10 April 2014
THERE are not many trips where you get to hand the fairer sex of your party a special dress for the occasion but the ritualistic handing of the Abaya to my Chief of Staff before travelling to Saudi Arabia is one of those occasions.
The Australian nature of teasing cannot help but lend to it some levity but I realise that if I go too far on this thin ice I may ending with the apparel stapled to me.
The Middle East is a major destination for our agricultural products and has been for a long period: Wheat, barley, live-sheep, live cattle, frozen and chilled beef and mutton and dairy to name just a few.
With our attention on our Asian markets it is important for me as the Agriculture Minister to send a clear message that old friends are gold when it comes to trading relationships and in Agriculture the Middle East is definitely an old friend.
Dubai, for the part the vast majority one sees as a transit point to somewhere else, allows one to put their toe in the water culturally across the water from Saudi Arabia.
As most people who have been there would understand it’s cosmopolitan shopping mall in the desert. Because women-in-black are the status quo, it is not as eye catching as a woman in full purdah walking down the Peel Street in Tamworth.
Riyadh is five million people in a fair dinkum desert, Birdsville the size of Sydney with what appears to be about the same number of parks and green spaces as Birdsville.
The Saudis I spoke to remember a Riyadh that existed within the walls of the ancient village.
Lu Lu's owned by an Indian family is the equivalent of Woolworths or Coles. It is the race track for food from around the globe in urban Riyadh and Australian product lines up with the competition.
SPC Ardmona tinned Pears and fruit salad were also on the shelves as well as Bundaberg Ginger Beer and Picnic Bars.
The locals are annoyed with Australian carrots flooding the market but they are very popular. Lamb, mutton and beef sell very well and the local dairy processors buy milk powder and are only a heartbeat away from producing the tradie special of an ice coffee and kebab (halal style).
The tradie is most likely to be from somewhere away from Saudi Arabia, probably across the water from Pakistan, India or the Philippines.
There is one issue that did not send the right messages to the Saudis and that was the closure of the live animal trade.
They know there are issues and just as Riyadh has changed and supermarkets are being built they are changing to deal with better animal husbandry processes but patronising moral notes from Australia are not helpful.
In the end the consumer in Saudi Arabia will do a far better job than our interference. They want clean, green and humane on display whilst listening to Arab tunes and pushing a shopping trolley.
The world is becoming an increasingly small place but a small target is easy to miss. There are other markets for live sheep and they’re currently sourcing them from Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan.
Prior to leaving for the Middle East I saw 80,000 head of sheep loaded in Freemantle, Western Australia, bound for Bahrain and elsewhere.
It was the first shipment since the trade was stopped by the ban. There were ships lined up for more.
In Bahrain they were looking forward to the return to the regular relationship with what they hope is a reliable supplier.
On the Australian farm they are looking forward to real competition for the sheep they turn off.
In Riyadh they are about to build a $US20 billion underground rail network and Australians are tendering for the business so our relationship goes way beyond the farm gate.
Our official meetings in Saudi had to be brief because their Agriculture department was about to lead a delegation to New Zealand that day.
Our competition does not need a telegram to tell them that opportunity beckons.
Every meeting in the Middle East comes with a meal; camel, beef, lamb, beans, flat bread, rice, yoghurt, coffee till it hurts.
I would fill out neatly an abaya if it was culturally pertinent to wear one.
Flying back over Central Australia through the storms and observing the recently turned green paddocks of Eastern Australia reinforced what opportunities are here for us in the supply of protein and carbohydrate to a world growing in wealth and number.
A display of Australian produce in a LuLu's supermarket. The Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce is in the background on the right hand side.