Key heads delegation seeking King Salman’s support for agreement with Gulf nations.

John Key will arrive in Saudi Arabia today with the hope of getting high-level commitment from the new King to a free trade agreement with the Gulf states, which has been all but finalised since 2009.

Mr Key has been in the United Arab Emirates for the past two days and today's stop will be the first visit by a New Zealand Prime Minister to Saudi Arabia.

Mr Key is scheduled to meet King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who has been king since January after the death of his half-brother, King Abdullah.

Mr Key's wife, Bronagh, will be wearing an abaya in Saudi Arabia, a robe-like dress covering all but the hands and head. A business delegation and Trade Negotiations Minister Tim Groser are also travelling with the Prime Minister.

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Mr Key has been urged to take up the issue of human rights abuses with the Saudi leadership, particularly executions, of which there have been 50 this year, mainly by beheading according to Amnesty International.

Labour's acting leader Annette King says human rights issues in Saudi Arabia should not rule out a free trade agreement, but the Prime Minister should not waste an opportunity to make concerns clear during his visit.

Ms King said the trade deal with the Gulf states could be good for New Zealand but Mr Key should set out New Zealand's concerns clearly, especially on women's rights.

"He's the first Prime Minister to go there and him going is important. We are not opposed to trade deals. But we also believe he's got the best opportunity we've had to raise those issues because he is the first PM for New Zealand to go there."

She said New Zealand had free trade agreements with many countries which it did not agree with on human rights.

-Additional reporting by Claire Trevett

"If we didn't trade with countries because we didn't like their human rights, there wouldn't be many countries we would be trading with. But that doesn't mean human rights are not important. So the Prime Minister must take this opportunity to raise them in a very open, public way and tell New Zealanders exactly what he raised with them."

Mr Groser told the Herald last night it had been frustrating to have the FTA put on hold while the six Gulf states determined a new policy on FTAs. All that was required now was for legal experts to agree that the Arabic and English versions said the same thing.

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"But ours has always been accepted as the next one to be done," Mr Groser said.

"So obviously we are hoping that the Prime Minister's meeting with the new King Salman of Saudi Arabia, given that this is another top-down society, will help us to achieve our objective and that will be a major step forward. We are using the PM's trip to Riyadh in particular to try and get some high-level commitment."

Mr Groser said New Zealand's trade with the UAE had now overtaken its trade with Saudi Arabia.

The Emirates had become an international hub for Africa, Europe and the Middle East and last year Dubai overtook Heathrow as the busiest airport in the world.

"The Gulf states were also an island of relative stability and progress compared with the issues tearing the Middle East apart at the moment," he said.

Big six states

•Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) is a group of six Arab states - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman - which organise themselves together for political and economic objectives.

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•With exports worth $1.9 billion, GCC is New Zealand's fifth-biggest export destination, about the same as our exports to China in 2008.

•New Zealand exports more goods to GCC than to Britain.

•The Prime Minister's delegation includes Fonterra, Gallagher, Silver Fern Farms, Tegel, Wynyard, Airways NZ, AsureQuality, Orion Health, NZ Middle East Business Council, Maven, Uniservices, FrameCad, Pultron, Unitec, The Skills Organisation, Cognition Education, Education NZ, NZ Trade and Enterprise.

•If the Saudi Government approves the FTA it will be a major step but not the final one. The deal would still need signing off by the GCC.

-Additional reporting by Claire Trevett