Today, Australia is uninterested in the Middle East. This isn’t new, but shifting priorities have worsened it. The Middle East is not a core priority of Australian foreign policy, but it remains counter-intuitively important.
Canberra has many interests in the region, from the growing number of Australian citizens living there to the vital maritime trade routes that supply Asia, and sustain the world economy.
If Canberra lets the skills and knowledge it has acquired during a decade of military involvement evaporate just because combat operations are over, it will lose the chance to best pursue its interests in a region vital to Australia.
More than 65,000 Australian citizens live in the Middle East, of which 38,000 live in the Gulf – that’s two thirds of the average voting population of an electorate. Not only that, but these expats are well educated, influential individuals. Australia has an interest in their security, particularly because the region is rife with instability.
Contingency planning requires in-depth knowledge of a region, something that Australia has invested a great deal in building up, but will lose if it continues on the current trajectory.
But the significance of the region for Canberra goes beyond Australian expats living there.
Australia’s economy depends on the Middle East. That’s because, for Asia to grow it will need Middle Eastern energy. Although dependence varies from country to country, today, the Middle East supplies nearly 50 per cent of Asian oil consumption and Asia buys 75 per cent of Middle East oil exports. More importantly, the vast proportion of Asia’s future energy needs will come from the Middle East and the region’s ability to increase domestic energy production to meet demand will be restricted.
Energy from the Middle East will ensure Asia continues to grow. But what if this supply was disrupted? Oil stocks in most Asian countries (except Korea and Japan) are low, meaning that shocks in oil supply cannot be offset by national stocks. While the possibility of releasing emergency European and US stocks exists, it will take longer to ship to Asia. The region will see short phases of acute shortages before it can adjust to a supply shock. The Middle East was the source of five major disruptions in the past 40 years – Asia isn’t well equipped to deal with more.
Australia would not be immune to such shocks. Canberra is dependent on imports of oil products from Asia, which in turn rely heavily on Middle East crude oil imports. In the event of a shock, it is likely that product-exporting countries will redirect some of their supplies to meet national demand. Along with Thailand, Australia would face shortfalls of 5 to 10 per cent of consumption following an oil shock originating in the Middle East.
Needless to say, such disruptions will have a severe impact on economic stability and growth in the region. And Canberra knows this.
In addition, nearly all of Australia’s sea lines of communication that do not go through Asia go through the Middle East. Seventeen per cent of Australia’s oil imports travel through the Strait of Hormuz. That number jumps to 56 per cent when discussing the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. The Strait of Hormuz and the Suez Canal are high-density shipping routes. Today, the political situation in Egypt and Iran’s repeated (but unlikely) threats to close the strait make both routes volatile. Australia must be able to anticipate changes that would affect these routes.
Australia and the Gulf Co-operation Council share a significant economic relationship. The value of trade between the six states of the council and Australia was $10.165 billion in 2012. They are expanding markets with significant buying power. The UAE grew 4 per cent last year, Saudi Arabia 3.6 per cent and Qatar 5 per cent. Although today trade with Iran is negligible, the possibility of a final nuclear deal that includes a lifting of sanctions would potentially open a market of 76 million people up for business. Asia is already present, Europe is weighing its options, so why not Australia?
The region is replete with security interests for Australia, even after the end of Australian Defence Force operations in Afghanistan. The three-year civil war in Syria has been a headache for Canberra. According to the Attorney-General, George Brandis, “Australia is one of the largest sources of foreign war fighters to the Syrian conflict from countries outside the region.” He estimated that between 120 and 150 Australians were fighting in Syria, a conservative estimate compared with numbers floated by others, which go up to 205. These fighters pose domestic security risks when they return from battle, a concern that is furrowing brows in Canberra’s national security community.
While Syria poses a more immediate risk, the spillover of Middle Eastern Islamic terrorism into south-east Asia has been on the agenda for a while. The Bali bombings of October 2002, which killed 88 Australians, made this threat all too real. Jemaah Islamiah, a south-east Asian militant Islamist organisation with ties to al-Qaeda in the Middle East was responsible for the attack. A week later, al-Qaeda said that the bombings were in retaliation for Australia’s support of the US war on terror, involvement in Afghanistan and the liberation of East Timor.
Of course Australia is focused on Asia. The growth of China, disputes in the South China Sea and changes in Indonesia and Thailand are much closer to home. But stability in the Middle East matters for Asia’s security too, because the more the US devotes effort to pacifying and securing the Middle East, the less it will be devoted to managing flashpoints in Asia. Australia would much rather live in an Asia that has Washington’s undivided attention.
Australia can ignore the Middle East today, but that won’t stop the region having an impact on Australian interests tomorrow. It’s an unstable but valuable part of the world. If Canberra decides too late that it needs to understand what’s going on, it will have to redevelop the capacity and relearn the lessons learnt over a decade spent on the ground. It is natural for strategic priorities to shift, but it’s a mistake to let skills dissolve. It is in Canberra’s economic and strategic interest to understand the Middle East, and where possible to promote stability. After all, there’s more to the world than Asia.
Dina Esfandiary is a research associate, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.