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Rise of the xenophobe could see Australia miss the boat on Middle Eastern trade

July 25, 2002, Sydney Morning Herald, Roland Jabbour

The threat by Iraq to halve wheat exports from Australia as a result of its unmitigated support for a United States war on Iraq should surprise no-one. The Australian Arabic Council has been warning for years of the possible effects of Australia's "America first" foreign policy. For some time now, Australia's stance towards the Arab world has not reflected its strategic interests. Rather it alienates those in the Arab world who see Australia as blindly following the US in the absence of its own independent policies. And what does it get for its support of the US? More subsidies for American farmers, damaging Australian trade. Possible cuts to Iraqi imports of Australian wheat, damaging Australian trade. The Government's handling of refugees, Iraqi sanctions, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the war on terrorism is creating an extremely negative perception in international trade circles. Policies on crime, terrorism and asylum seekers have legitimised the stereotyping of local Arabic and Muslim communities, fuelling the increase in racial vilification, which if not condemned and tackled strongly by government, will further erode trade relations between our regions. Many businesses in the region have already expressed their concern directly to their Australian colleagues at the rise in racism and xenophobia in this country. Australia's perceived intolerance is threatening current contracts and its chances of increasing trade share in one of the world's fastest-growing and significant markets. About 30 per cent of Australia's wheat, flour, grains, dairy products and meat exports are sent to the Middle East, which is the fourth-largest trading bloc among Australia's trading partners. The total value of Australia's trade with the Middle East has more than doubled in the past decade. Over the past five years, Victorian exports to Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have more than doubled to more than $1.6 billion. We must support this growth. It is encouraging that Australia's trade with the region has expanded from primary goods to service industries such as health, education, technology and infrastructure. Further regional trade opportunities, particularly development needs, are there for Australia's taking. The Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce and Industry has experienced a rapid expansion of membership since the Asian economic downturn, and submissions to the 2001 federal Inquiry into Australia's Relations with the Middle East showed that in trade terms the Middle East is more important to Australia than we are to it. However, the Government's lack of commitment to trade with the Arab region is manifested both in the way in which Government policy continues to reflect traditional ties, and the lack of enthusiasm and investment in the region. Our strict visa controls mean people from the Arab region are finding it increasingly difficult to travel between the two regions. Wealthy tourists from the Arab world - who add much to our economy - are no longer sure if it is safe to come to Australia, given the wave of anti-Arab sentiment that has swept through much of the country. Business must use its lobbying power to halt the Government's dangerous rhetoric on people of Arabic and Muslim backgrounds. We must teach more about Arabic culture in our schools to eliminate simplistic stereotypes and recognise the importance of the Arabic language, which links 22 countries. We must capitalise on the 600,000 Arabic-speaking people in Australia and use their knowledge and contacts in the region to further relations. Ties with countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Egypt are close, and these countries have enormous potential for Australian exports and services. Our Government must confirm its commitment in resources, policies, programs and initiatives that will enhance existing growth and establish a strategic map and long-term plan for future relations with the Arab world. We must also develop and maintain independent foreign policy towards the Arab world. Central to this is the implementation of recommendations of last year's inquiry, including the establishment of more diplomatic posts in the region and support for those who are seeking to trade with the Arab world. Our Government appears not to have realised the seriousness of the current "race debate" in Australia. In a country that was once known for its proud diversity, multi- culturalism and human rights record, we are now being perceived internationally as a divisive nation that has used minority groups as scapegoats. The impact of this on our relationship with the Arab world is similar to the effect of the uproar which surrounded the comments of Pauline Hanson some years ago on trade with Asia. We must address and mend this perception and capitalise on trade opportunities before other countries do. Indeed, it is in our national interest. ​ Roland Jabbour is chairman of the Australian Arabic Council.

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