Geographically, Egypt and New Zealand (NZ) are distant. It takes about 25 hours to fly to Wellington from Cairo. But the two countries have maintained good and cooperative relations since their official start in the mid-70s. This cooperation included Wellington’s participation in the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai since 1982.
Daily News Egypt (DNE) met with Greg Lewis — NZ’s Ambassador in Cairo — to learn more about the relations between the two countries, areas of mutual cooperation, and to understand Lewis’ special relations with Egypt and its mangoes.
Let’s start with mangoes, tell us about your relationship with Egyptians and your love for the Egyptian Ismaili mango.
In terms of my relationship with Egypt, I’m on my third diplomatic assignment in Egypt. I was sent here from 2004 to 2005 to study Arabic. So that’s when I first came to Egypt. I then came back as the deputy chief of mission from 2009 to 2011.
Regarding mangoes, in 2020, I drove up to Ismailia to try the different types of mangoes there and I bought some as gifts for friends and colleagues and we decided to tweet about it, then the tweet went viral. Obviously, Egypt has amazing mangoes. It’s something which we certainly enjoyed in the embassy.
One of the things we’re studying at the moment is to export Egyptian mangoes to NZ. And our Ministry of Primary Industries is looking at an application, so we’re hoping to have different mangoes on NZ’s shelves in time.
Speaking of mangoes, what is the volume of trade exchange between Egypt and NZ? What are food products’ share out of the total volume?
Our trade exchange varies from year to year, it goes up and down both ways. But at the moment, it’s normally between NZD 300 to 350m per annum. In 2022, NZ’s exports to Egypt reached NZD 410m. Meanwhile, Egypt’s exports to NZ reached NZD 14m.
We export a lot of dairy products to Egypt. So, there’s a lot of milk powder and New Zealander butter in the supermarkets.
NZ also exports some shellfish and meat products to Egypt. But the lion’s share of New Zealand’s exports to Egypt are dairy products, which account for about 90 to 95% of our exports to Egypt.
Our largest company, Fonterra, has a partnership with Sakr Group, which processes and re-packages the product here and then exports it elsewhere, making Egypt a regional hub for NZ’s dairy products, given its proximity to Europe, Africa, and the Gulf. It’s a win-win for our trading relationship, a win for Egypt, a win for NZ, and an opportunity to create jobs in both countries as well.
Recently, we’ve been working to also develop Egyptian exports to NZ. So, last year, we approved an export plan for Egyptian oranges to be sent to NZ. Egypt produces the most delicious oranges in the world. So, we’re very pleased to have them on our supermarkets’ shelves.
Two months ago, Egypt and NZ signed off an export plan for limes, grapefruit, and all sorts of citrus products.
We see good opportunities for expanding and broadening our trade. I also want to mention that Manuka honey — a famous NZ brand of honey — is now available in the Egyptian market.
Do the two countries cooperate in sectors other than trade?
Trade is a priority because it creates jobs for both Egyptians and for New Zealanders. But our bilateral relationship is much wider than trade. We cooperate extensively with Egypt in a number of different areas, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
So bilaterally, there’s a lot of work in the defence area. NZ is a member of the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai since 1982. So, we’re very grateful for the trust the Egyptian government has in the NZ Defence Force for allowing us to lead that group.
We also do a lot of work in the multilateral space; nuclear disarmament is a key foreign policy area of cooperation for us, disarmament in general, and peacekeeping.
Next month, we’ll be doing some work here on woman’s peace and security, we will be partnering up with the Cairo International Centre for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping, and Peacebuilding (CCCPA). So, our cooperation is quite broad ranging.
In the cultural space, there’s work between NZ’s national archives and Egypt’s Bibliotheca of Alexandrina on how to digitise historical treasures and historical documents so that they can be preserved electronically and accessed globally. And there’s work underway as well with Maspero in terms of the possibility of sharing digital content for radio and television as well.
