ABU DHABI // Relations between the UAE and Australia are good but there is "more to do", with the emphasis on trade and security, the Australian foreign minister said in Abu Dhabi yesterday. Greater co-operation on defence and security is expected as the two countries seek to strengthen ties, the foreign ministers of both countries agreed yesterday at a meeting in the capital.
Traditionally, relations between the UAE and Australia have hinged on trade and more recently on education and tourism. "What is under-appreciated is the defence and security arrangements," Stephen Smith, the Australian minister, said during a media briefing at the Emirates Palace hotel. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that the relationship between the two countries was "developing and improving on all levels".
Mr Smith is here for the inaugural Australia-UAE Dialogue, a two-day event bringing together business, government, media and academic leaders from both countries, to discuss bilateral relations and common challenges. The dialogue is dealing not only with trade issues, but also the more strategic aspects of the relationship. Currently, the two countries are party to a Defence Cooperation Agreement. "This will only be enhanced," Mr Smith said.
Many parallels existed in the countries' approaches to global issues, including climate change and security challenges, the ministers said, referring specifically to Iran and the situation in Afghanistan, where both countries have troops. Discussing the recent direct appeal to Iran by President Barack Obama of the US, in which he outlined his administration's call for more engagement, Sheikh Abdullah said that change was required from both sides.
"Reaching out to Tehran we view as positive and we have had several different dialogues with the current administration on the best ways to engage with Iran," he said. "Engaging with Iran should be encouraged and supported." More engagement could lead to greater levels of openness, particularly regarding the country's nuclear programme, which constituted an international and regional concern. "I would encourage Iran to look at President Obama's speech in a very positive way, which should not be viewed as a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength," Sheikh Abdullah said.
The UAE and Australia's relationship, Mr Smith said, was not just one of strong trade ties, but also a strong defence and security alliance. On top of the military relationship in Afghanistan, the UAE is also committed to helping to rebuild the country. "We are also on good terms talking about regional matters, especially Afghanistan and Pakistan," Sheikh Abdullah said. "Our soldiers are working closely in Afghanistan and we are proud of this."
The ministers spoke of similar views on other critical regional issues, including the question of a Palestinian state. Sheikh Abdullah described the appointment of President Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, as a positive sign. "It is important for the friends of Israel and the friends of the Palestinians to send the right message to their friends to achieve statehood for the Palestinians, which would result in positive implications for the entire region," he said.
Plans are being developed for a dialogue between all GCC countries and Australia at the ministerial level, which Sheikh Abdullah hoped would take place soon. Similarly, he stressed the importance of finalising the pending free trade agreement between the region and Australia. The GCC is now Australia's ninth-largest export market, accounting for US$3.8billion (Dh20bn) in exports. Mr Smith said there was also significant "people to people" contact between the two countries, with more than 15,000 Australians living in the UAE, and 30,000 Emiratis visiting Australia every year. A further 1,500 Emirati students attend Australian universities.
The two nations are also discussing more co-operation on renewable energy and efforts to combat climate change. In January Masdar, Abu Dhabi's future energy initiative, became a founding member of the Australian government's Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute. "The UAE and Australia are both committed to using scientific research to understand and address climate change," Mr Smith said. The Australia-UAE Dialogue opened on Sunday with a dinner attended by Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the Minister of Foreign Trade, and Australian participants including Jeremy Bruer, the Australian ambassador to the UAE and Professor Fred Hilmer, the vice chancellor of the University of New South Wales.
"The UAE is one of Australia's largest trading partners in the Middle East, and its 13th largest overall," Sheikha Lubna said during her speech. "Considering our relative size, that is a particularly striking statistic. In fact, in all of the areas in which we do co-operate, the UAE and Australia do it very well." The dialogue was organised by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a Sydney-based think tank, under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces.
Mr Smith's trip is the latest in a series of recent high-level Australian visits to the capital. Earlier this year Quentin Bryce, the country's governor-general, visited the UAE and in December Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, made a two-day stop here. The next Australia-UAE Dialogue is expected to take place in Sydney in 2010. email@example.com