Strengthening links with the Arab world

AUSTRALIA’S Arab community has welcomed the Federal Government’s plan to establish a Council for Australian-Arab Relations (CAAR), which is aimed at strengthening ties and understanding between Australia and Arab countries.

Executive officer of the WA chapter of the Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AACCI), Marilyn Newton, said she was unaware of the development and had certainly not been involved in the planning process. The national body, however, has worked closely with the Government on the proposal.

AACCI national executive director Tony Knight said the chamber had been involved for more than 12 months “pushing” the Government to establish the CAAR with a view to complementing its trade development activities.

“The formal discussions have been taking place since March last year and we certainly welcome the announcement, particularly given the current situation in the Middle East and our wish to keep a positive view of Australia’s great trade potential,” Mr Knight said.

The council members will be drawn from business, government and the academic community, following recommendations made by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade published last year in a review of Australia’s relations with the Middle East.

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said the establishment of CAAR was timely in the light of terrorism concerns.

He said it “would confirm that Australia had great respect and admiration for Islam, highly valued its own Muslim communities and looked forward to closer links with Arab countries”.

Total merchandise exports to the region grew almost 40 per cent in 2001.

Mr Knight said Mr Downer was still approaching the appointees to the council, with a full announcement expected in the next few weeks.

“We will be in a better position to formally comment once all the details become official – the information we currently hold is embargoed until the minister makes his next announcement,” Mr Knight said

However, he said the chamber was fully supportive of the council and saw it as a step toward developing longer term trade, cultural, tourism and bilateral relationships with the countries of the Arab League.

Two-way trade with the Middle East was valued at close to $10 billion in 2001-02, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Composition of Trade 2001-02 released late last year.

The balance is in Australia’s favour, with exports to the region valued at $7.7 billion, while imported goods from the Middle East were valued at $2.9 billion during the 2001-02 year.

The principle export was passenger motor vehicle sales of $1.8 billion, while the live animal trade was valued at $578 million during the 2001-02 year.

Imports from the region were dominated by crude petroleum sales. Of the $2.9 billion of imports, petroleum accounted for $1.3 billion, down from $2.2 billion the year previously.

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