Interview with Bahrain’s Al Ayam newspaper on the state of New Zealand-Gulf relations in 2024
The following article/interview originally appeared in Arabic in Bahrain’s Al Ayam newspaper on Sunday, 21 January 2024, under the headline ‘Strengthening New Zealand-Gulf relations needs to be a priority for our countries’. I have lightly edited the following English translation from Google Translate.
International political analyst at the Democracy Project at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, Geoffrey Miller, stressed to Al Ayam the importance of strengthening relations between his country and the Arab Gulf states, calling for strengthening relations with the Gulf states to be a priority on his country’s foreign policy map.
Miller – who also runs the ‘Geopolitics.nz’ consulting website, which focuses on building an understanding of the world from a New Zealand perspective – said that there is great strategic importance for the Gulf region and the Middle East in general, especially in trade, as the Gulf countries constitute the seventh largest market for New Zealand products, led by food products.
Miller – whose doctoral dissertation focuses on his country’s relations with the Arab Gulf states – believes that his country is capable of playing a role in making peace and ending the conflict in the Middle East, especially because it has credibility and is able to talk to all parties, considering that the tragic war taking place in Gaza today it must end, and we must push towards supporting the two-state solution as the only solution to end the conflict.
Below is the text of the interview:
Let me start with your tour of the Gulf region and the goal of the trip.
My trip to the Gulf states (which included Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain) is an attempt to gain a better understanding of the countries of the region, as my thesis – half of which I have completed so far – focuses on New Zealand’s relations with the Arab Gulf states in the twenty-first century. It is the first academic study to address this topic. I believe that these relations have not received their rightful attention, despite the great and strategic importance enjoyed by the Gulf countries and the region in general. There is also great commercial importance, as the Gulf countries are the seventh largest commercial market for New Zealand products. It is a very good market for New Zealand from a business perspective. Also, my thesis covers all areas of relations, including diplomatic relations and security, so in the Gulf countries I’m trying to meet government officials, academics, journalists, and businesspeople, to form an understanding, especially as I am always commenting on New Zealand foreign policy.
What about the political aspect and your impression of its impact?
As I mentioned, the Middle East region is of great importance. If you take the tragic war that the Gaza Strip is witnessing today, we see that it’s a big issue in New Zealand news as well. I believe that New Zealand is also able to play a role, even if it is seen as a small role, in order to end this conflict. As New Zealanders, we have a great interest in the dire humanitarian situation that the Gaza Strip is experiencing today in light of the great loss of life as a result of this terrible war. And even if we decide to say that there is only a trade interest in the region, and it is also in New Zealand’s interest to put an end to these conflicts. There is no doubt that the Gulf is a peaceful and stable region, but in general there is a certain level of unrest in the Middle East.
What aspects do you find encouraging when it comes to strengthening relations between your country and the Gulf?
I think the most important thing I learned from my trip here is that there is a lot of goodwill towards New Zealand. New Zealand enjoys a high level of credibility, and New Zealand has a good reputation based on trust in its products, of which products and foodstuffs constitute a large part. The measures taken by former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after the Christchurch attacks on the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in 2019 were also central to creating this impression, as well as New Zealand’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. These two topics emerged spontaneously in many of the conversations I had in the region. Therefore, I believe that this response to the horrific attack on the mosque was greatly appreciated in the Islamic world, and public sympathy for the victims of this attack shifted the incident from being a negative to a positive for New Zealand, despite this terrible tragedy in which innocent people were killed and given the many citizens who were affected as a result of this horrific act. This attack also highlighted the story of tolerance within New Zealand society. So I think that many people in this region want to know more about New Zealand.
I also hope that we will see more exchange of visits between New Zealand officials and their Gulf counterparts, as the last visit of the Prime Minister of New Zealand to the Gulf region was in 2015, and he only visited three countries at that time – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates -, so I think it is good for there to be more visits by New Zealand official figures to this region. That’s why I called for visiting the Gulf to be a priority for the New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs.
What about the prospects for boosting trade, which could be a way to strengthen relations in other areas?
