With a strong commitment to enhancing the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA), the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) hosted a series of events in the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt from 24 January to 1 February to promote the bilateral trade, investment and cultural ties between Australia and the MENA region. In this exclusive interview, His Excellency Gerard Seeber, Australian Senior Trade Commissioner MENA and Consul General talks about these growing ties and their plans in this region for 2016.
Could you share with us more details about Australia’s plan in “Investing in a Healthy Future”?
The Middle East and North Africa region is undergoing major demographic change. Population is rising, new compulsory health insurance systems are coming into place and there is a growing problem with “lifestyle” illnesses such as diabetes. All of this is creating stronger demand for health and medical services. It also raises the importance of medical infrastructure, such as health policy frameworks.
Spending on health in the MENA region is expected to rise to USD144 billion a year and the UAE itself is expected to record growth in spending of seven per cent over the next couple of years. That’s why we have made “investing in a healthy future” the key theme of the Australian Unlimited MENA 2016 roadshow.
Of the 83 Australian firms in the roadshow, 55 are from the healthcare, education and training sectors. Australian firms have a lot of expertise in health and medicine, and they draw on a national tradition of success. Australia, for example, invented the bionic ear, the ultrasound, the electronic pacemaker and anti-flu medicines. Australian firms are already good operators in the region. Yet more can be done, especially in the regulation of quality and standards, research and development, clinical trials, medical training and simulation.
What makes the Middle East an important market to you?
Food being the top export item to the region makes the Middle East a priority market. The sector will continue to remain stable.
There are new opportunities for Australian firms in the Education & Training, and Health sectors, which Australia is known for globally. And with major Middle East economies such as the UAE, and Saudi Arabia investing heavily in these sectors, the prospects for Australian institutions are aplenty.
Also, new opportunities for Australian companies are emerging in other major Middle East countries after the recent re-engagement with Egypt and Iran.
How did bilateral trade relationships evolve between Australia and the MENA region in the last few years?
Despite the security issues in the region, overall the bilateral trade relationship is moving in a positive direction.
One measure of its health is that year-on-year growth in exports between Australia and the GCC grew by 15.8 per cent between 2014 and 2015.
Another sign of how Australia sees the value in our trading ties is that there have been numerous ministerial visits to promote trade and investment. The Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb, participated in last year’s AU MENA events.
This year, Richard Colbeck, the Minister for Tourism and International Education and the Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment, will be playing a role in the AU MENA 2016 roadshow.
Australia is also negotiating a free trade agreement with the GCC nations that will enhance our trade and investment ties.
Y-o-y growth in exports between Australia and the GCC grew by 15.8% between 2014 and 2015.
Which sectors are strengthening these ties?
The top three sectors (export items), which have been stable over the last few years are minerals, automobiles, and food, providing a boost to the trade relations.
How do you attract GCC investors to do business in Australia and vice versa?
Our strong economic record is a drawcard but so is our welcoming attitude to foreign investment. It brings growth and jobs, new technologies and skills.
Australia’s economy is in its 25th year of consecutive growth and we are an economy that is open for business.
Moreover, our country has a highly skilled and educated workforce, excellent regulations and governance, solid infrastructure, and is close to the centre of the world economy in Asia. At the same time, Australia is creating stronger linkages with Asia’s major economies. These linkages provide benefits to foreign investors as well as domestic firms.
In the last year and a bit, Australia has secured free trade agreements with China, Korea and Japan. And we are also looking to reach agreement with other major economies such as India and Indonesia.
The UAE is a major foreign investor in Australia. In 2014, the UAE had a total stock of investment in Australia worth AUD26.1 billion (As mentioned in DFAT website).
The UAE is Australia’s 15th biggest market, in terms of two-way trade and exports.
What kind of support are you providing to exporters?
We are providing market intelligence as well as briefings on the regional business environment. Furthermore, we are organizing in-market visit programs in addition to major promotional events, such as the Australia Unlimited MENA campaign, which provides a platform for Australian firms to showcase their products, services and industry expertise.
What was the total volume of trade between Australia and the UAE last year?
In 2014-15, two-way trade in goods and services was AUD9.2 billion. That makes the UAE Australia’s 15th biggest market, in terms of two-way trade and also in terms of exports.
Australia is negotiating a free trade agreement with the GCC nations.
What is your core objective for the UAE in 2016?
At Austrade, we are focusing on sectors where we believe Australian capability offers the most to the needs of the MENA region. That means a focus on sectors such as food, health, energy and resources, and transport.
Education and training is also an area where we strongly believe there is a role for Australian firms. There is a good reason for that. The GCC economies are diversifying away from a dependence on oil into a new range of sectors, including renewable energy, rail, tourism, and mining. That means there is a need to skill and educate a young workforce to help develop these new sectors. Useful to recall that about 28 per cent of the MENA population is aged 15 to 29 years of age and that in Saudi Arabia, up to 70 per cent of Saudi nationals are aged under 30 years. Australian education and training providers can play an important role in helping the MENA economies skill and educate their workforce of the future.