New Zealand’s surprising relationship with the Middle East

Geoffrey Miller looks at New Zealand’s growing relationship with the Middle East and North Africa – and contemplates its future

Amidst New Zealand’s level 4 coronavirus lockdown in March, all but a handful of the country’s troops stationed in Iraq returned home, three months earlier than scheduled. The New Zealand personnel had been deployed to Camp Taji since 2015 to train Iraqi soldiers, as part of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS.

The end to the deployment was officially unrelated to Covid-19, but it was heavily overshadowed by it. Yet the overall lack of fanfare was perhaps also symbolic of New Zealand’s relationship with the Middle East as a whole. Outside times of crisis – such as when Isis’s territorial gains posed a major threat in 2014 and 2015, leading to New Zealand’s military deployment – the region receives relatively little attention from New Zealand foreign policy watchers. But behind the scenes, New Zealand-Middle East relations are quietly deepening. What does the surprising history of the relationship tell us – and what could the future look like?

Military deployments

No other region comes close to the Middle East in terms of the number and range of New Zealand troops deployed over the past century. In World War I, troops from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were diverted to Egypt for training and to defend the Suez Canal. And in World War II, Egypt again became the centre of New Zealand’s contribution, this time in the North African Campaign. Commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, this time New Zealand’s soldiers were based mainly at a camp in Maadi, now a comparatively leafy Cairo suburb. Many were subsequently deployed to fight against Axis forces, including Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, throughout Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Some 10,000 of New Zealand’s forces were either killed or wounded during the brutal desert campaign.

Less well-known is New Zealand’s varied military commitment to the Middle East following World War II, which has taken on a very different form. In the 1980s and 1990s, New Zealand military personnel were deployed to assist in operations related to the Iran-Iraq War (1988), the Gulf War (1991) and the Somali Civil War (1992-1995). But even earlier than this, New Zealand’s modern peacekeeping role – which later rose to prominence in East Timor and Bougainville – was pioneered and developed as part of multilateral deployments in the Middle East. In the border regions of Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Syria, New Zealand soldiers have served as observers in the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) since 1954 – making it New Zealand’s longest-running military deployment.

And since 1982, New Zealand troops have also been part of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), a similar peacekeeping mission in Egypt. The MFO was established in 1982 to patrol the Sinai Peninsula, after it was returned to Egypt as part of its peace treaty with Israel under the 1978 Camp David Accords. In August, both the UNTSO and MFO deployments were extended until 2022 by then Minister of Defence Ron Mark – who had himself served as a soldier during an early NZ deployment to the MFO in the early 1980s. Mark’s interest in the Middle East must have been piqued: later in the 1980s, he joined the Sultan’s Special Forces in Oman.

In addition to the UNTSO and MFO deployments, a small number of NZDF personnel are currently or have recently been deployed in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait and Qatar, mostly in strategic or intelligence roles in connection with the anti-Isis mission, also referred to as Operation Inherent Resolve. In the wider region, the deployment of New Zealand troops to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) – led by former Labour leader David Shearer – was also recently extended until 2022. And until the end of 2020, New Zealand still has a small presence in Afghanistan, a deployment which has been clouded by the controversy over Operation Burnham.

The numbers for these deployments are invariably small – the MFO is the biggest, at 28 troops. But New Zealand’s small size means that its military deployments will always be driven as much by symbolism as muster numbers. Moreover, even New Zealand’s much bigger allies and partners have been keen in recent years to limit their own boots on the ground – as illustrated by the recent US announcement that it would cut remaining troops in Iraq just 2,500.

In New Zealand’s case, the overall bipartisan nature of the military commitments has been particularly notable. Perhaps with the exception of a debate over New Zealand’s contribution to the 2003 Iraq War, governments from both left and right have taken a remarkably consistent approach to military engagement in the Middle East for many decades.

Not just about war

New Zealand’s regular post-war military deployments to the Middle East are a clear point of difference vis-à-vis the country’s relationship with Asia. But New Zealand’s trade relationship with the Middle East has also been quietly growing – a development that has gradually been matched by the expansion of diplomatic ties.

Some of the growth can be explained by the highly complementary nature of the New Zealand and Middle Eastern economies. Crude oil sourced from Gulf countries – mainly from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Qatar – supply much of New Zealand’s needs, while New Zealand has its own advantages from being the proverbial ’Saudi Arabia of milk’.

But perhaps surprisingly, it was Iran that provided New Zealand with its first major foothold in Middle East trade. The relationship with Tehran began with a chance meeting between Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk and Iran’s foreign minister at the UN in New York in 1973. Further talks ensued, the Shah visited Wellington in 1974 and New Zealand opened its first embassies in the Middle East, in Tehran and Baghdad, in 1975.

