Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, Director and conference delegates. I’m absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to be here this morning. Congratulations to the Centre on its 20th anniversary.

The first Bulletin issued by the Centre in 1994 included an article on Israel, Syria and Hezbollah by Bob Bowker. Bob was listed as ‘Research Scholar at the Centre and officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’. Bob is now an Adjunct Professor with the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, having been Australia’s Ambassador to both Jordan and Egypt. His career provides a good example of a phenomenon I strongly believe in – the cross-fertilisation of ideas, between Government and academia, to bring the finest, most informed and considered views to bear on our foreign policy and our international relations – absolutely in Australia’s national interest in a very tangible way.

The Australian Government is determined to adopt a considered approach to policy development and implementation. We will pursue policies that are focused on our core interests and are targeted to ensure effective outcomes. On the domestic front, we are working to secure Australia’s financial future and have addressed people smuggling activity.

In foreign affairs, I have put the aid budget on a sustainable footing, announcing last week a new aid paradigm that will ensure our development assistance achieves results and is directed at where it can be most effective.

The aid policy is indicative of this government’s approach –  championing creative, innovative and results-oriented policies, particularly in our engagement with the world. An initiative where our foreign policy finds its expression is the New Colombo Plan, which will increase Australia’s engagement with countries in our region and make a tangible difference to our understanding of our part of the world. The New Colombo Plan, building on the vision of the original Colombo Plan, is I believe, one of the finest examples of innovative results-driven policies.

We are providing young Australian undergraduates the opportunity to live, study and undertake work experience internships with countries in our region. This policy builds individual capacity, but even more importantly, builds understanding between societies. The people-to-people links, working toward common goals, the sharing of ideas, and living and working amongst one another – this is the path to peace and prosperity. With a deeper and stronger understanding about each other’s cultures and religions we will break down the misconceptions and the inequalities from which conflict is so often born.

These are signature policies that will have material impact on Australia’s security and prosperity. Our goal is to represent and build upon our values – to promote them to the wider world, to project and advance Australia’s reputation as an open, export-oriented economy, and a democracy based on freedom of expression and respect for the rule of law.

These are the values that guide us in our interactions with our neighbours and our partners abroad, including in the Middle East. Events unfolding and escalating in the Middle East remind us of the limits on the Australian Government to solving global problems but this is not to diminish in any way the importance of such issues, but to ensure our responses contribute to an improvement in any situation. It’s critical that in reacting to dramatic changes in world events, our actions are considered, measured, and effective. This is a guiding principle of the Government’s approach to the Middle East.

We recognise the Middle East is of global strategic significance. Developments materially impact on international security and economic prosperity. Australia has had important international political, security and economic interests in the Middle East since Federation. And this will continue.

What the world has witnessed in recent weeks in Iraq and over some time in Syria has been deeply concerning, and it has been destabilising. The emergence of this international terrorist group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – ISIL, on this scale in this vital part of the world, threatens the stability and security of the whole region and by extension, global security. If we ever needed a reminder of the complexity and challenges of this region, the conflict in Syria and Iraq is it.

The violence in Iraq requires a political, not a military, solution. We join others in calling on Iraqi leaders to work closely together to combat the violence, and ensure safety and security for the Iraqi people. The Australian Government will support Iraq’s efforts in this regard. We have strongly condemned the actions of ISIL, as it continues its campaign of violence across Iraq. The loss of life in recent weeks is deeply distressing, and we have grave concern at the widespread displacement of Iraqis and damage to property.

We are concerned by the growing humanitarian consequences. I announced last week that the Australian Government will provide $5 million in immediate assistance to support the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from the violence in north and northwest Iraq. Australia’s assistance will help provide food, medical assistance, tents, access to clean water, hygiene kits and the like. We are working with the World Food Programme and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to deliver our aid and ensure that it reaches those who need it most.

Of course, the bloody and protracted civil war is also still raging in Syria, with a devastating impact on refugee flows and the spill over of violence on neighbouring countries. We have joined the UN Security Council condemnation of the violence, and played a leading role as co-author of UNSCR 2139 in efforts to secure greater humanitarian access to the millions of people suffering within Syria itself.

We are now working on a follow-up resolution that will provide for cross-border access for humanitarian agencies, will require specific actions from the Syrian regime to support humanitarian relief and will include trigger provisions for further Council measures in the event of continuing non-compliance. And we continue to provide assistance for the Syrian crisis – around $53 million this year, and almost $133 million since the crisis began.

