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UAE-Australia relations: Growth beyond recognition

Pablo Kang.JPG

From humble beginnings, UAE-Australia relations now among strongest.

The Australian embassy in Abu Dhabi opened in 1996, representing just a "handful" of Australian companies and citizens present in the UAE. Over the decades, the relationship between the two countries has grown beyond recognition, largely driven by aviation.

Pablo Kang, the Australian ambassador to Abu Dhabi, now at the end of his four-year term in the UAE capital, talked to Khaleej Times about how strong this relationship has become.

How would you describe the bilateral relations between the UAE and Australia?

They are very solid, growing and multifaceted, based on many different sectors, not focus on one particular area. It's a relationship not defined by geography; we are not close neighbours, but the fact that we are having a strategic relationship demonstrates what can be achieved despite the limits of distance. As I often have said during my time here, the relationship I think it's really defined by commercial aviation.

We currently have 266 flights every week between the UAE and Australia with four airlines that fly - two Australian and two UAE airlines. What that has meant over the years is that people were brought closer together. There are approximately 23,000 Australians living in the UAE and that would make the UAE the ninth-largest host country for Australians.

We have 360 Australian companies that are registered in this country, we presently have roughly 700 to 800 registered UAE students in Australia, mainly studying at universities for masters or PhD degrees. Last year we had about 320,000 Australians who visited Abu Dhabi or Dubai, which is a very high number considering our population. We have two Australian airlines that have strategic partnerships with the UAE airlines; I'm talking about Qantas and Emirates, also Etihad and Virgin Australia.

Are we strong trade partners?

We have a very healthy trade relationship. The UAE is our 15th-largest trading partner, our largest in the Middle East and North Africa by a long way. It's about $8.6 billion for 2014; part of that, $3.6 billion were in exports from Australia to the UAE, which are numbers that we haven't seen since before the global financial crises of 2008.

Last year was also record year for Australian services exports to the UAE at $700 million, mainly in the transportation sector.

The UAE is now our 10th-largest foreign direct investment partner; the UAE invests quite a lot in tourism infrastructure, transport infrastructure, ports, roads, airlines and hotels in Australia. In 2014 FDI from the UAE was $14.6 billion and the total UAE investment in Australia was around $26 billion, and the appetite is still there and growing.

In fact, only a few weeks ago the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority was successful as part of a consortium to purchase a major electricity network in Australia, which was sold for $10.5 billion and Abu Dhabi's stake on that was about 20 per cent. We as an embassy help to facilitate the appetite for investments in two ways. Firstly by running every year a series of seminars in Australia to encourage Australian companies to trade with the Gulf states, primarily with the UAE. Also every year we do a similar thing in the Gulf, trying to promote Australia as an investment destination for the UAE and other Gulf states.

What is going on in the education sector?

There is a lot going on... In education, we still get a lot of Emirati students going to Australia. Last year we signed a memorandum of understanding with the UAE, which covers higher education, and also vocational education and scientific research. On the back of that MoU we've seen a lot of increased activity from Australian universities, looking to enter into either research or commercial relationships with UAE institutions.

We are also involved in the Summer Abroad programme, run by the Abu Dhabi Education Council, which sends high school students from the UAE to Australia. We were the first country to be involved in that programme and it's ongoing.

We have two quite successful universities, both in Dubai: the University of Wollongong, which is actually the oldest non-federal university in the UAE at 23 years old and established in 1993; and Murdoch University, which is newer. Together they have well over 5,000 students currently enrolled. In the high school sector we have two Australian schools in Sharjah and there are active plans to build and operate another school in Abu Dhabi.

The region's security is high on the UAE agenda. Does it match the Australian views?

We've long had a very good defence cooperation programme with the UAE. Obviously, more recently both our countries have been concerned about the rise of unrest, principally in Syria and Iraq.

Is there room to expand relations in the future?

I think there is a lot of potential for relations to grow in the future. Even though the trade investment is very strong, I think there are ways to institutionalise that, so we can have more regular dialogue especially between our respective governments and between companies.

One thing that we have left to the airlines to do, but haven't done much ourselves, is to promote Australia as a tourism destination. We really haven't done enough of that as a government.

I think there is clearly a lot of opportunity to engage in the innovation agenda; the UAE announced its innovation strategy last year, and recently we had the innovation week, so obviously the leadership places a key priority on innovation across all sectors.

Our prime minister also just earlier this month announced our national innovation strategy and I think there is plenty of opportunity to collaborate with the UAE since it's such a high priority for both our countries, and, of course, it also has a spin off in terms of education.

Source : Khaleej Times