Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project’s international analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues.
OPINION: Joe Biden’s controversial punchline with Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi crown prince, could help New Zealand forge its own new direction in the Middle East.
The US President’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia showed that despite genuine human rights concerns, the strategic importance of the Middle East in today’s global geopolitical puzzle cannot be ignored.
Biden’s meeting with MBS in the Saudi port city of Jeddah – four years after the horrific murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – was a triumph of realism over idealism.
Essentially, Biden’s trip was to convince Saudi Arabia to increase oil production in an attempt to bring down global fuel prices that have risen sharply since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
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Biden might have called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the killing of Khashoggi during the 2020 presidential election campaign – but Vladimir Putin is now Washington’s main opponent.
And in the Middle East itself, the threat from Iran – which the US says is poised to supply military drones to Russia for use against Ukraine – is also a higher priority for Biden. .
New Zealand policymakers will be watching Biden’s moves in the Middle East.
After all, New Zealand has also tried to rekindle its own relationship with the Gulf.
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta toured the lavish $60 million New Zealand Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during her maiden overseas trip in November. last year – and she also managed to fit into a side trip to influential Qatar while she was in the region.
Mahuta has ostensibly avoided a trip to Riyadh, but Biden’s meeting with MBS will be a signal to New Zealand and other Western countries that the time has come to bring Saudi Arabia in from the cold.
The wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – a group of six countries made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – is already New Zealand’s eighth trading partner. -Zealand.
It has the potential to become an even bigger market for New Zealand exports, especially in the key areas of meat and dairy.
Indeed, the very modest gains made by New Zealand for meat and dairy products in its recent free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union mean that improved trade with other key markets – like the Middle East – is more important than ever.
As Western attitudes towards China have deteriorated, New Zealand ministers have been keen to make trade diversification a top priority.
To that end, Trade Minister Damien O’Connor undertook a major mission to the Gulf in March to try to reinvigorate New Zealand’s troubled free trade negotiations with the GCC.
An agreement with the bloc was signed in 2009 but remains unratified on the Gulf side.
The last big push to try to get the deal done came in 2015, under the previous national government, when Prime Minister John Key visited Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Around the same time, the ill-fated “Saudi Sheep Deal” was engineered by Key’s Foreign Secretary Murray McCully in an unsuccessful attempt to appease a prominent Saudi investor upset by the ban by the New Zealand to export live sheep by sea.
The deal involved New Zealand flying in significant quantities of cash and sheep, but it largely ended in embarrassment – and did not result in the FTA that New Zealand Zeeland was looking for.
An acrimonious split within the Gulf in the years that followed – which saw Qatar isolated by several GCC members – subsequently ruled out any further progress on the deal on the Gulf side. But those divisions were largely resolved last year.
Fast forward to the New Zealand Labor government in 2022, and O’Connor’s journey has been surprisingly successful.
It resulted in FTA negotiations between New Zealand and the GCC restarted.
But despite this success, New Zealand made surprisingly little fanfare of O’Connor’s successful foray into the Gulf.
Although the trip was announced as part of wider international travel plans, no press release on the results was issued after the minister’s trip. O’Connor’s report to Cabinet on the trip has yet to be made public.
The minister also referred to the talks with the GCC in a speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) in May.
In the speech, O’Connor said New Zealand would focus on “goods market access” in the negotiations, but would also seek “to update and modernize the agreement” in other areas. such as labor and environmental standards.
Arab media provide additional details of O’Connor’s movements during his trip in March.
A March 8 Bahrain News Agency report said a meeting between O’Connor and GCC Secretary General Dr. Nayef Falah Al Hajraf “discussed ways to strengthen economic and investment relations between the GCC countries and New Zealand”.
A few days later, the same media reported that New Zealand had signed a “strategic partnership for food security” with the United Arab Emirates.
The Arabic-language news site Al-Ain even produced an elaborate infographic on the food security deal and O’Connor’s visit.
Of course, the government may have decided that a low-key approach to talks with the GCC is in New Zealand’s best interests, especially given the difficulties encountered in the past.
But another reason to keep a low profile domestically almost certainly has to do with sensitivities over the involvement of Saudi Arabia, by far the GCC’s most populous country and its driving force.
In addition to New Zealand’s concerns over Khashoggi’s murder in 2018, a political storm erupted in early 2021 when it was revealed that Air New Zealand – of which the New Zealand government owns 51% – had repaired engines for the Saudi army, despite Riyadh playing a leading role in the war in Yemen.
At the time, Jacinda Ardern called the arrangement “completely bogus” and said it hadn’t “passed the New Zealand sniff test”. Air New Zealand summarily terminated the arrangement and returned the remaining parts with the incomplete repairs.
Eighteen months later, the GCC seems willing to turn the page and reconsider a trade deal with New Zealand.
But just as MBS expected Joe Biden to meet him in exchange for Saudi Arabia pumping more oil, he will likely expect Jacinda Ardern to personally travel to the Middle East to seal any free-market deal. exchange with the GCC.
Of course, New Zealand has considerable experience in balancing human rights and trade issues through its careful handling of relations with China.
And while Joe Biden received heavy criticism for his trip, the visit also gave the US president the opportunity to discuss the murder of Jamal Khashoggi directly with MBS – and call the murder “scandalous” while Biden was on Saudi soil.
Will Jacinda Ardern now follow Joe Biden’s lead – and punch MBS?