I am very pleased to be here today to address the opening of the 2012 Australia Arab Business Forum and Expo.
The inaugural event in 2011 in Melbourne was successful in bringing Australia and the Arab world closer together and I am confident that the second Forum and Expo will be as successful.
I am also pleased to extend a very warm welcome to participants from the Arab Region and especially welcome Her Excellency Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, UAE Minister for Foreign Trade.
I also welcome the Federal Deputy Opposition Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Julie Bishop.
As the Prime Minister has noted in her message of support, relations between Australia and the countries of the Arab world continue to flourish. We enjoy strong cultural and political linkages and our economic relationship is expanding, particularly in the areas of agriculture, energy, education, finance, banking, construction and tourism.
The Arab world is a region of global strategic importance including to Australia. We have recognised this by deepening our relations with countries in the region, including through our strong support for the historic transitions occurring in North Africa, and strengthening our relationships with key institutions such as the Arab League, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
As our ties expand with the countries of the Arab world, we develop a strategic stake in peace, stability and economic prosperity across the region.
We live in a time of immense change, when the focus of economic growth is heading away from the Atlantic to Asia for the first time in two centuries.
Led by China and India, countries in the Asian region are transforming their economies.
Industrialisation is taking place at a staggering pace.
New wealth is being created, and poverty is — in many countries — being reduced by new economic opportunities.
That has implications for countries all around the world.
In Australia, our economy is being buffered and reshaped by our mining commodity boom, itself driven by Asia's rise.
And the Arab world, in particular the Middle East, is undergoing significant change.
The Middle East has been at the crossroads of international trade for millennia and has over the last sixty years reasserted itself as an essential element of the global economy, and its importance continues to grow.
Some of the changes taking place in the Middle East are driven by the extraordinary pace of Asia.
The Middle East lies in an area of intense geostrategic importance, and it cannot help but change to reflect the growing markets to the East.
But other changes are coming from within.
Populations in the Middle East are taking an interest in new opportunities offered by our modern world, wherever they see them, and however they can technically be accessed.
Social opportunities, business opportunities, professional opportunities.
In that context, it is vital for Australia that we lift our engagement with the Middle East.
In the century ahead, with a more engaged, powerful and influential Asia, the Middle East will be an essential partner, and a market of immense opportunity.
Trade with the Middle East
For Australia, the economic opportunities involved in trade with the Middle East are obvious.
Australia is a great trading nation, and we recognise the value of our trusted trading partners.
Over the years, we've built up annual two-way trade with the Middle East [including Egypt] of $13 billion.
A major share of that trade is between Australia and the United Arab Emirates.
Over $6 billion of merchandise trade in 2011, with Australian exports made up largely of alumina, passenger vehicles and food.
And another important trading partner for Australia is Saudi Arabia.
We enjoy nearly $2 billion a year in merchandise trade between ourselves and Saudi Arabia, with Australian exports made up of passenger vehicles, meat and milk.
And other significant markets for us are with Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Egypt, Iraq and Bahrain.
Because of the strong two-way trade relationships we've built, people across the Middle East are now able to access the best quality Australian products.
In 2011, Saudi Arabia was Australia's single largest export market for passenger motor vehicles.
Seven out of every ten of our automotive exports go to the Gulf Cooperation Council area.
The importance of the Middle East as a market for Australia continues to grow, including in services.
Education is one of Australia's leading export industries, and we're continuing to attract students from the Middle East.
We had over 22,000 student enrolments from the Middle East in Australia in 2011.
That includes 11,700 from Saudi Arabia. 1,300 from the United Arab Emirates. 1,100 from Lebanon. And 1,200 from Egypt.
The Middle East, particularly the Gulf States, are also becoming an increasingly important source of investment into Australia and we would welcome more investment from the region.
Our links with the Middle East are deep. They are based in business opportunities, but also in our personal links. Over many years, Australia has been the beneficiary of migration from the Middle East.
And our economy and society is richer as a result.
Australia-Arab relations are underpinned by people-to-people links, including over 370,000 Australians of Arab descent.
And — Arabic is the fourth most spoken language after English in Australia.
Not least for the warmth of our personal ties, the Middle East is a market that matters to Australia.
We see immense opportunity there — and we are determined to increase our trade and ties with the region even further in the future.
More broadly, the Australian Government is deeply committed to increasing trade worldwide, including with the Middle East.
And why this government has been so keen to liberalise trade.
FTA negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council are a good example of the broad range of approaches we take to liberalising trade. We have made early progress, and look forward to the continuation of talks following the review recently undertaken by the Gulf Council.
But we work multilaterally on the trade front as well.
The government have been strong supporters of the Doha Round in the World Trade Organization over many years, working together to open up global trade and remove barriers to our goods and services.
Recognising the challenges that have slowed progress in the WTO, Australia's Trade Minister, Dr Craig Emerson, has championed a new approach tackling discrete parts of the reform agenda.
Instead of making no progress with the whole trade agenda, Dr Emerson's approach is to reach consensus on areas where agreement is close, in order to reinvigorate the Doha negotiations.
As Dr Emerson has said, in the context of the current global economic uncertainty, it is even more imperative that we move forward on trade reform.
So that we can open up markets.
And combat protectionism.
At the G20 Trade Ministers meeting in Puerto Vallarta last month, business groups from all twenty countries endorsed Australia's plan to advance parts of the Doha agenda separately where the issues are close to finalisation.
Our world is changing rapidly and all of our countries are changing to respond to the transformations taking place, opening up broad opportunities for business.
We believe the only way to succeed in this environment is to build our networks and our partnerships even further.
I am convinced the economic prosperity of Australia and that of the Arab world will be closely linked in the years ahead.
And this is exactly what this Forum and Expo will help deliver.
Congratulations to the Chamber.
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