Pablo Kang, Australian Ambassador to the UAE
Australia-GCC free trade negotiations have stalled for some years now. What stage are the talks at currently?
In 2009, the GCC decided to suspend the negotiations while they undertook a review of all their current FTA negotiations, and its been suspended since then. The ball is in the GCC’s court, but we’re pushing. Our new trade minister, Andrew Rob, is likely to come to the region this month. The FTA [talks] is something that he is very keen to see restarted. I’m confident that we’ll make more progress than we have in the past six years because we haven’t had a trade minister visiting this region. The best way to really make your case is to come and argue for it in person.
Why has it taken Australia so long to send its trade minister?
Australia is predominantly an Asia-Pacific country, and under the previous government, there has been a big focus on the Asia-Pacific century. The new government is sort of re-jigging the rhetoric a bit: it’s talking more about an Indo-Pacific, or Indian Ocean Asian-Pacific, so recognising that we have interests to our west as well. We have a lot of Australian businesses here, there’s a lot of investment capital from here that could be deployed in Australia, the air links already exist, so it’s like a no-brainer, and I think we just need to do more.
Is investment flow from the GCC a priority for Australia?
Obviously there’s a lot of demand in Australia for capital, which the government can’t provide, and even public-private partnerships (PPPs) may not be able to provide. This government is being very front-footed about trying to attract foreign direct investment. We plan to talk to sovereign wealth funds in the region. There’s major ones in this country, but also in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar as well. Our pitch is, if you’re looking at a high return investment destination, then Australia might not be your best fit. But higher return often is equivalent to higher risk, and higher risk hasn’t really worked so well. Australia provides low risk, and actually modest returns. You’re not going to get really high returns, but you’re going to get returns, which are good for your investments, plus AAA credit rating and political stability.
What about the other way: Australian investment in the GCC?
Australian investment in the GCC is obviously not as prominent, and we’ll be trying to encourage that as well.
Is the perception of insecurity still a concern for Australian investors?
I don’t think so. It’s more the fact Australian investors tend to be more comfortable in places they know about, and I think the profile of this region is still growing.
What’s the breakdown of GCC students going to study in Australia?
It’s about 1,000 Emiratis, about 1,500 from Kuwait, and about 10,000 from Saudi Arabia. But for all those countries, the figures are coming off the peak. The peak would have been a few years ago, maybe 2009.
Why is it dropping?
Again, this goes back to promotion and marketing, trading on your reputation. So the US and the UK, our major competitors in the international education market, have really ramped up their advocacy, and we need to respond.
But does Australia have that international reputation, especially in emerging markets?The issue is certainly one of profile. Obviously in the US, there are so many universities. With the UK, it’s a lot closer and there are historical connections. What I am saying is we need to be competitive. We’re working on MoUs with both the UAE and Qatar. There are some Australian universities that are active in the Middle East, particularly Monash University. There is a lot of work in the renewable energy space as well. We’re doing seminars looking at sustainable water resource management, so there are people coming up here from the CSIRO, and from several Australian universities.
Chatham House last year reported that sustainable food self-sufficiency is unattainable in the GCC. Does this mean there will always be a place for Australian exporters?
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