Of course, I agree with you. Trade is of great importance, and New Zealand has been trying for many years to reach a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The negotiations began in 2006 and ended in 2009 without reaching a final agreement.
What is the challenge that hindered the signing of the agreement in its final form, even though the two parties reached the point of initialing the agreement documents in 2009?
This is one of the most prominent questions raised by my study, and I have spoken to many parties about this subject, and each person has a different point of view. Perhaps New Zealand should have shown greater keenness in order to reach this agreement. In the end, more effort needs to be put in to secure this agreement. But we must view the FTA as the end point and not the beginning, so better relations must be formed with the Gulf countries, especially Bahrain, which was where diplomatic relations between New Zealand and the Gulf began. New Zealand’s first diplomatic mission in the region was in Bahrain – it opened a consulate general here in 1977 and then an embassy in 1984, before it was closed in 1992.
I think there has been a shift towards other Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where several thousand New Zealanders reside and work there as doctors, teachers, and in other fields. It is true that there are a very small number of New Zealanders residing in Bahrain, but diplomatic representation and strengthening relations do not necessarily depend on the numbers of the community residing in a country, rather the economic dimension plays a major role.
In your view, do you see a positive impact of military relations on relations with countries in the region, as New Zealand is a member of the Combined Maritime Forces consisting of 39 countries to protect maritime security and freedom of navigation, and is also a participant in the “Prosperity Guardian” coalition for the security of navigation in the Red Sea?
Yes, that’s right. New Zealand has participated in the Combined Maritime Forces since the beginning and has commanded the joint missions of “CTF 150” and “CTF 151” several times. There is no doubt that this military participation creates a security link between New Zealand and Bahrain. We may not enjoy the same extent of this connection with other Gulf countries in terms of the security dimension, so this must be built upon and greatly strengthened. Bahrain’s participation in “Prosperity Guardian” is also an important issue when we talk about the importance of the Red Sea, through which about 15% of global trade passes, and the navigational threats it witnesses constitute a challenge and have negative effects on many countries in the world. Therefore, New Zealand is always called upon to play a greater role in establishing stability in the Middle East, and there is a great need to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the region.
I think it is very important for there to be a ceasefire and for the war to end, and to support international resolutions that lead to a two-state solution, which is actually the long-term solution to this conflict. New Zealand has voted in favour of resolutions supporting the two-state solution and New Zealand co-sponsored a resolution condemning the establishment of Israeli settlements in 2016. New Zealand has also played an active role in recent years to try and end this conflict.
We now have a new government. It is very important to work with countries that support peace and stability in order to end the conflict, especially since New Zealand has credibility and is able to talk to all parties. Our country can be a partner in peacemaking and I believe that security solutions are just temporary solutions. What the region needs today are long-term solutions, based on peace and based on the two-state solution.
What about other aspects that can build a better understanding between New Zealand and the Gulf, such as educational areas and cultural exchange?
I believe that there are many opportunities for enhanced cultural and educational exchange to strengthen relations. There is a significant shortage in this area and in both directions. For example, people here know our food products and their high quality, and when people in New Zealand think of the Gulf, they think of high-rise buildings, the rapid development that the region has witnessed, and oil exports. But I think there is an aspect that I am very keen on, which is that New Zealand simply learns more about this area. The Arabic language is not taught in New Zealand at any university there, and we lack any kind of Middle Eastern centre at the academic level like those found in other Western countries. As for students, there is not a large number of Arab students studying in New Zealand, with the exception of a number of Saudi students. This is a much lower number than it was in the past. There are also students from the Sultanate of Oman, especially in medicine.
I believe that there are great opportunities to enhance cooperation in the field of food security, which is one of the areas that represents a priority for the Gulf, as New Zealand produces food for about 40 million people around the world, while the population of New Zealand is 5 million people, so New Zealand has an element of strength when it comes to the issue of food security, which provides a solid basis for cooperation in this area. It is therefore necessary to focus on a certain area and build on it. As for culture, I believe that there are similarities. Here the societies have a tribal character, while New Zealand has the indigenous Māori people, providing many opportunities to enhance cultural exchange.
Author: Tamam Abusafi