We’re also looking at having Egyptian documentaries that we can broadcast on television or radio in New Zealand and, likewise, documentaries on New Zealand that could be broadcast here in Egypt.
What are the promising sectors for investment?
I was at the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones (GAFI) four or five weeks ago, as we were invited to listen to a briefing to better understand the opportunities in Egypt. It was interesting to learn about the country’s investment space.
Next month, we’re also going to have our Joint Trade Commission, which will explore areas of trade promotion and investment as well. My assessment at the moment is we’ll be looking at agricultural, given that NZ is very strong in agriculture and it’s an area where I think we can share our expertise.
How do you evaluate the business climate in Egypt given the state’s Assets Privatisation strategy, and what are the obstacles that face New Zealander investors in Egypt?
We are really pleased to see the privatisation of some of the state’s assets and the encouragement to the private sector to expand. I think that’s a really great initiative.
I think the challenge for New Zealander businesses that want to operate in Egypt is not perhaps understanding the regulatory environment well, which sometimes can seem challenging to understand from a distance.
So, one of the things we’ve been working on in cooperation with the Egyptian Embassy in Wellington is to explain what these changes are so that when there are New Zealander businesses that are looking to invest in or export to Egypt, they can better understand what they need to do to be compliant with the local law.
Are there any plans for exchanging business delegations between the two countries in the short term?
I think business delegations are really important going both ways. We would very much welcome business delegations from Egypt to meet with our importers or exporters. Likewise, with these trade talks that we’ve got coming up later this month, we’ll be looking at what possibilities there are for delegations as well.
A big challenge we’ve had has been the COVID-19 pandemic; NZ’s borders have been closed for much of the pandemic. People haven’t been able to travel, and if they did, they quarantined for two weeks before they got home, which made things difficult these last few years. So, now with things moving forward and opening up, we’ll see a lot more business interest.
We don’t have a business delegation planned at this time. These trade talks that we’ve got planned, they’re going to be virtual, because we want to get as many people involved as possible.
One of the challenges we have is while NZ and Egypt agree on lots of things and are very keen to trade, geographically, we are distant. It takes about 25 hours to fly to New Zealand from Egypt, which can be quite expensive for a lot of businesspeople if they wanted to travel.
So, by having it virtually, we can get lots of people together, we can get New Zealand Trade and Enterprise — which is our government’s B2B promotion. Officials can also meet easily virtually.
What is the volume of New Zealander tourism to Egypt? Are there any agreements or facilities by the Egyptian government to encourage New Zealander tourists to visit Egypt?
Tourism from NZ to Egypt has been low for the last couple of years because of COVID-19. So that’s been a big problem for us in terms of people not wanting to be on an airplane for 24 hours because they are worried about catching the virus.
We’ve had an additional problem, which is that NZ’s borders were closed during the pandemic. It was great because it protected the country, but it meant that it was essentially isolated. We are very pleased that now things have moved on and the borders are open.
There’s a strong desire by New Zealanders to travel to Egypt due to its amazing history and the beaches of Dahab and Gouna.
Egypt is an affordable destination. One thing that I find a lot of people do is that they come to Egypt and spend two weeks here, and then go to Europe, making it a primary destination for some of our travellers or an important stop in a larger journey.
Concerning the numbers, it’s hard to know because as I said, the pandemic made things difficult. So, numbers are kind of difficult to quantify because of the really weird environment we’ve been in for the last few years.
Does NZ have a large Egyptian expat community? How was this community affected by the consequences of the Christchurch incident?
My understanding is that there is about 6,000 Egyptians who live in NZ. They’re very active across all cities, especially in Christchurch and Auckland. A lot of them are in very good jobs, a lot of them are dual nationals, so they are Egyptian New Zealanders. Unfortunately, with the terrorist attack in 2019, we did lose four Egyptian New Zealanders, which was devastating for us, for the embassy, and for our Muslim community in NZ.
