New Zealand Sheep Leaving on a Jet Plane, Don’t Know When They’ll Be Baaaack Again

New Zealanders are pretty irked that their government spent millions in taxpayer money to air-freight about 1,000 sheep to Saudi Arabia and set up a farm there.


New Zealanders are pretty peeved by the revelation that their government spent a bunch of taxpayer money to air-freight nearly 1,000 sheep to Saudi Arabia.

The sheep shipment was part of a $4.4 million deal (6 million New Zealand dollars) to set up a New Zealand-sponsored “agribusiness service hub and demonstration farm” in eastern Saudi Arabia. The New Zealand government says the scheme is an important investment for its country, where sheep famously outnumber people six-to-one, and where the meat trade with Saudi Arabia is worth millions.

But many are blasting it as a move to mollify the powerful Saudi businessman who owns the farm where the sheep have been sent, and who also has invested deeply in New Zealand’s own sheep industry.

New Zealand announced a general ban on exports of live farm animals in 2004, amid outrage from animal rights groups over livestock packed into “reeking, squalid” ships and a 2003 shipping disaster in which more than 5,000 sheep died on an Australian vessel en route to Saudi Arabia.

The ban left Saudi tycoon Hamood Al Ali al-Khalaf sheep-hungry and angry over the loss of business.

Skeptical Kiwis see the new sheep delivery as undue compensation for the well-connected al-Khalaf at a time when New Zealand is trying to cement a free trade deal in the Gulf. New Zealand jetted the sheep to Saudi Arabia late last year, but the scheme is just now making news after Prime Minister John Key’s recent visit to the Gulf to negotiate the trade deal.

Further fueling the anger is the information, provided by New Zealand television network TVNZ, that al-Khalaf also was the buyer of the animals that died in the 2003 sheep disaster.

“If this is the man who was behind the lamb deaths that led to the ban on live sheep in the first place then [Prime Minister] John Key and [Trade Minister] Tim Groser have just made fools of themselves at the taxpayer’s expense,” New Zealand opposition party trade spokesman David Parker told TVNZ.

New Zealand’s Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy has called the arrangement “a sound investment” – and one that can eventually “help us land the free trade agreement.” The government says the 2003 shipping disaster was part of why the sheep traveled by plane this time around.

Halal meat orders from Muslim countries have long brought New Zealand, as well as Australia, lots of business. But many Kiwis’ response to the latest deal is: “Baa, humbug!”

Bethany Clarke/Getty Images for Wool Week

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan

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