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Australia eyes free-trade deal with UAE as ’launchpad’ for access to Middle East

Daily Star, Beirut, 17 March 2005

Australia eyes free-trade deal with U.A.E. as ’launchpad’ for access to Middle East

Trade ministers hope to nail down bilateral agreement by 2006

By Agence France Presse (AFP)

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

CANBERRA: Australia and the United Arab Emirates agreed Tuesday to begin negotiations on a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) that Canberra said would be a "launchpad" for expanded business opportunities across the Middle East. Trade Minister Mark Vaile announced the decision alongside his U.A.E counterpart, Sheikha Lubna Khalid al-Qassimi, following two days of talks and officials said the goal was to complete a deal by next year.

"Australian exporters can expect big gains and opportunities from a prospective free- trade agreement with the Emirates," he said.

"The Emirates is a regional financial and transportation hub, the Singapore of the Middle East if you like, and a launchpad into the Gulf and Middle East markets."

The ministers said they had agreed to work toward securing a substantial, comprehensive FTA covering goods, services and investment.

The move marks the first attempt by Australia to reach a free trade accord with a Middle East nation.

The conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard has recently signed FTAs with the United States, Thailand and Singapore and is currently negotiating alongside New Zealand on an FTA with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Howard is also expected to announce the launch of free trade talks with China during a trip to Beijing next month and plans are under way to enter negotiations with Malaysia.

The oil-rich U.A.E is Australia’s second largest trading partner in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia, with two-way trade in 2004 totalling some $2.9 billion.

The U.A.E imports large quantities of Australian motor vehicles, agricultural commodities and metals while Australian purchases from the U.A.E are dominated by petroleum and, to a growing extent, liquefied natural gas.

"Our economies are broadly complementary and both countries will benefit from a reduction in barriers under an FTA," Vaile said.

Qassimi also said the free-trade agreement could lead to broader business opportunities for Australia in her region.

"We think this particular FTA would probably help in getting a pan-Gulf area of trade agreement," she told reporters.

As the U.A.E is already a low-tariff nation, most of the focus is expected to be on the services sector.

Sheikha Lubna said that since the U.A.E already had low tariffs on imported merchandise, it was looking to extend links into Australia, including in financial services, universities and petro-chemicals.

"Instead of focusing on sectors of commodities, we are actually working through the services. And the interesting thing about the services you can always create more as you go along," she said.

In ministerial talks alongside Tuesday’s meeting on trade, U.A.E Transportation Minister Sultan Bin Saeed al-Mansouri sought to increase access to the Australian market for Dubai-based carrier Emirates Airlines.

Emirates already has access to Perth, Melbourne and Sydney, but wants better access, particularly into the growing tourist destination of Brisbane.

"There is a continuous demand for the number of flights that is needed for the different destinations in Australia and beyond," he said.

The two sides also agreed to cooperate in the battle against international financial fraud and illegal securities activities.

 source: Daily Star