Polyglot Group has been doing business with international & multicultural companies based in more than 50 countries all around the world for over 20 years.
In celebration of these partnerships, we will be promoting bilateral trades by interviewing some of the key players. Keen to know more about the current challenges faced by the countries we are representing such as Latin America, Europe, Asia & the US, we are thrilled to share our interview with Dr. Fiona Hill, a National Board Member for the Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce & Industry.
Could you please introduce yourself and your organisation?
The Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce & Industry (AACCI) is a national Not-for-Profit organisation and is the peak trade and investment advocacy body for Australia’s commercial engagement with the 22 countries of the Arab League of Nations. I am the Chairperson for the state of Victoria where AACCI has the strongest membership due to Victoria’s volume of trade with the Middle East (ME) and North African (NA) region.
Like every Chair, I am a member of the National Board – a role which is entirely voluntary. Collectively, the National Board is responsible for driving the AACCI’s vision. With the Executive Officers, we keep the AACCI advancing in its mission.
AACCI is honoured to be a member of the General Union of Arab Chambers of Commerce, Industry & Agriculture in Arab Countries (GUACCIAC) – a rare privilege which earns us very high kudos and respect in the Arab region.
In the Middle East and parts of North Africa, it is obligatory to be a member of the Chamber of Commerce in order to transact business and Arab Chambers of Commerce & Industry are de facto governmental organisations. So membership of AACCI instantly raises the credibility and status of a business. So, when it comes to doing business in the region, it is extremely valuable to be a member of the AACCI.
What type of services can you offer to Australian companies looking for new business opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa?
The AACCI provides holistic assistance for any Australian business looking towards the Middle East or North African region.
AACCI’s distinction against other bodies is that we uniquely provide ongoing opportunities for our members to gain practical market information and guidance, and to network with each other and VIPs, Arab and Australian government officials, and business people from the MENA region.
AACCI’s core services include workshops and seminars, and document stamping export certification, and networking evens.
Our events give members the opportunity to network in an intimate environment with State and Federal representatives of trade and our relationship with the Arab Heads of Mission in Australia is second to none. We value our relationship with the MENA Governments very highly, and it is something we work very hard to strengthen. As such, we are able to arrange fantastic networking opportunities, including with the Arab Heads of Mission and the Council Generals in Australia. This is a very rich resource that we offer people doing business with the Arab region.
Are you subsidised in any way?
The AACCI is not subsidised in any way. Our only means of funding is through membership fees, as well as financial or in-kind support from our sponsors. Our sponsors often assist us in putting on events, such as by providing the catering.
As a not-for-profit organisation, AACCI always makes all events cost-neutral to the organisation.
As we are not subsidised, our very best efforts are required to maintain our status as one of Australia’s most highly thought-of chambers. We are very proud to be so highly placed in our interaction with the regions, and in our positive and active relationship with the Australian Government.
How many members do you have?
We have several hundred members in most States and over a thousand members in Victoria.
AACCI’s membership base and objectives have transformed over time. When the Chamber began over 40 years ago, it was primarily focused on exporters of Australia’s staple industries of dairy, meat and grain.
Now AACCI’s membership base has expanded exponentially in accordance with the changing market trends both in Australia and in the MENA region. It’s an evolution. Since I became the State Chair for Victoria in 2015, AACCI has been consistently receiving 4 new export and services members per month – evidence of continual growth of interest in, and comfort levels with, the MENA region.
I believe this evolution is largely reflective of Australia’s bilateral relations with the MENA countries. The North African countries in particular regard Australia as the English-speaking conduit into the Asia Pacific and South East Asian markets and investors. Equally the Arab region is increasingly being recognised as a high-value region for Australian businesses large and small.
What are the organisation’s main accomplishments since you took office?
One of our major achievements during my term as Chair is the consistent rise in membership, as it demonstrates the relevance of our value proposition. Our reputation and engagement with State and Federal Governments and key stakeholders has also been enhanced and greatly enriched through collaborative events and activities.
Pleasingly, AACCI has also seen an increase in high level delegations coming from the Arab region, and particularly from the oil-rich GCC (Gulf Corporation Council) countries.
These delegations have made clear their growing interest and investment into Africa and so we are planning a Trade Mission to North Africa in early 2018. This mission will provide the opportunity to have high-level meetings with the governments, industries and businesses of North Africa and permit our members the opportunity to explore new opportunities and markets into Europe and Africa.
“…the North African region is extremely strong in sustainable practices and renewable energies. This presents a fantastic opportunity for knowledge-transfer.”
