The Irish have been on a business offensive in the UAE for some time. In the past 18 months, no fewer than nine government ministers have visited the Emirates on trade missions, four so far in the first few months of 2015 alone.
Richard Bruton, the Irish minister responsible for jobs, enterprise and innovation, was the latest emissary to push the Irish-UAE trade connection last week when he spent three days in the Emirates as part of an official trade mission that took in most other countries of the GCC and India.
“We have doubled the number of trade missions since the financial crisis. This reflects the trend of Irish business to internationalise. Irish companies go international almost from birth,” he said.
The Irish have always been good global citizens, perhaps reflecting the lack of opportunities at home for most of its history as an independent country. It was only during the boom years of the Celtic Tiger that historic trends towards mass emigration were reversed.
Since the crisis, emigration has once again been a prominent feature of Irish economy and society, so perhaps it is no surprise that business too has followed the trend. Even with the Irish economy now improving significantly, its businesspeople are continuing to look abroad for opportunities.
The Arabian Gulf, and the UAE, has been a significant new focus of the current wave of outward orientation, beyond the traditional Irish destinations of Britain, the US and Australia.
“We see a huge opportunity in the UAE. Whatever the regional security situation, there is big ambition in the UAE to grow and to build trade with other countries, and that’s a good thing. Irish companies are voting with their feet in coming to the UAE, recognising its stability in the region,” Mr Bruton said, pointing out that there are now about 300 Irish-owned businesses in the Emirates.
There are a few more after his visit, which was organised in partnership with Enterprise Ireland, the agency that promotes trade but also acts as a venture capital incubator for Irish companies.
Deals were concluded between the Dubai Police and the Irish healthcare group Mater Private; between the National Real Estate Company (one of the developers of Abu Dhabi’s planned Reem Mall) and the Irish financial consulting firm Miagen; and between the Jumeirah leisure group and an Irish glass processing group.
There were about 60 companies on the visit, and for half of them it was the first time in the Arabian Gulf. “A common feature of many of them is that they provide technology that solves a problem, that’s what Irish business is good at,” said Mr Bruton.
The technology was also applied in the fields of aviation, where Irish companies have developed expertise in passenger and baggage management, in water management systems, in pharmaceuticals, and in the more traditional Irish arena of construction.
Food and agriculture is also a growing area of business between Ireland and the UAE. Ireland exports 90 per cent of the food it produces, the UAE imports 90 per cent of the food it consumes, so an increasing synergy would seem logical.
In fact, Irish food exports are set to boom, following the removal of European Union-imposed quotas on dairy produce. Ireland is looking for new markets for milk, cheese and infant formula products. The national food agency, Bord Bia, recently set up full-time offices in the UAE to mastermind that growth in the region.
Mr Bruton said that Ireland is closely watching the growth of the halal food industry, of which Dubai aims to be a global leader. “There are already three halal-approved food processing plants in Ireland, and it’s obviously an opportunity for us,” he added.
Islamic finance is also an area of common interest. Dublin is a big centre for listing of sukuk (Sharia-compliant bonds) and it also figures as an important element of Ireland’s five-year strategy for financial services.
Mr Bruton is the brother of a former Irish taoiseach (prime minister), John, who at the height of the Irish financial crisis visited the UAE with the aim of luring Gulf capital to the creaking Irish financial system.
It appears, however, that those dark days are over for the country. Ireland has taken its austerity medicine better perhaps than any country in the euro zone, and all the indicators are heading in the right direction.
“The borrowing targets have been beaten, GDP growth will be around 5 per cent this year, unemployment is down and we’re aiming to reach full employment by 2018. Agriculture, tourism and exports are all growing, and construction and property are coming back. The central bank has even had to warn about excessive exuberance in real estate,” he says.
Mr Bruton strongly rejects criticism from some quarters that Irish austerity measures have gone on for too long, and that the country is developing a two-tier economy, with most of the recovery concentrated in and around the capital Dublin. “I think it’s inaccurate to call it two speed. Around 50 per cent of the new jobs created are outside Dublin, and the export-oriented recovery has benefited the regions in particular. Foreign inward investment has focused on cities like Limerick, Cork and Galway,” he says.
Maybe it’s too early to say the Celtic Tiger is back on the prowl, but Irish business has been changed forever by the financial crisis, and will increasingly look outward for growth opportunities. The UAE will continue to be a focus of attention.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter