In her victorious election campaign in 2017, Jacinda Ardern famously called climate change “my generation’s nuclear-free moment.” Perhaps surprisingly, however, Ardern has not attended a U.N. climate change conference since she became New Zealand’s prime minister in 2017.
Had New Zealand’s COVID-19 situation allowed for it, Ardern would have almost certainly joined the many other world leaders who went to COP26 in Glasgow last year. At the time, New Zealand still had strict border restrictions in place. These included long waiting lists for hotel quarantine spaces upon return – which made overseas travel by Ardern politically unpalatable. Ardern dispatched her climate change minister, James Shaw, to Scotland instead.
Last year’s COP26 in Glasgow was heavily attended by leaders because countries are expected to make major new climate pledges every five years. The main outcome was the Glasgow Climate Pact, which prioritizes taking action on climate change in the 2020s and limiting the rise in global average temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees. To this end, New Zealand committed to reducing its net emissions by 50 percent by 2030, when compared with 2005 levels.
By contrast, this year’s COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is billed as being about “implementation” and on working on the detail. Leaders will largely speak in roundtable formats, rather than at U.N. General Assembly-style plenary sessions.
Nevertheless, the summit will still be a major event. Egypt says around 90 heads of state have sent in an RSVP – including U.S. President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, who have already confirmed they will attend.
Israel, which occupied the Sinai Peninsula where Sharm el-Sheikh is located from 1967-1982, will also send a large delegation to its neighbor and will have a dedicated pavilion at a COP event for the first time. Ran Yaakoby, Israel’s ambassador to Wellington, wrote that “collaborations” with the Pacific pavilion that includes New Zealand are planned.
On the other side of the ledger, the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is skipping the summit and Australia’s Anthony Albanese is unlikely to attend – although both Australia and the U.K. were represented by their respective leaders at Glasgow in 2021.
Of course, the ostensibly more practical focus of COP27 might appeal to Jacinda Ardern – and it would follow on from her trip to Antarctica in October, which sought to highlight problems caused by climate change.
Earlier in October, the prime minister also personally unveiled a bolder-than-expected blueprint to force New Zealand farmers pay for agricultural greenhouse gas (such as methane) emissions from their livestock. The draft plan led to major protests within New Zealand’s agricultural and rural sector.
New Zealand was one of 105 countries that signed up to the Global Methane Pledge in Glasgow in 2021, under which signatories promised to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.
While Ardern’s attendance at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh would be hugely significant in its own right, a trip would also make sense for other reasons. First and foremost, a visit to Egypt would also be Jacinda Ardern’s first trip to the Middle East as prime minister.
Despite its strategic and trading significance, the Middle East has largely been overlooked by New Zealand in recent years. John Key’s visits to the Gulf and then Iraq in 2015 were the last times a New Zealand prime minister visited the region.
Nevertheless, Ardern already has a significant profile in the Middle East, largely built on her response to the Christchurch mosque attacks in 2019. Her landslide election victory in 2020 was covered heavily by Arabic-language media.
A visit by Ardern to Egypt would be the first by a New Zealand prime minister since Helen Clark went to Cairo in 2007 to open a New Zealand embassy there.
For New Zealand, the trip would probably come at just the right time. Exports to Egypt are currently surging – reaching almost 400 million New Zealand dollars in the year to June, the highest level since 2016.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the trade picture is similarly optimistic. New Zealand exports to the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – now exceed NZ$2 billion annually. In the other direction, exports from the GCC countries to New Zealand now top NZ$3 billion each year. When taken as a single market, the GCC is New Zealand’s seventh-biggest export market and overall trading partner.
It’s no wonder then that Damien O’Connor, New Zealand’s trade minister, cites the GCC as New Zealand’s current priority when it comes to free trade negotiations.
Of course, authoritarian regimes are a major complicating factor when it comes to New Zealand’s trade deals with the Middle East. Activist Naomi Klein recently criticized Egypt’s hosting of COP27 as “greenwashing a police state,” pointing to the poor human rights record and treatment of political prisoners by the country that has been ruled by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since he led a military coup in 2013.
When asked in relation to his Gulf trade focus about how New Zealand balances trade against human rights concerns, O’Connor largely dodged the question and referred the matter to the foreign affairs minister, arguing that “commercial relationships … are separate.”
Of course, New Zealand already has extensive experience in navigating tensions between human rights and trade in its relationship with China, its biggest trading partner.
The growing street protests in Iran serve as reminders of the complexity and difficult choices New Zealand faces in its relationship with the Middle East as a whole. The news last week that two New Zealanders had been released unharmed by Iran – after being held for several months – showed how a longstanding diplomatic relationship and quiet work behind the scenes could pay off.
Aside from COP27 in Egypt, other major global events are currently being staged throughout the Gulf.
In Saudi Arabia, the Future Investment Initiative event, often called “Davos in the Desert,” has just wrapped up in Riyadh. In the UAE, the Global Media Congress – a major summit on the future of the industry – and the Formula One Grand Prix will soon get underway in Abu Dhabi. And Bahrain will host foreign and defense ministers at the flagship Manama Dialogue event run by London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
The world’s eyes will then shift to Qatar, as it hosts the FIFA World Cup from November 20 until December 18. It will be the first time that a country in the Middle East has hosted the world’s biggest sporting event.
The Middle East is likely to continue to increase in significance for New Zealand. For Wellington, there is much at stake at the upcoming COP27 in Egypt – not only the pressing global crisis of climate change, but New Zealand’s relationship with an increasingly important region.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement on politics and society.