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Analysis by Geoffrey Miller

Joe Biden’s controversial fist-bump with Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi crown prince, may help New Zealand to forge its own new direction in the Middle East.

The US president’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia showed that despite real concerns over human rights, the Middle East’s strategic importance in the current global geopolitical jigsaw puzzle cannot be ignored.

Biden’s meeting with MBS in the Saudi port city of Jeddah – four years after the horrific killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – was a triumph of realism over idealism.

In essence, Biden’s trip was all about convincing Saudi Arabia to increase oil production to try to bring down the global fuel prices that have risen sharply since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Biden might have called Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ for the Khashoggi killing during the 2020 presidential election campaign – but Vladimir Putin is now Washington’s main adversary.

And in the Middle East itself, the threat of Iran – which the US claims is about to supply military drones to Russia for use against Ukraine – is also a higher priority for Biden.

New Zealand policymakers will be watching Biden’s moves in the Middle East.

After all, New Zealand has also been trying to rekindle its own relationship with the Gulf. Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta visited New Zealand’s lavish, $NZ60m pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on her inaugural overseas trip in November last year – and she also managed to fit in a side-trip to influential Qatar while she was in the region.

Mahuta pointedly avoided a trip to Riyadh, but Biden’s meeting with MBS will be a signal to New Zealand and other Western countries that the time is right to bring Saudi Arabia in from the cold.

The wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – a six-country grouping made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – is already New Zealand’s eighth-biggest trading partner.

It holds the potential to become an even more significant market for New Zealand exports, especially in the key areas of meat and dairy.

Indeed, the very modest gains achieved by New Zealand for meat and dairy in its recent free trade agreement (FTA) with the European Union mean that improving trade with other key markets – such as the Middle East – is more important than ever.

As Western attitudes towards China have soured, New Zealand ministers have been keen to make trade diversification a major priority.

To that end, trade minister Damien O’Connor embarked on a major mission to the Gulf in March to try and restart New Zealand’s troubled free trade negotiations with the GCC.

A deal with the bloc was signed in 2009 but remains unratified from the Gulf side.

The last big push to try and get the deal over the line was in 2015, under the previous National-led government, when Prime Minister John Key toured Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Around the same time, the ill-fated ‘Saudi sheep deal’ was devised by Key’s foreign minister, Murray McCully, in an unsuccessful bid to appease a prominent Saudi investor who was upset by New Zealand’s ban on exporting live sheep by sea. The deal involved New Zealand sending significant amounts of cash and air-freighted sheep, but it largely ended in embarrassment – and did not deliver the FTA that New Zealand sought.

An acrimonious intra-Gulf split in the years that followed – which saw Qatar isolated by several GCC members – subsequently ruled out any further progress on the deal from the Gulf side. But those divisions were largely resolved last year.

Fast forward to New Zealand’s Labour government in 2022, and O’Connor’s trip was surprisingly successful. It resulted in FTA negotiations between New Zealand and the GCC being restarted.

But despite this success, New Zealand made surprisingly little fanfare of O’Connor’s successful foray into the Gulf. While the trip was announced as part of wider international travel plans, no press release on the outcome was issued after the minister’s trip. O’Connor’s report to Cabinet on the travel is also yet to be publicly released.

To be fair, O’Connor did tweet about his visit to Riyadh – calling it ‘productive’ – and he also announced the ‘reengagement with the Gulf Cooperation Council on an FTA’ in another tweet in April.

The minister also touched on the talks with the GCC in a speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) in May. In that address, O’Connor said New Zealand would focus on ‘goods market access’ in the negotiations, but would also be seeking ‘to update and modernise the agreement’ in other areas such as labour and environmental standards.

Arab media provide some further detail about O’Connor’s movements on his March trip.

A report by the Bahrain News Agency from March 8 said a meeting between O’Connor and GCC Secretary General Dr. Nayef Falah Al Hajraf ‘discussed the means to enhance economic and investment relations between the GCC countries and New Zealand’. A few days later, the same outlet reported that New Zealand had signed a ‘strategic food security partnership’ with the UAE.

