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Examining Australia's Relations with the Middle East

19 Sep 2023
By Professor Sally Totman
Signing the Memorandum of Understanding at Lot Fourteen, Adelaide. (Left to right) Anthony Murfett, Deputy Head of the Australian Space Agency, with His Excellency Dr Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi, Director General of the UAE Space Agency. Source: Australian Government Department of Industry, Science and resources /

Australia has a long relationship with the Middle East and strong trusting partnerships. With energy and economic transformation on the agenda for the region, Australia stands to gain considerably with more investment, and with a nimble diplomatic approach.

This month marks 30 years since the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, which promised a peaceful resolution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and 22 years since the devastating 9/11 attacks on the United States, which led to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and subsequently Iraq in 2003 of which Australia was an important ally. It is timely, then, to examine Australia’s involvement with the Middle East today and what the future may hold for Australia’s relationship with the region.

Australia’s connection with the region can be traced back to the colonial era when the well-worn trade and travel path between Britain and Australia was via the Suez Canal. In time, the Middle East, with its strategic location and abundant resources, became a significant area of interest for Australia, primarily for its trade potential. Today, the connections between Australia and the region are much broader and more substantial.

Energy and Energy Security

One of the key drivers of Australia’s engagement with the Middle East is its strategic importance. The Middle East is responsible for 32.8 percent share of the global oil production and 29.1 percent of world gas production. Given Australia’s reliance on imported oil and gas, it has a vested interest in ensuring stable global energy supplies and this has led to Australia’s active involvement in regional security arrangements, such as the Combined Maritime Forces, aimed at protecting the sea lanes critical for energy transit. Moreover, the Middle East is increasing its renewable energy supply capacity (in 2022 it had a 12.8 percent increase on 2021 figures) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has committed to net zero emissions by 2050. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are using their revenues from their oil and gas production to diversify and future-proof their economies, including investing in green energy technologies such as the construction of utility-scale solar farms and manufacturing of electric vehicles. This ensures the Middle East will play an important role in Australia’s energy and economy for the foreseeable future.

Trade and Economic Interests

While Australia has been pursuing a Free Trade Agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) since 2007, without success, the economic and trade relationship with these countries has continued to grow.  According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the UAE is Australia’s largest trade and investment partner in the Middle East and Australia’s 19th largest export market globally for goods and services. This equates to AUD$5.7 billion in two-way trade in 2020-21 (over AUD$11 billion pre-COVID-19). While the UAE is Australia’s largest trading partner in the region, trade with the Middle East as a whole is not insignificant and continues to grow. According to Meat and Livestock Australia, the markets in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been among Australia’s “top 20 most valuable beef export markets consistently for the past eight years.” Australia also has substantial economic connections with the region through tourism and education, and the Middle East’s sovereign wealth funds have made substantial investments in Australian assets, contributing to the country’s economic growth.

Military Engagement and Peace Keeping

The Middle East is synonymous for many Australians with war and sending our troops overseas. Australia does have a long history of military involvement in the region, with Australian troops deployed to the Middle East in both World Wars and more recently in Afghanistan and a seven-year military involvement in Iraq. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has also played an important role in peace-keeping, and this continues today with nine active peace-keeping operations in the region:

  • Operation Accordion is the ADF’s support mission for all activities in the Middle East region, enabling contingency planning and enhancement of regional relationships;
  • Operation Aslan is the ADF’s contribution of personnel to the UN Mission in South Sudan;
  • Operation Augury is the ADF’s support of efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremist organisations;
  • Operation Fortitude in Syria as part of the UN Disengagement Observer Force;
  • Operation Manitou supports international efforts promoting maritime security, stability and prosperity in the Middle East region;
  • Operation Mazurka is the ADF’s contribution to the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai in Egypt;
  • Operation Okra is the ADF’s contribution to the international coalition against Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria;
  • Operation Paladin in Israel as part of the UN Truce Supervision Organization; and
  • Operation Steadfast supports NATO’s continued capacity building of the Iraqi Security Forces.

These operations highlight the importance of a secure and stable Middle East to Australia. While the threat of terrorism endures, despite the defeat of ISIS, the security imperative for the region is also related to Australia’s energy, economic, and trade interests, as noted previously.

Cultural and Diaspora Ties

Australia’s multicultural society is enriched by the presence of a substantial Middle Eastern diaspora. Arabic is the third most spoken language in Australia, and Arab, Iranian, and Turkish communities, among others, have contributed to the cultural diversity of the nation. This cultural exchange has fostered people-to-people connections and contributed to Australia’s ability to engage with Middle Eastern countries on cultural and social levels. The Australian expat community in the region is also significant with an estimated 15,000 Australians living and working in the UAE alone. The Australian government has supported initiatives aimed at fostering cross-cultural understanding, including educational exchanges, cultural festivals, and economic events such as Expo 2020 in Dubai. The increased closeness between Australia and the UAE was evident when in response to the severe Australian bushfire season in 2020, the UAE donated fire trucks and generators to several affected communities, and on 15 January 2020, the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building in Dubai, was lit up with the phrase #mateshelpmates as a sign of the UAE’s support for bushfire response.


Australia’s diplomacy in the Middle East is marked by a delicate balancing act. On one hand, it maintains strong alliances with Western nations, particularly the United States, and supports international efforts to combat terrorism. On the other hand, it seeks to cultivate relationships with Middle Eastern countries, many of which have complex geopolitical dynamics and differing views on regional issues, including the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Australia has traditionally been a staunch supporter of Israel, but this stance has faced criticism both domestically and internationally. Last month the Australian Government announced it would officially reinstate the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories” with Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong stating, “In adopting the term we are clarifying that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza were occupied by Israel following the 1967 war and that the occupation continues and reaffirms our commitment to negotiate a two-state solution in which Israel and a future Palestinian state co-exist.” The Australian Government is also clear in its position that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are “illegal under international law” and “have no legal validity and constitute a violation of international law.” However, the government has ignored calls to recognise Palestinian Statehood, and a resolution to the 75-year conflict remains more elusive than ever.

The Future?

For Australia, balancing its strategic interests with its commitment to human rights and democratic values remains a delicate task. The shifting dynamics in global politics, including the reconfiguration of alliances, requires Australia to assess its relationship with, and policies towards, the Middle East with a long-term strategic approach.  China’s expanding presence in the region, for example, presents new opportunities and challenges that will need to be carefully navigated. What remains clear is that Australia’s commitment to the Middle East remains an essential element of its foreign policy, which requires significant investment and nurturing.

Professor Sally Totman, PhD, is a political scientist with expertise on the Middle East and North Africa. She is currently the Head of School of the School of Social Work and Arts at Charles Sturt University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.