programmes run by the council have the potential to help increase the Australian community's understanding of what the Arab world is really like.

At the same time, the council's other job is to help explain Australia's culture, values and beliefs.

It has already published a multimedia teaching kit called Explore Australia, which is now used in Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar.

It's an excellent package, with information about Australia's people, lifestyle and the economy, as well as case studies.

I'd like to see the council build on Explore Australia with a package that has a stronger focus on Australia's history and the values we stand for, including our long defence of freedom and democracy.

So in conclusion, the council has done an excellent job in setting out its high level objectives through its new strategic plan.

I'll be very interested to see how you turn your broad priorities into a detailed work programme. I know you will continue to build understanding between Australia and the Arab region.

I wish you every success, and I hope that more Australian businesses will take advantage of the assistance that you provide and start exporting to the Middle East.

Thank you.





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