The Arabic-language Al-Ain news website even produced an elaborate infographic about the food security deal and O’Connor’s visit.

Of course, the Government may have decided that a low-key approach to the talks with the GCC best serves New Zealand’s interests, especially given the difficulties faced in the past.

But another reason for keeping a low profile domestically almost certainly relates to the sensitivities over the involvement of Saudi Arabia, the most populous country in the GCC by far and its driving force.

In addition to New Zealand’s own concerns over the Khashoggi killing in 2018, a political firestorm erupted in early 2021 when it was revealed that Air New Zealand – of which the NZ Government owns 51 per cent – had been repairing engines for the Saudi military, despite Riyadh playing a leading role in the war in Yemen.

At the time, Jacinda Ardern called the arrangement ‘completely wrong’ and said it did not ‘pass New Zealand’s sniff test’. Air New Zealand summarily terminated the arrangement and returned the remaining parts with the repairs incomplete.

Eighteen months later, the GCC seems willing to turn the page and reconsider a trade deal with New Zealand.

But just as MBS expected Joe Biden to meet him in exchange for Saudi Arabia pumping more oil, he will probably expect Jacinda Ardern to personally visit the Middle East to seal any free trade deal with the GCC.

Of course, New Zealand has considerable experience in balancing human rights and trade issues from its careful handling of the China relationship.

And while Joe Biden has received heavy criticism for his trip, the visit also gave the US president an opportunity to raise the killing of Jamal Khashoggi directly with MBS – and to call the murder ‘outrageous’ while Biden was on Saudi soil.

Will Jacinda Ardern now follow Joe Biden’s lead – and give MBS a fist-bump of her own?

Other items of interest and importance today

NEW BOOK ON THE NATIONAL PARTY
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Blue Blood: how the National Party went to war with itself
Andrea Vance (Stuff): The final hours of the last National Government – and the coronation of Jacinda Ardern as NZ’s youngest PM
Steve Braunias (Newsroom): National’s autopsy report
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): ‘We didn’t know how nasty it got’: Andrea Vance on National’s long nightmare
Kelly Dennett (Stuff): Blue Blood author Andrea Vance on getting the inside story of National’s war with itself

COST OF LIVING AND INFLATION
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Grant Robertson extends fuel tax cut to January, with fuel relief now costing $1b
Rachel Sadler and Leighton Heikell (Newshub): Cost of living: Government placing ‘bandaid upon bandaid’ rather than having plan to address inflation – National’s Nicola Willis

Rosie Gordon (RNZ): Fuel tax cut: Road relief measures ‘not targeted to help those who need it most’
Carmen Hall (Stuff): Struggling families will bear brunt if stagflation hits

HEALTH
Claire Trevett (Herald): Health crisis or not? Andrew Little has the worst job in politics now (paywalled)
Lana Hart (Stuff): Arguing about whether it’s a ‘crisis’ isn’t helping the health situation
Rob Campbell (Newsroom): Band-aids for health staffing crisis are only a short-term patch, says new health boss
Brendon McMahon (Local Democracy reporting): Health minister’s leadership ‘sadly lacking’ – former Coast DHB deputy
RNZ: ‘We see the data, we see the challenges’ – Little defends health system
Jem Traylen (BusinessDesk): It’s time govt got out of the corner on migrant nurses (paywalled)
Hannah Martin (Stuff): Just two weeks’ supply of ‘important’ anti-anxiety medication left in NZ

COVID
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Covid-19 is surging big time but the Government is right to not panic
Tony Blakely and Michael Baker (The Conversation): How are Australia and NZ managing the rising Covid winter wave – and is either getting it right?
Jaime Lyth (Herald): Kelvin Davis and top judges cop flak from health expert after going maskless at indoor event (paywalled)
Tess McClure (Guardian): New Zealand seeks to repeat world-beating Covid response in face of surging cases
Tamara Poi-Ngawhika (Herald): Retail expert says mask use has ‘dropped off a cliff’
Herald: Editorial: Eyes wide shut and bare-faced exposure to Omicron (paywalled)
Herald: Editorial: The persistent presence of Covid-19 (paywalled)
Jamie Morton (Herald): NZ’s Covid future: Michael Baker answers our five biggest questions