The value in Australia’s bilateral relationship with North Africa is receiving real attention now and the Australian Federal government has appointed a new Ambassador to open an Australian embassy in Rabat, Morocco in July this year. This progress shows that the Australian Government recognises the immense value of the North African region for Australian SMEs and businesses. In fact, the North African region is extremely strong in sustainable practices and renewable energies. This presents a fantastic opportunity for knowledge-transfer.
During my term as Chair of AACCI in Victoria we’ve seen exponential growth in our document certification services and an increase in referrals by Arab Embassies and Consulate Generals in Australia to our services.
Also our members, non-members and other stakeholders are taking great advantage of our national series of Halal certification Seminars and Arab Region Competence Workshops.
Overall, AACCI constantly adopts a proactive approach to supporting our members. From co-organising Austrade seminars to supporting Arab country national day celebrations and Iftar dinners, we constantly promote cross-cultural bilateral trade in new and meaningful ways.
How do you perceive the Australasian region, and how do you share this understanding with your members?
In terms of languages, the GCC, Middle East and North African countries have great confidence in English and in French, and of course in Arabic. This offers a fantastic linguistic base for Australians who are doing business in the region. As mentioned, the North African countries have very positive opinions of the bilateral prospects of doing business with Australia for it’s own benefits as well as for our connections into Asia. They see AACCI as the perfect vehicle for facilitating their entry here.
Providing education about the MENA market is one of ACCCI’s primary strengths because so many of our members are very well informed and experienced and are happy to share their knowledge of the highs and lows of doing business. We give these members the opportunity to co-host AACCI seminars and workshops to spread knowledge about trade regulations, HR legislation, tax obligations, and halal certification, for example, while they promote their own business.
“The concept of shared knowledge being for the greater good is really embraced by our members and we see this at our networking events.”
The concept of shared knowledge being for the greater good is really embraced by our members and we see this at our networking events. Often you will find someone who has been doing business in the region for many decades sharing their learnings with a complete newcomer in practical and relevant ways. Indeed all AACCI events foster a very nurturing environment where practical and realistic advice flows. In this sense, AACCI has created a space where members can access reliable and helpful insights from experienced peers and leaders. This is simply priceless for anyone creating their own pathway into the market.
How do you think the North African and Middle Eastern people view our regulations and market trends?
The GCC knows Australia very well. They are very comfortable with Australia, and have many international students studying here.
Generally, they have a very high regard for Australia, due to its attributes such as its safety, cleanliness and relaxed way of life. These attributes mean that Australia is particularly favoured as a place to educate young people.
In addition to our education system, Australia is valued for its clean technologies, as well as its strength in agriculture including grains, dairy and meat.
Australia has a highly-regulated market place, which is seen as very attractive to investors coming here. Currently, the bureaucracies of the Middle Eastern and North African countries are reducing enormously. The reliance on the government (especially for employment) is being broken, as it was found to be a real obstruction to efficient regulation of businesses. The social upheaval this is causing is something that many countries are dealing with, so Australia’s stability and leadership in market regulation is highly regarded.
One common opinion (especially in North Africa) is that Australia’s market is often overlooked. We tell our counterparts in MENA that Australia’s small population and small domestic market means that to gain any success in businesses Australians must achieve world-class standards. It’s understood that you must operate on a “world stage” at all times.
Overall, Australia is perceived very positively by the MENA region, especially in regard to our perceived honesty, straight-forward communication and flexibility. Another aspect that is perceived very positively is Australian’s willingness to openly embrace a new culture when going offshore.
What about business culture— are there any similarities to the Australian one?
In answering this question, remember I am referring to 22 countries, so I’ll be making some broad generalisations.
It is true that there are a lot of similarities across these 22 countries. It certainly is true in my own experience. Geographically, Australia has similarities in terms of climate, our desert interiors, and our reliance on the sea & internal waterways.
Generally speaking, there is a strong cultural value placed on faith in the MENA region which is a point of difference from the Australian way of life. In saying that, there is not an expectation that others be of any particular faith, but rather that they just profess faith in general. North African and Arab regions value a sense of “something greater than yourself” in the larger philosophical sense. Once this is explained, Australians are quick to understand it’s not about converting to a certain religion, but rather, to gaining a sense of self in the universe.
“Arab region people’s sense of hospitality means they aim always to put their Australian visitors at ease. This accommodating and welcoming nature lessens the prominence of any cultural differences.”
