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The dark history of Australian live sheep exports to Saudi Arabia

Despite all sensible evidence against the decision, Australia’s live sheep export regulator has reopened the live export trade with Saudia Arabia, granting export approvals to Emanuel Exports.
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Thursday, 11 April 2024

Despite all sensible evidence against the decision, Australia’s live sheep export regulator has reopened the live export trade with Saudia Arabia, granting export approvals to Emanuel Exports. Yes, Emanuel Exports, the very same notorious Western Australian exporter suspended over the Awassi Express disaster in which 2,400 sheep died from heat stress in 2017.

Why did exports to Saudi Arabia stop in the first place?

The channel between Australia and Saudi Arabia had been closed to the live export industry since 2012, due to Saudi Arabia's refusal to comply with regulations imposed by the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS), which they claimed would impact the country’s sovereignty. Lobbying for the trade to resume, Emanuel Exports Managing Director Graham Daws was quoted as saying that Australia’s insistence on countries meeting these most basic ESCAS animal welfare standards before they received Australian animals was a ‘belligerent attitude.’ Note that these are the very same ESCAS standards that the live sheep export industry continues to claim as “world-leading" and which they rely upon for their (dubious) animal welfare claims.

Beyond this troubling stance, the reality is Saudi Arabia’s history of live export from Australia is one riddled with impulsive rejections and animal welfare disasters. So much so, that the live animal export trade with the nation has been suspended three times in recent history; in 1991 for nine years, 2005 for two years, and most recently, since 2012.

A problematic destination with a problematic history

The live export trade is no stranger to animal welfare incidents, and Saudi Arabia has been at the centre of a concerning number of them.

In the last forty years there have been several major disasters including:

  • 1983 A ventilation breakdown on the Mukairish Althalethcauses 70 sheep to die each day.
  • 1989-1990 Several Australian shipments rejected due to claims of scabby mouth and other diseases, by Saudi Arabia. However, examinations by an Australian veterinarian revealed no sign of disease Death rates on board soared to an average of 6% as sheep waited on board ships languishing outside ports or enroute to alternative ports.
  • 1990 The Mawashi Al Gasseem, carrying 86,000 sheep is rejected by Saudi Arabia, later unloading 54,000 in the UAE, the remaining sheep (26,000) are not unloaded until February 1991 when they are accepted by Jordan
  • 2001 Less than a year after trade resumes, there are at least three known instances of shipments to Saudi Arabia under reporting mortality rates
  • 2002 The MV Becrux, on its maiden voyage boasting the ability to provide the highest standard of animal welfare, carried 60,000 sheep and 1,995 cattle from Portland Victoria to Saudi Arabia. 1,400 sheep die along with 880 cattle after the vessel met high temperatures (45 degrees) and humidity in the Arabian Gulf. The ship is later renamed the MV Ocean Drover.
  • 2003 In one of the most notorious animal welfare disasters in live export history, Saudi Arabia rejects the MV Cormo Express(allegedly on disease grounds) in August, with 57,000 sheep on board. No other country will take the sheep, and it was late October before Eritrea agreed to offload them after eight weeks adrift at sea. Around 10% (approximately 6,000) of sheep die during the three month-long voyage. Australia suspends all live exports to Saudi Arabia until 2005.
  • 2007 1,142 sheep die enroute to Saudi Arabia because of salmonellosis.

These incidents, along with the many more disasters on ships bound for the Middle East serve as a salient warning for high risk of disasters to come. The Saudi Arabia route is an especially long and risky journey for sheep. It’s a long-haul voyage through a very hot climate, with a high risk for sheep to suffer from heat stress and death.

Furthermore, sheep that survive the trip and are allowed into port are no longer under the protection of Australian animal welfare laws, and they can be subjected to unacceptable handling and mistreatment. And finally, slaughter is often performed without stunning, causing sheep fear, pain and a prolonged death - suffering that would have been preventable if the sheep were processed onshore in Australia.

A decision that raises urgent questions

The Federal Government made the promise to end live sheep export by sea when elected to Parliament and has continued to reaffirm this commitment. In 2023 an independent panel was appointed to consult on how and when (not if) the transition away from live sheep export should take place. It was a decision welcomed by the majority of the Australian community, including the 71% of West Australian residents in support of the phase out.  Now that the panel’s work has been completed the RSPCA has been calling on the government to commit to a concrete, visible plan that supports farmers to transition to a phase out of live sheep export once and for all.

It seems an odd and contradictory choice to not only resume trade with Saudi Arabia, but to celebrate the ‘new market’ of opportunity this brings to Australian farmers. It appears an unwise move to resume the trade only to rescind it in the near future. This will not bode well for future relations with Saudi Arabia, nor our international reputation and causes further uncertainty for the farmers involved.

Reopening the trade to Saudi Arabia is looking more like an erroneous, high-risk attempt to bolster a trade that is unfixable and in terminal decline.

The way forward is clear

The live sheep export trade is cruel and unfixable. The instances of animal welfare disasters that occur again and again with concerning regularity highlight the impossibility of regulating this inherently risky industry. The decision to add trading with a country with repeated incidents , , and a dark history of animal suffering, is questionable at best.. This is a move sure to further damage Australia’s international reputation, create distrust in the word of Federal Government and most importantly, condemns thousands of living, sentient animals to utterly unnecessary suffering. The risk is just not worth the short-term reward to a small minority of stakeholders clinging to a trade that is unsustainable.

It's well recognised and soundly evidenced, that the future for Australian sheep farming is meat exports, where animals are humanely slaughtered on Australian shores in Australian facilities. It’s safer for our sheep and provides jobs and an economic boost to rural and regional communities.

There is no plausible, evidence-based reason to continue the live sheep export trade in any market, and especially not to volatile markets like Saudi Arabia has proven to be. In fact, during the period that live export shipments were withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, the frozen meat trade tripled. Clear evidence of its viability and acceptance.

The RSPCA believes the Australian Government needs to take swift action to avoid another looming disaster, by legislating an end date and support producers to transition away from the trade. The ship has sailed and it’s time Australia let it go - our animals deserve better.

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