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS
Jayden Holmes (Today FM): Prime Minister could travel to Saudi Arabia if trade deal is revisited
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Jacinda Ardern finally gets lucky break on overseas trips (paywalled)
Christine Rovoi (Stuff): Māori vulnerable to US-China fallout in the Pacific, warns Shane Jones
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): NZ cannot afford to be comfortable in the Pacific
Christine Rovoi (Stuff): Leaders push for unity in the midst of a Pacific rift
1News: Nanaia Mahuta sounds alarm on Pacific debt
Mike Smith (The Standard): Militarising the Pacific

ECONOMY, EMPLOYMENT AND MIGRATION
Damien Grant (Stuff): We’re following in Sri Lanka’s footsteps
Brooke van Velden (Herald): We need to stop the Kiwi brain drain
Mike Munro (Herald): The workers are heading our way (paywalled)

PARLIAMENT AND ELECTIONS
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Could we take the politics out of politics, and hand it back to the people?
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): 2023 Election: Who will NZ fear most? A National/ACT Government or a Labour/Green/Māori Party Government?
Phil Smith (RNZ): Parliament’s cooperative team captains
Steve Braunias (Herald): The secret diary of David Seymour (paywalled)

NATIONAL PARTY
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Christopher Luxon’s support fell amid US abortion debate, poll suggests
Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Christopher Luxon’s wrong call – putting NZ business down (paywalled)
Richard Harman: Willis begins to redefine National (paywalled)
Andrew Gunn (Stuff): Explaining is losing with Christopher Luxon
Hayden Munro (Herald): Christopher Luxon’s foot in mouth business faux pas (paywalled)

GOVERNMENT
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): Now is the time for true leadership Prime Minister
Max Rashbrooke (Stuff): Here’s how Labour could outflank Luxon on tax
Steve Braunias (Herald): The rise of anti-Jacinda Ardern ferals, fake news and its advocates (paywalled)
1News: Mahuta hits back at ‘toxic trolling’ after nepotism accusations

LEO MOLLOY CAMPAIGN FOR AUCKLAND MAYORALTY
Jack Tame (Herald): Leo Molloy v Guy Williams backlash – TV interview was comedy but showed Auckland mayoral candidate as he is
Neil Reid (Herald): Rival Wayne Brown calls on Leo Molloy to stand aside from Auckland mayoral race over TV appearance
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Jack Tame vs Leo Molloy vs Guy Williams vs Woke Twitter
Madeleine Chapman (Spinoff): What was Guy Williams trying to do?

LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND ELECTIONS
Simon Wilson (Herald): Auckland mayoralty: Is it the Efeso Collins and Leo Molloy show – or still too early to say (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Latest Auckland mayoralty poll: Winners, losers & predictions
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Newstalk): Councils are notoriously stupid and unaccountable
Brent Edwards (NBR): Bigger not necessarily better for local government (paywalled)
Tamati Tiananga (Māori TV): Mahuta says vote to change entrenched racism
Anthony Doesburg (Newsroom): Sage advice for Dunedin’s Green mayor
Erin Gourley (Stuff): Council candidates warned Wellington may need to sell commercial assets
Stephen Ward (Stuff): How to get the ‘local voice’? Community committee trial recommended for Hamilton
Bill Hickman (Stuff): Wellington mayor Andy Foster shares hope for ‘transformation’ of the capital
Stephen Ward (Stuff): Hamilton faces ‘staggering’ array of issues in an ‘extraordinary’ time, CEO warns
Mike Mather (Stuff): Signs of a testy campaign? Hamilton City Council candidates ‘jumping the gun’ on election hoardings
Megan Woods (Herald): Christchurch is already a super city – does it need to become a ‘Super-City’? (paywalled)

