Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Australian Arab Business Women’s Forum opening address

Location: Sydney

Your Excellency, Ambassador, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me also recognise the generous support for this event of the Council for Australian Arab Relations, an initiative of the Australian Government to strengthen connections between Australia and the Arab world, as well as the assistance of other sponsors.

Your contributions to this timely and important event are deeply appreciated.

It is a privilege to be with you, representing Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP. The Foreign Minister was unable to attend today, but has asked me to pass on her best wishes.

On election night on 7 September last year, Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott declared that Australia was under new management; it is open for business.

Since then, the Australian Government has put economic growth, trade and investment among its highest priorities.

We have set about implementing our very ambitious agenda to increase trade, increase investment and increase business activity.

Our foreign policy is also oriented towards growing our trade and investment opportunities – part of what we call economic diplomacy.

Indeed, the Prime Minister has identified trade and investment as key themes that Australia will look to advance as G20 Chair this year, ahead of the G20 summit we will host in Brisbane in November.

I am pleased that many of you here will share your personal experiences of establishing, building and then taking companies international – from Australia, from the Middle East and around the world.

The dynamic business relations between Australia and the Middle East show what economic diplomacy, and commitment to trade and investment more broadly, can achieve.

Some statistics provide a striking illustration.

Total two-way trade between Australia and countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council was almost $11 billion in 2013, in sectors such as infrastructure, agribusiness, tourism and services.

Joint trade with the United Arab Emirates alone now exceeds $5 billion annually.

And around 16,000 Australians are living and working in the United Arab Emirates in industries and economic sectors that are vital to the country’s future, such as health, education, financial services and construction.

Our commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia – which alone produces around one-quarter of combined GDP in the Middle East and North Africa – is another case in point.

An estimated 10,000 Saudi students are enrolled in Australia – our largest student group from the Middle East. There are exciting new opportunities in agriculture, in education and construction, to name a few sectors.

For example, the University of Wollongong, where my electorate office is located, has had a campus in Dubai for 20 years. There are now over 4,000 students with opportunities afforded for students to study both in Dubai and in Wollongong or Sydney.

Another example is the University of New England in Armidale, with its strong presence of students from the Middle East. At the recent orientation week, I met the President and members of the Saudi Student’s Club on campus and heard about some of their activities.

While much of our commercial engagement with the Arab world focuses on the Gulf – an emerging global hub and one of the world’s wealthiest and fastest growing regions – it does not stop there.

In North Africa, Australian companies are exploring opportunities in mining, in agriculture, in construction and in renewable energy.

The Government will continue to encourage Australian businesses to pursue opportunities across the Middle East and North Africa. We recognise it as a region of continuing economic and strategic importance to us.

The Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia and has affected much of the Arab world, has led in some cases to political uncertainty.

But in the longer term we are hopeful that countries in the Arab world will make a successful transition to democracy, with stronger civil societies and more diverse and open economies.

We also hope that women’s participation in these societies will grow stronger – as is evidenced by today’s event.

Because, impressive as the headline statistics are, let us not forget the contribution of women at all levels of business in the Middle East and Australia.

I am pleased that a pioneering Moroccan cosmetics entrepreneur, Mrs Khalida Azbane will share her unique experiences of business success in North Africa here today.

You will also hear from women championing business growth in Saudi Arabia and Jordan as well Australian leaders in the banking, education and tourism sectors, among others.

These experiences underline the vital – if sometimes too little known – ways in which women are building commercial links between Australia and the Arab world.

Because ultimately it is people-to-people links that foster the cultural understanding necessary for effective and enduring commercial relations between Australia and the Middle East.

Raised in a bicultural, bilingual environment, I am acutely aware not only of the importance of understanding between cultures, but also the need to bridge social and cultural gaps. Indeed, over the years I have seen women play a central role in doing so.

Women are leading Australian companies to develop opportunities in the Middle East in sectors as diverse as medical and pharmaceutical products, event management and inward investment into Australia.

According to a 2012 global wealth report published by the Boston Consulting Group, women now control approximately $80 billion in personal wealth and make decisions affecting $500 billion in cash and assets in the Middle East.

The Australian Government is proud to support this Forum as part of our broader efforts to build women’s empowerment and gender equality.

We recognise that gender equality is central to economic and human development and to supporting women’s rights.

And that equal opportunity for women and men supports economic growth and helps to reduce poverty.

Of course, the private sector is critical to generating sustainable growth and improving living standards around the world.

That is why I urge you to take advantage of the unique networking opportunities this Forum presents, and to share your stories of the successes and challenges you have faced in establishing businesses and taking them international.

I am confident that your pursuit of excellence in your respective fields can motivate more women to develop further the rich business links between Australia and the Middle East, and continue to build the relationship between our two regions in the process.

Thank you.