THE Saudi Arabian Agriculture Minister has thrown his support behind Australian livestock exporters and expressed his disappointment at a lack of consultation by the Australian Government before the introduction of the controversial Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS).
On a recent trip to Australia to discuss various trade opportunities, Dr Fahad AS Balghunaim said the country was not consulted before ESCAS was implemented despite Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig leading a delegation to the Middle East last year to discuss the system.
Dr Balghunaim said he did not accept governments overstepping borders.
"ESCAS is a supply chain process which crosses borders and that is something we do not accept," Dr Balghunaim said.
He said that had been the country's position on the issue from the start and that had been communicated through diplomatic channels to the Auustralian Government.
"We have said whatever observations the Australian Government has we responded to them," he said.
"We in Saudi Arabia have a great ethical and social value on animal welfare.
"We have a strong religious commitment to animal welfare, but that doesn't mean that all our citizens are abiding by our religious teachings or our governmental laws.
"But as a government our policy is extremely clear about animal welfare."
Saudi Arabia was the first country to refuse to accept Australia's enforced ESCAS standards which industry leaders believe has played a major role in the current drop in WA sheep prices.
During the interview with Dr Balghunaim, it was clear his country would continue to refuse the ESCAS standards meaning the livestock trade was unlikely to reopen anytime soon.
But he admitted the trade could reopen if Australia resumed its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Saudi Arabia.
The MOU was signed between the countries in 2005 and updated in 2009.
Dr Balghunaim said the MOU was signed following the strong consultation following the Cormo Express, but this time there was no consultation.
"We sat at the table together after the Cormo Express and we came up with a new MOU," he said.
"In fact it is the first MOU Saudi Arabia had signed with any country.
"And then we were taken into a process (ESCAS) not done through negotiation and that is the difference.
"You cannot put your conditions on your partner, you discuss your conditions with your partner."
Dr Balghunaim did not want to comment on whether the Australian Government had overstepped the mark and their political boundaries by trying to enforce standards on other countries, but believed governments should look after their own borders.
"There are internal politics in every country, but as a government official I cannot overstep my boundary," he said.
"Any communication that relates to Australia has come through our foreign ministry and this is what we have done."
Dr Balghunaim did not reveal what he wanted to see from the Australian Government and said he would make it clear to them behind closed doors, but not in the media.
"We have a great respect for this nation and for its rules," he said.
"We value the trade potential which is much much bigger than it is now, we also value the investment potential which is also much bigger than it is now.
"I hope that whatever obstacles are in place in this process are removed through negotiations and a mutual understanding and respect."
Saudi Arabia had previously imported about1.2 million sheep from Australia, but last year received just 70,000.
Saudi Arabia imported eight million sheep last year and Dr Balghunaim said the country wanted Australian and New Zealand sheep first as they had good sheep with minimal disease.
He said as a result of ESCAS, Saudi Arabia was now sourcing more sheep from countries such as Sudan, Somalia and Uruguay.
Mr Ludwig said the dialogue Australia was having with the Saudi Government was important and was another step in the right direction.
"In last week's meeting there were positive discussions between both governments, and we will both continue to work together on a way forward," Mr Ludwig said.
"That is the crucial issue here.
"Both governments want to find a way forward so that we can continue the trade.
"Saudi, for many years, has not been a major importer of Australian sheep.
"There is a good opportunity to increase the trade and we want to work together with the Saudi Government to do that.
"The live export trade is very important not only for WA but for producers more broadly, and continuing and building on the trade to markets like Saudi is very important to the Australian Government.
"The steps Saudi is taking domestically should be applauded.
"They see the need to address animal welfare and implement their own laws, and it's really good news for the country."
Dr Balghunaim also said he would like to increase the amount of wheat imported from Australia and said there was no limit as to how much they would buy.