We have about 60,000 to 70,000 Muslims in NZ. They are an integral part of the fabric of our society. They are our brothers and sisters. We are in this together. So, the terrorist attack, I think, was something that shocked NZ to its core.
I was pleased with the way that the country responded, but I was devastated in the way that it actually happened on our soil. I remember meeting the grand imam of Al-Azhar and other Islamic leaders to convey both my profound and deep sorrow for the event. But also, to reassure that our Muslim communities — like our Christian or Buddhist communities — are what make us strong. They’re a part of the fabric of our communities. We are brothers and sisters.
As an island nation threatened by climate change, does Wellington cooperate with Cairo on this matter? What does NZ have to offer during the COP27 that will be held in Sharm El-Sheikh this November?
We are delighted that Egypt got the global leadership for the COP27 this year. The climate emergency is something which we’re very focused on. New Zealand is a Pacific Island country. And as you know, island countries will be significantly impacted by climate change and the rising sea levels.
Likewise, I know that Egypt and Africa will be disproportionately impacted as well by climate change. So, I think both our countries will face a lot of consequences if we don’t cooperate to fight this phenomenon.
Our countries have slightly different climate impacts but share the same concern. We’ll be sending a delegation to the COP27 and have a ministerial attendance as well.
In terms of climate finance initiatives, in October 2021, NZ committed to spending NZD 1.3bn in grant-based climate finance from 2022 to 2025.
We’ve also undertaken to plant a billion trees in NZ as well. Obviously, trees are natural carbon sinks. We’re also engaging in work with the Global Research Alliance (GRA). So, we’re working with Egypt as part of this. And we’re looking at climate change emissions in the agricultural space.
One of the major problems in NZ is gas emissions from cows, because they release a lot of methane. So, we’re researching the possibility of modifying the bacteria that’s present in cows so they’ll produce less methane so that you can have more cows without the high cost to the environment.
NZ also wants to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. So, very ambitious plans. But I think this is what’s needed. You know, we need to be forward leaning in this space.
Tell us about your visit to Palestine and NZ’s involvement with the situation in the Middle East.
The embassy here is accredited to Palestine. I travelled to Palestine three weeks ago, where I met with the Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, Minister of Foreign Affairs Riyad Al-Maliki, and his Assistant to talk about our bilateral relationship and how NZ and Palestine might cooperate more together.
One of the areas we talked about was closer cooperation it the education sector for example and looking at scholarships that were provided to Palestinians. We also talked about consultations and having a delegation from NZ travel to Ramallah to better understand the issues that are facing Palestine.
NZ also continues to be a strong advocate of the two-state solution. We have been very active in the UN, including when we were on the Security Council to promote the two-state solution. So, we stand ready to support that initiative.
We understand that peace in the Middle East is a complicated matter, and we also acknowledge that we’re a long way away and that we’re a small country. But we are very keen to see a resolution to Middle East’s peace process through a two-state solution.
What is the embassy’s plan in Egypt for the coming five years?
The focus of my team at the moment is on trade talks happening this month. So, we’ve been working closely with the Ministry of Trade and Industry. And there’ll be a very large virtual meeting. Again, virtual because we don’t want to send people across on airplanes, putting lots of carbon in the atmosphere when we don’t have to. So, it’s about being more environmentally aware.
Also, there’s an opportunity to look at our trading relationship and ascertain what we’re doing well, and what we can do better. We’re looking at having a ministerial visit, primarily for the Minister of Defence next month. And then of course the COP27 in November.
The delegations will include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, and the Ministry of Primary Industries. We’re also looking at the Africa New Zealand Business Council (ANZBC)
Is there any intention to discuss a free trade agreement between the two countries?
I think if we look at a free trade agreement, we first need to increase our trade volume. So, once exporters and importers know what opportunities there are in Egypt, trade will improve, which is when an agreement of this sort will be more viable.