Australia's Changing Ties with the Middle East

Australia recently signed a deal with the United Arab Emirates to provide uranium for the Persian Gulf country’s planned nuclear power plants. In an email interview, Fethi Mansouri, the director of the Center for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University, Australia, and the author of “Australia and the Middle East: a Front line Relationship,” discussed Australia-Middle East relations.

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WPR: What is the recent history of Australia’s diplomatic and trade relations with the Middle East?

Fethi Mansouri: Australia’s interest in and relationship with the Middle East was initially shaped by its early involvement in the imperial defense system led by Britain, which included Australian defense forces during both world wars. This military engagement is still an important feature of the current engagement, with Australia playing a significant role in the U.S.-led wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, in recent years Australia’s relationship with the Middle East has begun to broaden to include significant trade and education-services components that are aimed in particular toward the Persian Gulf region. While this recent expansion still prominently features wheat, meat and other food products, it is now also starting to include new resource products, such as uranium, zinc and liquefied propane. As of 2010, the value of Australia’s trade with the Middle East was almost $11 billion, with the Middle East accounting for almost 2.5 per cent of Australia’s total trade for the year and, importantly, with Australia maintaining a surplus of $2.1 billion vis-à-vis the region.

Two significant new features of this relationship have emerged over the past decade. The first is the explosion in the number of Arab students enrolling in Australian universities, which is fast becoming one of the most important aspects of Australia-Middle East relations. The second is the strengthening of the diplomatic relationship, due to the establishment of a number of new embassies in Canberra, in particular for North African countries such as Tunisia and Algeria. It is, therefore, anticipated that the strong relationship between Australia and the Middle East will continue to grow and build on existing trade relations to incorporate new fields of collaboration in education, good governance, culture and the arts. 

WPR: What role does Australia see for itself in terms of the region’s growing interest in nuclear energy?

Mansouri: Australia is home to the world’s largest known uranium reserves — 23 percent of global reserves — and is one of the largest exporters of uranium. Australia has a number of bilateral agreements to export uranium under strict safeguards that prohibit re-exporting, thereby ensuring purely peaceful use. Indeed, Australia signed a nuclear treaty with the United Arab Emirates this year to allow it to export uranium to the gulf state, which is embarking on an ambitious plan for nuclear power plants that are scheduled to begin production by 2017. The UAE is the first Middle Eastern customer for Australia’s uranium exports, and it may provide a blueprint for others in the region. Given its significant uranium resources and production capacity, Australia is keen to enter into nuclear cooperation arrangements with other Middle Eastern countries looking to add nuclear power to their energy options. 

WPR: Where are the most promising opportunities for collaboration and what might hold Australia back from developing ties with the region?

Mansouri: In addition to traditional exports, such as meat and wheat, and the emergent nuclear energy agreements, some of the most promising areas for future cooperation between Australia and the Middle East will be services, education and research partnerships. The Middle East has one of the youngest demographics in the world and is currently at a crossroads in terms of planning for significant educational and economic reforms. Australia has a wealth of diverse human capital, with a noteworthy proportion originating from the Middle East itself, and is therefore ideally placed to play a leading role in these significant socio-economic transformations.



Fethi Mansouri