This includes $20 million in assistance that I announced for the “No Lost Generation” schooling and education initiative during my visit to Jordan and Lebanon in April where I saw firsthand the scale of the crisis and the impact on neighbouring countries. I visited a refugee registration centre in Amman run by the UNHCR. I heard the heart-rending stories from mothers and their children in particular. Our support for the Syrian crisis demonstrates Australia’s commitment to help the people and countries affected by this enormous challenge.

Developments in Syria and now Iraq also present Australia with a domestic security challenge. The influx of foreign fighters, with at least one hundred Australians fighting in the region today, raises the prospect of radicalised Australians returning home with terrorist skills and an extremist orientation. The Australian Government is taking steps to prevent people becoming involved in these conflicts, and will detain and prosecute any Australian found to be engaged in terrorist activity in the Middle East or elsewhere. We will also continue to engage regional countries and our other partners on the foreign fighter challenge – our individual and collective security interests require this.

Turning to other seemingly intractable issues, the Australian Government is disappointed by the lack of progress on the Middle East Peace Process. I commend the efforts of United States Secretary of State John Kerry, but it is incumbent upon leaders on both sides to seize the opportunity before them. We have persistently urged Israel and the Palestinians to return to negotiations towards a just and lasting two-state solution, existing side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognised borders.

Australia’s longstanding commitment to contribute to the peace process in a practical way is reflected in the ongoing development assistance we provide to the Palestinian Territories. Since 2010 Australia has provided over $200 million in Palestinian aid. This year Australia will provide the highest ever level of annual funding for Palestinian aid – over $56 million – a three per cent increase compared with last year.

In the past week I’ve pleased to have the opportunity to engage with diplomatic representatives from Arab and Islamic countries and I note that many of them are here today. First in a meeting in Parliament House where we discussed developments in Iraq and prospects for the Middle East Peace Process, and I also hosted a morning tea yesterday for Ambassadors from the Middle East at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I think this regular engagement highlights the Australian Government’s willingness to discuss important issues and maintain an open and frank dialogue with countries of the Middle East.

Iran’s nuclear program poses a serious threat to regional and international security.

We support the P5+1 efforts to negotiate a comprehensive agreement to resolve international concerns. The importance of Iran is demonstrated by its policies being a focus of this conference. We hope that Iran will adopt a more constructive approach in its regional and international policies. I am concerned that Iran will remain a major issue on the international agenda for some time to come.

We are living through a tumultuous period in Egypt, which has seen its fourth president in as many years, a sharp rise in political violence and terrorist activity, and an economy in need of major reforms to satisfy the aspirations of its youthful population.

I cannot speak about Egypt without commenting on the case of Australian journalist, Peter Greste.   I am deeply disappointed that Mr Greste was convicted earlier this week and given a severe custodial sentence of seven years. Peter Greste is a highly respected journalist who we believe was simply reporting on the political developments in Egypt.  On the basis of the evidence that was presented, we simply do not understand the verdict.

The Australian Government respects the outcome of the recent elections in Egypt.  But we are concerned that the verdict from Mr Greste’s trial sends absolutely the wrong message about Egypt’s commitment to a transition to democracy.  For democracy must embrace freedoms including a free press. This cannot be how the new Egypt wishes to present to the world. We will continue to press the Egyptian Government at every opportunity to resolve this case so that Mr Greste can come home and be reunited with his parents and family. We welcome the statements in support of the Australian Government’s position from leaders across the world.

A deteriorating security and volatile political situation in Libya is also having an impact on the wider region, given porous borders and the proliferation of arms. Despite the initial optimism of the Arab Spring, the overall trajectory has been uneven to say the least. We understand the inherent attractiveness of open, free market economies and democratic societies – like our own – where people can chose their own governments.

Weak institutions, struggling economies, high unemployment and rising extremism are direct challenges to political progress and stability. However we remain hopeful the countries in the region and their people will have a much better future.

While this region is complex, and often volatile, it is also an area of great economic dynamism and potential. The Australian Government is not focused only on the challenges and the negatives. We are also focusing on the vast opportunities presented by the Middle East. Economic diplomacy is a key pillar of the Government’s international engagement, and the Middle East region offers significant potential - just as traditional diplomacy sought peace, so economic diplomacy seeks prosperity. Since becoming Foreign Minister I’ve repeatedly drawn the link between economic prosperity and greater political stability.

