Country Focus: Australia’s super business delegation visits GCC

Qatar has slipped below Australia’s investment and business radar for some time. But a recent superbusiness delegation from one of Australia’s most populated states and a new diplomatic interest has signalled a new awareness in what Qatar can offer the ‘Lucky Country’. Rachel Morris reports.

With its lush rolling hills and farmland, the Australian state of Victoria is about as far away from the desert peninsula of Qatar that anyone can imagine. But the two small states have forged a new business relationship and an aggressive strategy is set to bear fruit in coming months. Last month a delegation of more than 100 Victorian businesses left the state’s capital Melbourne bound for the Middle East. First stop was Doha. It was the start of an Australian ‘Invasion’. Coming hot on the heels of the ‘Super Delegation’ was a visit in late February by a team from the business-oriented Australian Gulf Council, led by former Australian deputy prime minister Mark Vaile.

Just days before the Victorian delegation, the northern state of Queensland’s special adviser on trade, Loftus Harris visited Doha in search of opportunities and partnerships. And, within two weeks of his appointment, new Australian Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar, Pablo Kang, visited Doha to meet Australian companies and citizens living here, signalling a new diplomatic imperative.

Australia has shied away from Qatar in recent years, preferring instead to focus on the UAE and other markets like Saudi Arabia for its goods and services. But the tide has turned and in January and it was announced that the Australian government was working with Qatar to set up their embassy in Canberra in 2012.

It is fair to say Qatar and its great potential is well and truly on the radar of Australian governments and businesses. Leading the charge is the southern state of Victoria.

Victoria is the bread basket of Australia and the largest food exporting state – it is home to more than 2000 food processing companies and produces goods valued at around AUD9 billion (QR35.2 billion) a year. Qatar, a country with very little in terms of local production, is an ideal market for companies.

The Victorian delegation focused on food and beverage producers, events specialists and engineering and infrastructure – all areas that Qatar is keen for imports, business relationships and assistance.

Leader of the Victorian delegation, Louise Asher, state minister for innovation, services and small business, says it is indicative of the growing interest in the region generally.

“It’s the largest ever trade mission out of Australia,” Asher told TheEDGE. “It shows that people are on the lookout for investment opportunities. The fact that we are starting the mission in Qatar is sending a signal.“

Asher says the Victorian government is able to support companies in her state in a ‘structured’ way on trade missions, which ultimately benefit the economy’s bottom line.

”We are trying to embark on a fairly aggressive trade engagement programme,” says Asher. “What we are trying to do is a signal to these companies in that we are trying to assist them in markets where they might need assistance.”

Currently Victoria’s trade with Qatar sits at AUD180 million (QR701.2 million) and with some of the state’s biggest names including the renowned Bega Cheese, Dairy Australia, Ararat Meat exports and engineering powerhouse SMEC taking part, the ante is set to be upped.

This assistance for smaller companies involves assistance in setting up appointments and the all-important access to decision  makers.

“In terms of access in emerging markets (some companies) need a bit of support and assistance from the government and a state government is able to do that,” she says. “For a lot of small companies, our home markets aren’t large enough.”

This point is echoed by John Butler, the commissioner for Victoria – Middle East and North Africa, Victorian Government Business Office, which has been established in Dubai for 15 years.

Butler says the volume of interest expressed by Victorian companies to take part in the trade delegation was strong.

“We work closely with a lot of these companies, they may have attended other trade missions to China and other markets. The response was overwhelming,” he says.

Minister Asher said the companies taking part played to the strengths that Qatar is trying to develop in coming decades.

“We have food and infrastructure businesses and one of the things that we are hoping to look at is that Australia has a range of events expertise,” she says.

“And obviously not only do we hold them, we manufacture the seating, know how to run events because we know how to run big events like the Melbourne Cup and the (Australian Football League) Grand Final and the (Formula One) Grand Prix.

“So given the FIFA World Cup there might be some opportunities for our business and also opportunities for Qatar to get tried and tested product.”

Another area of expertise is the Meetings Incentive Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) market, which Qatar is trying to develop to enhance tourism and diversify beyond oil and gas revenues.

“MICE is something we’re actually quite good at. We’ve [the State of Victoria] written a significant amount of business in the MICE market, around AUD200 million (QR770.9 million) in MICE events in recent months,” she says. “We’re happy to share that expertise.”

In terms of Qatari investment in Australia, Qatar has already snapped up landholding in the fertile western districts of Victoria as part of the country’s long-term food security plans.

“It’s a partnership developed with the owners,” John Butler says of the AUD35 million (QR136.3 million) purchase by Hassad Foods of 8000 hectares of sheep grazing and cropping land.

Minister Asher says the Victorian government, led by the conservative Liberal Party, was actively seeking investment from countries like Qatar.

Victoria has one of the world’s strongest and most resilient economies – larger than that of Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines or New Zealand

“We’re after investment in Victoria. We need foreign capital in our state. So whatever we are interested. It is a two way street. Everything is up for discussion,” Asher says.

This article first appeared in TheEDGE 4.3, March 2012.


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