Australia asks GCC to resume free trade deal talks

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The Australian Government has formally asked the six Gulf states to resume negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two regions after the GCC initiated a freeze on FTAs in 2009.

Speaking at the Australia Unlimited MENA 2014 trade promotion event in Dubai on Sunday, Australian Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb outlined his country’s goal to bolster investment in the Middle East in key trade areas such as agriculture, infrastructure, energy, education and tourism.

Australia and the GCC currently exchange about $11.27bn in trade a year, however Robb said with 140 flights between the regions through Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad and Qatar, as well as a mutual respect, it opened up “all sorts of opportunities” for new investment.

In particular he referred to the potential enhanced role of the Gulf states’ sovereign wealth funds in meeting infrastructure funding costs in areas such as urban rail, roads and tunnels as well as the development of greenfield areas, saying Australia could double its agricultural output with the right investment in enhanced irrigation systems and hydroelectricity.

“When a hold was put on all agreements, all negotiations, not just with ourselves but everyone else in 2009 by the GCC at that stage the negotiations with Australia were very well advanced,” he said.

“I have raised this already with His Excellency (UAE Minister of Economy Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansoori), I will raise it again all the way around my trip. It’s very important, I’ve written to all the relevant ministers a few weeks ago in all the Gulf states requesting that we restart negotiations.

He said the Gulf was fourth in his priorities for trade relationships with Australia after the “big three” trading partners China, Japan and South Korea, which made up a total 51 percent of Australia’s total exports.

Robb added that since 2009 new investment opportunities had emerged in Australia.

“There’s an opportunity if we completed the free trade agreement quickly - and it is well advanced - I think we could wrap it up quickly and I think there could be some very important sweeteners from the investment point of view in that agreement and I think there could be some major projects which begin sooner rather than later,” he said.

“It’s an FTA that will lead to very immediate outcomes, so that’s the argument I’ll be putting this week and I really hope that we have some impact.”

Robb said the UAE, which is Australia’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East with about $6bn of trade exchanged annually, had an “enormous amount to offer Australia” with a good history of investment between the countries.

“We think we’ve got a lot to offer in terms of goods and services and education and tourism and our food and services into this region,” he said.

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