In the early days, New Zealand’s trade with Iran proved to be particularly lucrative. A boom in sales of NZ lamb to Iran endured throughout the 1970s and 1980s – assisted by the industry’s willingness to develop halal certification programmes. Over a quarter of New Zealand’s meat exports are now halal, according to the Meat Industry Association. The Iran trade outlasted the Islamic Revolution in 1979, although more recent US and international sanctions have largely halted it. Still, the brief removal of all sanctions between 2016 and 2018 showed what is possible, with exports to Iran immediately surging to $NZ200m annually.

Nearly 50 years after New Zealand opened its first embassies, primary exports to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region remain crucial. Algeria – where New Zealand does not even have an embassy – is currently the world’s third-biggest importer of New Zealand dairy products. The country imports some $500m of NZ goods annually and exports little in return, providing New Zealand with a rare large trade surplus. New Zealand dairy products are also very popular in countries such as Egypt – where New Zealand-made Anchor butter is a staple in supermarket fridges.

And in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates ranks as one of New Zealand’s top ten trading partners globally. In part, this is due to Dubai’s clearing-house role in regional trade, mirroring Singapore’s position in Asia. In aviation, Emirates, the UAE’s flag carrier, began its first services to New Zealand in 2003, adding direct flights in 2016, while Qatar Airways also flew to Auckland from Doha before services were suspended after the outbreak of Covid-19.

Diplomatic posts and high-level visits

Reflecting growth in the Middle East relationship, New Zealand has gradually expanded its diplomatic presence in the region, opening embassies to Saudi Arabia (1985), Turkey (1993), Egypt (2007) and the UAE (2011).

Meanwhile, from the other direction, Israel re-opened an embassy in Wellington in 2010. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia opened an embassy to New Zealand in 2017, with the UAE and Kuwait also opening missions around the same time. This means that as of 2020, seven Middle Eastern countries have embassies in Wellington – Egypt, Iran, Israel, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE. New Zealand has reciprocal embassies in the capitals of all of these countries, except Israel and Kuwait, which it serves via accredited ambassadors in Ankara and Riyadh respectively.

However, New Zealand Prime Ministers have visited the Middle East relatively rarely. Helen Clark opened New Zealand’s embassy during a visit to Cairo in 2007 and also visited Iraq, the UAE and Turkey during her tenure. In 2015, John Key became the first NZ PM to visit Saudi Arabia, when he also visited Kuwait, Turkey and the UAE. More visits – in both directions – have been made at foreign minister level. The 2019 Christchurch mosque attacks also prompted a number of high-profile visitors from the Middle East to New Zealand, including by the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, and the Jordanian Crown Prince, Prince El Hassan Bin Talal.

Lessons from the ‘Saudi sheep deal’

Along with the gradual expansion of diplomatic ties and trade relationships, New Zealand appeared to have achieved a major success when it signed an in-principle free trade agreement (FTA) with the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 2009. However, ratification from the GCC members (United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain) proved to be elusive. The stalemate resulted in a new push for final approval by New Zealand in 2013, a move which was accompanied by the release of a new strategy document called  ‘Opening doors to the Gulf region: The New Zealand Inc Strategy’. John Key’s visit to the Gulf two years later, in 2015, was clearly aimed at finally sealing the deal.

However, Key’s 2015 visit was evidently not enough on its own, leading NZ foreign minister Murray McCully to launch an unorthodox new approach around the same time. It involved exporting 900 pregnant sheep to Saudi Arabia, with the aim of pacifying an influential Saudi investor who was unhappy with NZ’s ban on live sheep exports. The plan was a disaster, with hundreds of lambs dying on the farm and numerous investigations launched. In its own final assessment of McCully’s plan, finally published in February 2020, the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) was uncharacteristically blunt. Officials said the deal ‘did not provide value for money – similar arrangements should not be recommended or utilised again’.

In retrospect, the Saudi sheep affair ultimately highlighted a culture clash. McCully appeared to believe that the sheep arrangement would be a final, pragmatic ‘quick fix’ that would seal the stalled FTA deal. The sheep deal might have been viewed as a useful, practical supplement to the face time invested by John Key on his visit to the Arabian Peninsula in April 2015. Yet it seems likely that Gulf leaders viewed Key’s visit as more of a down payment – the start of a process of building a deeper relationship, rather than conclusion of one. The fact that three GCC countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE) opened embassies in Wellington during the 2015-17 period was clear evidence of their growing interest in the New Zealand relationship.

‘Ponytail’ diplomacy

Furthermore, John Key’s hosts during his 2015 visit to the Gulf may have been feeling slightly miffed. Key had cancelled an earlier scheduled visit to Saudi Arabia in 2010 at the last moment and taken a full five years to make up the visit. Moreover, Key’s 2015 tour of the Gulf came at a particularly  inauspicious time, taking place just after the then Prime Minister’s ponytail pulling episode, which had brought embarrassing international headlines.