The Middle East is in many respects incredibly wealthy, economically powerful and strategically placed on the crossroads of the world - a region that represents for Australia great future opportunities, especially for increased trade and investment.

The IMF estimates a regional GDP growth rate in 2013 of 3 per cent, while for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) it’s over 4 per cent. There are already significant trade and investment links: in 2013, Australia’s two-way trade was worth over $16 billion, up over 15 per cent. Trade with our largest partner, the United Arab Emirates, grew by 24.7 per cent to $6.4 billion and the UAE is now our 15th largest trading partner and 13th largest export market.

Investment into Australia was estimated to be worth over $21 billion in 2013, and this almost certainly understates the actual amount.

There are enormous opportunities for us to build a prosperous and a stable future together. The growth of the middle class in the region will drive demand for higher end goods and services. A middle class predicted by the Brookings Institute to rise to over 234 million by 2030. Increasing numbers of young consumers wanting high quality foods, education, tourism, and health services – the services and products that Australia is well positioned to provide. The increasing number of international events being held in the region, including the UAE hosting Expo 2020,  offer opportunities for Australian expertise in construction, management and hospitality services.

The Gulf Cooperation Council is a key focus of our efforts and last year two-way trade with the six GCC countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – was worth $12.3 billion. The combined wealth of the GCC countries was over US$1.6 trillion in 2013. These countries alone are home to four of the world's top 10 sovereign wealth funds, managing assets of over US$2 trillion - making the Gulf countries a centre for global capital.

Individual Gulf countries are realising their unique economic potential by building on their energy strength, diversifying their economies, broadening their skill bases and engaging more deeply with other regions, including Australia and Asia. The region is an aviation hub and there are now 140 flights, I think I’ve been on every one of them, between the Gulf and Australia each week. These aviation links will have a transformative impact on our commercial and people-to-people links.

Gulf countries are investing in rapid infrastructure development - with plans to invest around $3 trillion in the infrastructure, leisure and tourism sectors by 2020 thus diversifying their economies. Gulf countries have opened up their trade and labour markets to emerge as important regional markets for food, consumer goods, weapons, and technologies associated with power generation and water and waste management. Food and agriculture, energy, and chemical and mineral processing are all areas of growth. The region has a strong services industry, with strengths in education, law, engineering, financial advice and IT.

The Australian Government will work to assist business to take advantage of the strong synergies between our economies. That’s why I am working with my colleague, Minister for Trade and Investment Andrew Robb, to seek the resumption of our Free Trade Agreement negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Australian Government has recently finalised strong Free Trade Agreements with South Korea and Japan, and we are confident that a Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council would similarly bring enormous mutual benefit, cementing strong economic ties with the region. The signing of the Australia-UAE Agreement on Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy offers Australian suppliers the opportunity to bid to supply uranium for the civil energy program.

Australia already has a large contingent of people working in the Gulf States - over 35,000 Australians and 360 Australian companies - across a diverse range of industries, including aviation, finance, education, energy, health, engineering, construction and telecommunications.

So ladies and gentlemen, there are significant opportunities for Australia and the Middle East to work together, to build sustained economic growth and to benefit all our populations. With creativity and innovation, with a focus on results – I believe we can achieve a great deal.

This conference provides an important opportunity to focus on the bigger picture - to discuss political issues confronting the region, but to also consider its possibilities. Australia and the Middle East share many ties. Our communities are enriched by those with Middle Eastern heritage who have made Australia their home. The Middle East will remain important to Australia, with growth in commercial links a priority for the Government. We have many economic ties that we can use to build a very prosperous partnership well into the future.

The Middle East is a rich and wonderfully diverse part of the world – birthplace of three of the world’s great religions, the crossroads of trade routes for many centuries. And now a rapidly growing and youthful population – ready to fulfil the promise of a brighter future, wanting to be educated, to participate in the world’s economy in meaningful and prosperous ways. These people will face the future with an acute awareness of the conflict many of them have seen and experienced. And they will be looking for change, and for hope. Australia wants to be part of that.

Promoting our position as an open democracy, committed to freedom and the rule of law, Australia has a role to play, and I believe in the future we can build in partnership a future together - that defies present troubles, and continues long into the future, as long as the culture of the Middle East is old - to build on the traditions of trade, of prosperity, of scholarship, to weather the storms of the current period, to build a bright and peaceful world.

I wish you all the very best for your deliberations today.

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