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Speech at the federal launch of the Council for Australian-Arab Relations, Mural Hall, Parliament House.



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Speech

Mural Hall, Parliament House, 20 August 2003

Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs The Hon Alexander Downer MP

At the Federal Launch of The Council for Australian-Arab Relations

Thank you very much Brendan. Your Excellency the Governor of New South Wales, Marie Bashir, Mark Vaile, the Minister for Trade and Deputy Leader of the National Party, parliamentary colleagues, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

Can I begin by saying that it’s a great pleasure for me to come here this evening for the launch of the Council for Australian-Arab Relations, which is an initiative of mine and of Mark Vaile’s, to build the relationship at a broader level between Australian and the Arab world.

We of course have a deep history, at least in modern times, of relations with the Arab world when you consider through two World Wars we had Australian troops stationed in Egypt, in Palestine, in Syria, part of our relations with the Arab world are very much steeped in the history of Australia's engagement with that region. I think it’s also true to say that we’re enormously proud here in Australia of our multicultural society. And a very important component of our multicultural society is the Arab-Australian component.

There are around one million Australians of Arabic origin. It’s the fourth most spoken language in Australia. People wouldn't I suspect widely know that. And in the State of New South Wales, I understand that Arabic is the second most widely spoken language after English.

Sometimes when people contemplate the Arab world they don't realise that here in Australia, Arabs and Arabic culture is an important component of what Australia is about and that our history is, at least our modern history, is so much tied up with that part of the world.

We have, I think in many respects, had a profoundly depressing last 24 hours with the terrorist attacks in Israel and in Baghdad. And a very good friend of mine was killed in the terrorist attack in Baghdad. But I want to make a broader point about that - that ghastly and tragic as these events may have been, it is enormously important that Australians understand that this isn't Arabs attacking peoples from other parts of the world or of other cultures or other religions. But Arabs themselves more broadly, shouldn't be associated with terrorism. People shouldn't draw negative and antagonistic views of the whole of the Arabic world, because within that world there are some fanatics prepared to commit the most egregious acts of terror.

Let’s face it, there are people in other parts of the world, in other cultures who have been prepared to do precisely the same thing. Unfortunately we do live in a world

where a tiny percentage of it is fanatically enough driven to kill their fellow human beings in order to try to achieve often quite bizarre and perverted political objectives. But I do think its enormously important that in Australia generally, that the terrible events of the last 24 hours and other terrorist attacks aren't driven home as being the acts of Arabs or caused by Arabs, or that this should allow there to be the evolution of a greater anti-Arabic sentiment in Australia. That would be very negative and that would be very wrong, and so I hope very much that people will understand the essentially peaceful nature of the Arabic world, and the close relations that Australia has built up over many generations with that part of the world.

We, in recent times have made a couple of announcements. One we've already implemented -to establish new diplomatic representations, one of course in Baghdad itself, where we now have the Australian Representative Office headed up by Neil Mules. I also announced on a recent trip to the Middle East that we would establish a new Australian Embassy in Kuwait towards the end of next year.

And as I mentioned, on my recent trip to the Middle East -I can only say that in visiting a number of countries -Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait, that I was enormously impressed with the warmth of the reception I received and the common views that we shared in so may areas with the governments of that part of the world. Maybe that isn't always widely understood, but we certainly have many common views about key issues.

Let me say in conclusion, because Mark is going to talk about trade and the importance of our trade relationships with the Arab world, that I think in other areas as well we have a tremendous opportunity to build our relations. And I've just mentioned two. And Her Excellency has mentioned one of those and that is

education.

As I've gone around the Middle East one of the messages I've tried to sell is the tremendous opportunities in Australia for education, particularly in the tertiary sector in this country. And I hope that we can harness the energy of our universities and ensure that they go out, perhaps a little more aggressively than has been the case up until now, into the Arab world and do their best to attract more students.

Secondly I think that the potential to bring more tourists from the Middle East to Australia is very great. And we’re already seeing what I think one would have to call a trickle of tourists coming to Australia. But with the ever-growing air links through particularly Emirates and Gulf Air, I think there are great opportunities to build up that tourism link.

Finally, let me say I'm delighted that Amr Moussa, the Secretary-General of the Arab League, and the former Foreign Minister of Egypt, which is how I came to know him, has agreed to give you at least an electronic presentation. I'm very sorry he couldn't be with us all here tonight. He's a great character and a great representative of the Arab world, but in any case I'm delighted that you'll be able to hear from him soon, as

I understand it in an electronic form.

Thank you to Brendan Stewart and all of those of you who have been involved directly in the Council for Australian-Arab Relations. I think this Council will do a

great deal over time, not in one year, but over time to consolidate understanding between Australia and the Arab world, to ensure that prejudices, that preconceptions, that false ideas can be dispelled through a greater knowledge and a greater understanding on both sides. So again, congratulations to all who have been involved in the establishment of the Council and I wish it well.