More generally, unlike New Zealand, the GCC was extremely cautious when considering free trade arrangements. To date, it has ratified only two FTAs – one with Singapore and the other with the small EFTA bloc centred on Norway and Switzerland. Singapore’s deal, ratified in 2013, had been the culmination of years of shuttle diplomacy from the country’s leaders and diplomats. Singapore hosted state visits by the Saudi Crown Prince in 2006 and the Emir of Qatar in 2005 and 2009 – efforts that New Zealand never sought to replicate.

Short-term thinking?

More generally, New Zealand’s short-term, transactional approach to the GCC deal was at odds with Gulf culture, which naturally encourages face time and the fostering of longer-term relationships. With New Zealand’s focus now firmly on the Pacific, the Middle East – and the GCC FTA deal – appear to have been relegated down New Zealand’s list of foreign policy priorities. Current MFAT planning documents, including its 2020-2024 strategic intentions overview and the 2018-19 annual report, make little mention of the Middle East. And even the 2013 Gulf strategy document now appears to have been removed – whether intentionally, or accidentally – from the MFAT website. The Middle East appears to be now firmly back on New Zealand’s periphery.

A longer-term strategy

What would a longer-term strategy look like? Some lessons can be learned from New Zealand’s increased engagement with Asia since the 1980s. While some of this has been the result of a ‘colourblind’ immigration policy introduced in 1987, it has also been partly the result of a sustained, research-driven effort to understand the continent better. The centrepiece of this was the establishment of the Asia 2000 Foundation in 1994, later renamed the Asia New Zealand Foundation. It has the simple aim of increasing New Zealanders’ ‘knowledge and understanding of Asia’.

Since then, a number of smaller complementary initiatives have been launched, including the New Zealand China Council, the Contemporary China Research Centre, the New Zealand Asia Institute, the Centres of Asia-Pacific Excellence, as well as several Confucius Institutes. In the context of public spending, none of these initiatives are particularly expensive. Most survive on a mix of public and private funding, including from existing university budgets. Even the most prestigious initiative, the Asia New Zealand Foundation, receives only a modest $5m in annual government grants.

The success of the push has been clear. The biggest prize remains the 2008 FTA signed with China, a deal that has injected billions of dollars in additional spending into the New Zealand economy. But more subtly, Asia New Zealand Foundation’s own survey results have shown steady increases in the number of New Zealanders who believe they ‘know a fair amount about Asia’. The proportion reached a majority (51%) for the first time in 2019. By contrast, the same surveys reveal that New Zealanders’ knowledge of the Middle East is much lower. In 2019, only 27% percent believed they knew ‘a fair amount’, while nearly a fifth of respondents said they knew nothing at all. That figure was just six percent when respondents were asked about Asia.

Language skills

A natural place for New Zealand to start increasing its engagement with the Middle East would be in language skills. Of the six official UN languages, Arabic is the only one not to be taught by a New Zealand institution. The picture is very different in Australia, where Arabic is taught at no fewer than half a dozen universities and at a number of specialist centres, most notably the Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

While Australia’s larger size and greater Middle Eastern immigrant population may go some way to explaining its greater interest, it is worth noting that Nordic countries of a similar size to New Zealand also have significant Arabic and Middle Eastern programmes. Major specialist centres are based at universities in Oslo, Helsinki and Lund in Sweden.

In New Zealand’s case, the small, yet growing number of Arabic speakers in the country could help with any new programme. Driven in part by the increased intake of Syrian refugees, NZ’s Arabic speakers have increased from 7,959 in 2001 to 12,399 in the 2018 census. A university Arabic programme would have the immediate and very useful benefit of providing linguistic training for potential NZ diplomats. But following the model of the Asia New Zealand foundation, the aim would also be to disseminate knowledge more widely amongst the community.

The future

While there are lessons New Zealand can learn from its experience with Asia, it would be a mistake to think that it could simply apply the same approach to its relationship with the Middle East. The elephant in the room is that while Asia is largely at peace, many parts of the Middle East and North Africa remain in turmoil. Long-running civil wars continue to be waged in Syria and Yemen, while Libya is only just coming out of one. Algeria and Sudan remain politically unstable after popular revolutions in 2019.  Even the relatively prosperous and safe Gulf countries have become embroiled in their own internal dispute since 2017, with the boycott and isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE.

Currently, New Zealand has little institutional expertise in any of these issues. By adopting a research-driven approach and increasing its knowledge of the Middle East and North Africa, New Zealand would be better positioned to be a ‘good global citizen’. In the short term, and less altruistically, a better understanding of the histories, languages and cultures of the region would help New Zealand to build and expand its already highly useful and significant trade relationships. But eventually, the development of knowledge and skills could also see New Zealand play a bigger diplomatic role as a conflict mediator, following the model of similarly-sized Nordic countries. Greater knowledge and skills would allow New Zealand to take on more responsibility – with the long-term goal being a more peaceful, more stable and ultimately more prosperous Middle East.

This article was originally published on the Democracy Project.

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