New Zealand PM: Saudi visit ‘well and truly overdue’
In an exclusive interview, John Key describes Saudi Arabia as a ‘very important country’ and hopes to push a FTA deal
On the eve of a historic state visit to Saudi Arabia, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key has described his trip, the first by any New Zealand head of state, as “well and truly overdue.”
Speaking exclusively to Al Arabiya News, Key – who is currently in Dubai and has inaugurated his country’s new Consulate General - described Saudi Arabia as a “very important country.”
Answering a question regarding the reasons behind New Zealand’s absence from Saudi Arabia in the past, Key said that this was a result of a diplomatic legacy, though noted his previously scheduled trip in 2010 had to be cancelled due to a military plane crash.
“In a lot of ways maybe it’s been that New Zealand had historically focused on more traditional markets and for a very long time, up until pre-1970s, virtually all New Zealand products were sold to the United Kingdom.”
Recently, New Zealand has developed strong trade relations with neighbouring Asia, but the GCC now represents the country’s fifth biggest trade market.
“I think the need for a visit probably wasn’t as big a priority for previous prime ministers as it is for me. We historically wanted to come sometime earlier but it has just taken some time to re-arrange this visit after we had to cancel…so look it’s well and truly overdue but it’s going to be a wonderful opportunity.”
One important item on Key’s agenda will certainly be attempting to push through a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Saudis.
“We are trying to complete the Gulf States-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement. We’ve really got to the point in 2009 where the deal was largely complete but required ratifications that have taken some time.”
Key said other countries had been in a similar situation, such as Singapore which implemented an agreement last year.
“Our understanding is we’re the next potential country to come out of the blocks and to have a deal completed, so we are hopeful we’ll be able to make some progress on that front.”
New Zealand-Saudi Arabia trade is worth about U.S. $1.2 billion annually, with two-thirds of that being New Zealand imports of chiefly hydrocarbons. Eighty per cent of Saudi Arabia’s imports from New Zealand comprise the country’s well-renowned meat and dairy products.
New Zealand exports to the GCC have grown about 10 per cent year-on-year over the past decade, underscoring the region’s significance to the small Antipodean country of four million.
Among all GCC nations, the Saudi market is of particular significance to New Zealand.
“Saudi is a significant player here in the Gulf, clearly one of the richest of all the nations in the world but also the home of a lot of potentially significant consumers for New Zealand products. We already sell to the wider Gulf region more goods and services than to the United Kingdom, so that gives you a sense of how big the market already is and I think there is a lot more potential.”
Key, who was re-elected in a landslide victory for a third term last year, also promised to spend an increasing amount of time in the region.
“It’s my intention to try and built deeper markets around the Gulf States once the FTA is concluded and that means spending more time in the region… It is quite clear that we haven’t spent enough time in the region and I expect to come back and spend more time here.”
While the talks will seemingly largely be focused on trade, Key has earlier said he would also discuss “the complex security issues facing the Middle East.”
New Zealand recently committed to sending 143 troops to Iraq to help train Iraqi security forces in the fight against ISIS. The country also embarked on a two-year United Nations Security Council term in January and is in a position to exert a degree of influence over security affairs in the region.
Key flies to Riyadh before heading to Kuwait.
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