Kiwis may be flightless, but after a century of commercial air travel New Zealand heads of state have visited almost every country on the globe – though not Saudi Arabia.
That is all about to change with New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key due to make history in the relations of the two countries on a state visit that takes in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, commencing today.
After six years in office, Key has regularly visited the four corners of the globe – but somehow missed out the Middle East, despite its burgeoning economic significance for the small South Pacific country of 4 million. New Zealand’s last head of state visit to the GCC was in 2002, when former Prime Minister and now United Nations Secretary-General contender Helen Clark visited Dubai.
Key is leading an 18-strong delegation of officials, who landed in Dubai after marking the country’s Anzac Day, which commemorates the world war contributions of New Zealand and Australian soldiers, in Turkey’s Gallipoli.
“It has always been my intention to travel to the Gulf as it is an important region and I’m pleased to be leading a strong business delegation on this visit,” Key said in a statement.
A scheduled trip to Saudi Arabia in 2010 was cancelled after a domestic air force helicopter crash.
Key called his visit an “opportunity to strengthen and grow trade and business links” between the GCC and New Zealand, particularly as progress is made on a free trade agreement.
“A key priority for me will be talking to key figures in the region about the importance of progressing New Zealand’s Free Trade Agreement with the GCC.”
Indeed, the timing seems good all round for such a sojourn. New Zealand this year commenced a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council, which traditionally places a large focus on Middle East security matters, as Saudi Arabia and other regional players consider how to best fight the threats posed by ISIS.
Business and political discussions
Key will be meeting with the Saudi leadership to discuss both politics and business.
“These meetings provide an opportunity to discuss our economic relationship and also, given our seat on the UN Security Council, it’s timely to discuss the complex security issues facing the Middle East,” Key said.
Figures show the GCC comes in as New Zealand’s fifth largest export destination thanks to goods exports worth NZD$1.9 billion (USD1.4b) in the year to December 2014 – with exports growing an average of 10 per cent each year over the past decade.
New Zealand Trade and Enterprise regional director Clayton Kimpton said total trade between New Zealand and Saudi Arabia comprised NZD$1.5 billion (USD1.1b), two thirds of which were Saudi exports.
Saudi exports were primarily hydrocarbons, while 80 per cent of New Zealand’s exports were made up of the country’s renowned meat and dairy products, he said.
“When New Zealanders think of the Middle East they think of war and terror and ISIS and Syria. We’ve got to think of the GCC, which is this economic powerhouse…they have what we need, we have what they need. While there is a different cultural, religious backgrounds and (a different) political system, there is a great deal of similarities.”
A handful of New Zealand businesses operate in Saudi Arabia with the assistance of government, including a Fonterra factory in Dammam which is a big employer in the city. Saudi Arabia sends about 4000 students to New Zealand each year, while in return New Zealand has an agreement to send a commodity it is abundant in, for research purposes: sheep.
Kimpton said there had been about 10 New Zealand Ministers from the current administration pass through the GCC in the past few years, while the New Zealand Governor General had twice visited Saudi Arabia.
“We’ve had a lot of Ministers through. This region has not been unloved [by New Zealand].”
He said Key’s trip was “not before time”, given he had planned to be here in 2010.
“He’s coming now, and that’s great. If you look at the Prime Minister’s diary it’s a matter of finding time.
“I don’t think there’s anything untoward that a [New Zealand] Prime Minister’s never visited Saudi, I think our focus has been on China for a long time, it used to be on Europe. We have to have a lot of markets [but] this is a market that requires a lot of attention.”
The delegation and historic Saudi Arabia visit could prove pivotal in advancing relations and the countries had “never been closer” to a free trade agreement, he said.
“It’s a very important step and just how seriously we are acknowledging the influence of the GCC in the midst of a troubled region, acknowledging they’re a significant trade partner with New Zealand, acknowledging they’re on our side and we’re on their side. In terms of being able to move free trade negotiations to another level the presence of the Prime Minister is going to make a big impact.”
The trip had not been originally planned as a result of King Salman’s accession, but it was “really good that the Prime Minister will get the opportunity to meet King Salman so soon after his accession to the throne”.
Members of the New Zealand Middle East Business Council are also travelling with the Prime Minister’s delegation.
NZMEBC Deputy Chairman Michael Webb said the visit was a “natural progression” in an important growing relationship.
“In recent years New Zealand’s trade with Saudi Arabia has grown significantly, and the Government has invested considerable time in developing a much closer political and economic relationship with the Saudi Government.”
The country was a “key player” in the region and the state visit would help secure the free trade agreement that was a major outcome for the Government.
The visit and blossoming friendship between New Zealand and Saudi Arabia was also something that would be welcomed back at home, Webb said.
“We are sure that New Zealand’s Saudi and Arab communities will welcome the visit as emphasising the close ties between our countries and the huge opportunities there are for further developing the relationship.”
That included not just business growth, but also more civic and cultural ties.
“We would like to see more activity in the educational and cultural space, which is certainly possible given the significant number of Saudi students who are educated in New Zealand every year.”
Kimpton said significant business ties were also being forged in other sectors, with Airways New Zealand recently winning the contract to train the region’s air traffic controllers through the Emirates Aviation University.
“Food is obviously our greatest percentage of exports, but there is an increasing demand for ICT, construction, marine engineering, healthcare, education, air navigation services and other general consulting services.”