CHRISTCHURCH STADIUM
RNZ: Questions raised on who will fund new Te Kaha stadium in Christchurch
Anna Leask (Herald): Christchurch stadium decision – council votes 13-3 in favour of new arena
Steven Walton and Amber Allott (Stuff): ‘Absolutely stoked’: Christchurch to spend $683 million on stadium, following 13-3 vote
Hamish Clark (Herald): Party time in Christchurch – Thank goodness the Stadium will be built (paywalled)
David Williams (Newsroom): Is the new stadium Christchurch’s monorail?
David Williams (Newsroom): In defence of Christchurch’s dissenting three
John Minto (Daily Blog): “Socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor”

EDUCATION
Janet Wilson (Stuff): Polytech merger’s ills a harbinger for Government’s other reforms
David Farrar: The mega polytech mega meltdown
Dubby Henry (Herald): Poverty, family background don’t explain Māori suspension, expulsion rates – study (paywalled)

SUPERMARKET REGULATION
Sarah Robson (RNZ): Shopping for change: Busting the supermarket duopoly
Gerhard Uys (Stuff): Supermarket code ‘will not be a silver bullet for vegetable growers’
Martyn Bradbury (Waatea News): Supermarket Duopoly whitewash a missed opportunity for Co-governance
John Anthony (Stuff): Supermarket price promotions a direct response to falling public trust, experts say

MEDIA AND COMMUNICATION
Nicky Hager (Newsroom): Investigative journalism in times of trouble
Duncan Greive (Spinoff): How social media abandoned news – and newsletters became existentially important to The Spinoff
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Today FM hopes for audiences tomorrow
Herald: Newstalk ZB claims top radio ratings spot for 14th year running
Chris Schulz (Spinoff): Too many jobs, not enough reporters: ‘It is a very good time to be a journalist’
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): The future for Morning Report, without Susie Ferguson
David Skipwith (Stuff): Susie Ferguson will leave Morning Report for new role as senior RNZ presenter and journalist
Colin Peacock (RNZ): The worst of times?
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): NZ on Air just gave Spinoff $160 000 to cover the local elections

CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT
Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): Climate change poll: Tolerance dropping for those who build in harm’s way
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Sticks, not carrots, to cut farm emissions – Climate Commission
Alex Zhou (Stuff): Why housing is the elephant-sized hole in our climate plan
Katarina Williams (Stuff): Public overwhelmingly expects more extreme flooding events, more often, poll shows

TRANSPORT
Justin Wong (Stuff): Porirua, Kāpiti Coast councils support making public transport free
Bernard Orsman (Herald): Auditor-General says it will cost $5.5 billion to enable Auckland’s City Rail Link to open (paywalled)
Andrew Barnes (Herald): A message to Auckland Transport: On your bike — or bus or feet (paywalled)

JUSTICE, LAW AND ORDER
Sophie Cornish (Stuff): Police to spend $2 million over two years to investigate bias and racism
Deena Coster (Stuff): Police, iwi Māori justice initiative fueled by a drive to ‘decriminalise’
Deena Coster (Stuff): Let’s tip the justice scales in favour of people

THREE WATERS
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Three waters IT system project could top $500m, warns National
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Labour asks supporters to back Three Waters in Parliament
Sheryl Mai (Herald): Decision does not compromise our stand on Three Waters reform
Dave Armstrong (Stuff): Fluoride foul-up makes 3 Waters more attractive
Toni McDonald (ODT): Council clear Three Waters process flawed
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Regulator didn’t raise concerns over Wellington fluoride failure

ABORTION
Graham Adams (The Platform): The great abortion beat-up
Caroline Williams (Stuff): Hundreds rally for abortion rights in Auckland after Roe v Wade overturned
Arena Williams; Stuart Smith (Stuff): How easily could the right for an abortion be removed in New Zealand?
Deborah Coddington (Stuff): Abortion is not compulsory, opponents turn a blind eye to facts
Karl du Fresne: Abortion in New Zealand: the statistics

RODEOS
Lynn Charlton (Spinoff): What’s wrong with rodeos?
Virginia Fallon (Stuff): Rodeo is blatant animal abuse and New Zealand must ban it
Newstalk: To rodeo or not to rodeo: Are the rodeo animals safe?
Kate Nicol-Williams (1News): Rodeo legal challenge heard in High Court
Hazel Osborne (Herald): Legality of rodeo challenged in the High Court at Wellington

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