Hospitality is also an enormous value in the Arab region. Arab region people’s sense of hospitality means they aim always to put their Australian visitors at ease. This accommodating and welcoming nature lessens the prominence or severity of any cultural differences.
Corresponding with the value upon hospitality, the people of the MENA region place great emphasis on relationships, including in business. Indeed, a strong relationship is the first priority in business before any contract can be considered or discussed. This is often at odds with the Australian business culture, which is all about the exchange and the transaction. This means that Australians need to be financially and mentally prepared for the fact that a business transaction demands time and the familiarity that comes with it if it is to develop and prosper.
In which industries do you see opportunities for Australian companies?
There is certainly opportunity in our Clean and Green label in terms of agricultural products, as well as manufactured goods. There is still a lot of scope in agribusiness, as food security is a major issue for the region.
In terms of sustainable energy technologies, Morocco has been showcasing some incredible development, which Australia can most certainly contribute to and also learn from. An added benefit in this collaboration is the opportunity for knowledge-transfer. I believe this is a great asset in building our bilateral relationship and establishing a trade platform.
Of course, the education system is hugely valuable in Australia and we are sought after as an English-speaking country with a very good educational system. Due to Australia’s diversity, we have developed enormous strength in educating multicultural students, so we are often called upon in that regard.
AACCI knows there is increasing value in part-time or casual educational options, as MENA governments are turning to vocational courses for their populations, especially for industries where a degree is not needed. This is significant, because population growth in the Middle East and North Africa is the reverse of Australia. Rather than having an ageing population as we have here, the MENA region has an extraordinarily booming youth populations that seek education and employment opportunities. This is a fantastic prospect for Australia on so many fronts, including in regard to education, training, start-up investment and entrepreneurial activity.
Another promising industry is the health industry from construction all the way through to digital health technologies.
From your experience, what are the typical steps that companies undertake when expanding or investing in Australia?
Generally speaking, MENA companies and individuals will first seek information from their compatriots who are based at home or in Australia, whether they know the market well or not.
Next they will visit Australia, most often in a recreational way with no business meetings involved.. MENA business leaders will seek advice from their peers and the Chamber of Commerce in their country, so AACCI encourages delegations from the region into Australia as a great vehicle for creating commercial opportunities.
After a first visit to Australia, a business leader may then return with a more structured intention and that’s when AACCI’s services in networking events and brokering interfaces with State Government bodies and other key stakeholders is invaluable.
People from the MENA region come here to develop an understanding not only of Australia’s legal and structural aspects, but also of Australia’s cultures and general worldview.
In your opinion, what are the main challenges for Arabic companies entering Australia?
A business from the MENA region may feel disadvantage when the Australian system fails to acknowledge overtly their cultural norms and their high incestor value. But this is not always the case. Many Australian organisations (including primary producers) have invited major foreign investment from the MENA region.
What are the common mistakes for companies that want to do business in Australia?
I believe that companies need to do more research and gain a better understanding of how Australians operate before expanding to Australia. They should consider taking greater advantage of the excellent services at their fingertips, including from their own Chambers of Commerce, and their Embassies, Consulates and trade agencies based in Australia. They should not overlook Australian-based resources like the Australia Arab Chamber of Commerce & Industry which will put them in front of our State and Federal agencies.
Another issue is that high-value investors often have high expectations of their reception in Australia that are, in fact, unrealistic. Often such investors are taken by surprise when they are treated like anyone else at our airport immigration, and subjected to the same scrutiny. I see airports as deeply interesting places since they are where a culture’s most conservative nature is most visible. Universally, airports are “hotspots” for observing cultural values, and that presents an educational opportunity. For example, Australian airports openly display the value we place on egalitarianism and on preserving our continent’s pristine biosphere.
The AACCI Board, and in particular AACCI President, Roland Jabbour OAM Esq. JP works very closely with Australian agencies to promote understanding and cooperation in this regard.
What is your knowledge of a potential Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the Arab Region and Australia?
Australia has very strong trade with the UAE. Over the past few years, the Australian Government has been working towards establishing FTAs with the countries within the GCC, although, there have been difficulties in implementing it.
As the GCC includes 7 countries, potentially there could be FTA with individual countries within that GCC. This would overcome the complications of as negotiating a FTA with 7 different countries at once.
That said, the countries of the MENA region do have many active FTAs with each other and with other regions of the world, and Australia can take advantage of these FTAs when we trade with them.
In creating our Bilateral Trades Down Under Series, we would like to thank Dr. Fiona Hill for taking the time to provide such an insightful interview.