In many ways, Ireland and the UAE may seem unlikely business partners.
With a population of fewer than five million people, the Emerald Isle is smaller than the emirates, nearly 8,000km away, and separated by oceans plus the entirety of the European continent.
But, in the eyes of now ex-Irish Deputy Prime Minister Frances Fitzgerald, an already flourishing trade relationship between the two countries is set to take off to new heights.
Earlier this month, Fitzgerald, who served as Ireland’s An Tánaiste between May 2016 and her resignation just last week and Minister of Business, Enterprise and Innovation since June 2017, was on a whirlwind trade mission to the UAE and Oman. Her mission: to grow Irish exports to the UAE from $1.6bn to $2.33bn by 2020.
Without a doubt, the highlight of Fitzgerald’s Middle East journey was the Dubai Airshow, where she visited the eight Irish companies who participated at the event.
Speaking to Arabian Business in one of her last interviews before resigning, Fitzgerald says that the aviation sector – which contributed more than $4.67bn to Ireland’s GDP in 2016 and sustains thousands of jobs – plays a “very central” role in Ireland’s strategy to grow trade with the UAE.
“It’s all about developing partnerships in the region,” Fitzgerald says. “Clearly, this is a very developed sector [for the UAE]. Our companies have developed expertise in various sectors of aviation, whether it is in maintenance, the supply of interiors, or technology. We focus very much in Ireland on innovation and technology in the aviation area.”
The growing importance of the aviation sector to Irish-UAE economic ties was starkly highlighted at the airshow, where a number of companies announced significant deals.
Among the success stories was Botany Weaving, a Dublin-based manufacturer of aviation fabrics and carpets, which secured a multi-million dollar deal with a UAE airline to supply interior textiles.
Even before this year’s airshow, the company had a strong market share in the Middle East, supplying carpets and fabrics to airlines including Emirates, Etihad, Kuwait Airways, Air Arabia, flydubai, and Qatar Airways.
According to Botany Weaving managing director Jonathan Hackett, the company – like many other Irish businesses in the aviation sector – grew as a result of combining ‘traditional’ Irish industries with modern-day innovation, which is aided by Ireland’s favourable business climate.
“Traditionally, we were a manufacturer of clothing fabric, for suits and so forth, and Ireland has been one of the major centres for aircraft leasing in the world for quite some time now,” he says.
“About half of all the aircraft leased in the world are leased out of Ireland, primarily because there is a very low corporation tax rate of 12.5 percent, so it tends to attract a lot of leasing companies because that can improve their return.”
These conditions, he notes, provided the opportunity for his company, founded in 1934, to move into the aviation sector, and eventually into the Middle East.
“Because all these leasing companies are based in Dublin, we started supplying them with seat fabric and carpet, and then their leasing customers started to re-order that from us. One thing led to another, and we developed geographically through the UK, Europe, Asia, Latin America, the USA and the Middle East.”
Julie Sinnamon, the CEO of Enterprise Ireland – the government entity tasked with helping Irish-owned businesses deliver new export sales – remarks that the relationship between Irish companies and Gulf airlines is also a way for Irish companies to help grow their brands and expand their profiles around the globe.
“The Gulf airlines have a massive reputation globally, and our customers coming in to supply the airline industry in the UAE see it as the gold standard,” she says.
“If you can get in and do business here, it’s a calling card for the rest of the world in terms of the quality [of Irish products] and our ability to do business here.”
Emily Mellet, the VP Sales – Technical Services and Engineering for Eirtech Aviation Services, says there remain “massive” opportunities in the aviation sector. Eirtech, based in Shannon, specialises in engineering, cabin modification, composite repair and asset management solutions and works with customers throughout the Middle East.
“A lot of customers want to do business with Ireland-based companies, and a lot of that has to do with the expertise we have in aviation. It’s across the board, from technical and legal to regulations. It’s everything really – a one-stop shop,” she says. “We’ve also a lot of treaties and trade agreements with other countries and jurisdictions, which makes us an easy country to work with. We’re very aviation-oriented.
“We’ve a lot to be grateful for down here in the Middle East. They’re fantastic customers and they’ve been supporting us a long time,” she adds.
The Brexit factor
Ireland’s efforts to increase exports in the Gulf and in other regions coincide with the looming prospect of a European Union without the UK, a market on which Irish industries are heavily dependent. After Brexit, Ireland will be the only English-speaking country in the European Union.
According to Fitzgerald, Brexit will “intensify” economic ties between Ireland, the UAE and the rest of the region. “We think [that as a result of Brexit] there are a lot of opportunities for companies in this region to invest in Ireland, but also for our exporting companies to focus on the region. We are very much into diversification as a result of Brexit.”
One export area which is expected to grow in a post-Brexit environment, Fitzgerald notes, is the food and dairy sector, given the sector’s strong dependence on the UK market. Even before Brexit, Irish food exports to the UAE have increased by 25 percent over the last three years. “We’ve a lot to offer this region in terms of the innovation and research that’s going on with dairy in Ireland.”
Sinnamon, for her part, says that Enterprise Ireland sees the UAE and the rest of the GCC countries as the perfect market for the sorts of food and dairy products Ireland has to offer, calling the Gulf an area “with discerning customers who will actually pay a premium for animals fed on grass-based food.”
“We’re the only country in the world with complete traceability of every single product,” she adds. “There’s a real strong focus on quality in the Irish food market, and a market like the Gulf recognises that approach.”
Fitzgerald says the Irish government is also keen to push for more tourism from the UAE, capitalising on 28 direct flights every week. The next step, she notes, is making changes to the existing visa policy which requires that UAE nationals apply for visas before visiting.
“There’s a lot of scope for tourism. We’ll be making it much easier for people to come directly to Ireland, without any visa issues. That decision will be made in a few weeks, and that will make it easier for people,” she says. “People are very welcome to come and visit us as tourists, as well as business people. That will make a difference as well.”
The human element
Although it may be easy to overlook, many Irish officials and businessmen are quick to point out that a vital factor in the future of Ireland-UAE economic ties is the similar mindsets the two countries have towards conducting business.
Indeed, Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, and perhaps Ireland’s most famous export to this region told Arabian Business recently:
“I believe that the UAE has similar attitudes to Ireland when it comes to enterprise and business. Central to that approach is the importance of having a first-hand relationship that drives the business forward. We like one-on-one relationships.”
Fitzgerald agrees with this assessment. “We’re very similar countries, pro-enterprise and pro-innovation, interested in diversification and exports,” she says. “And both in the UAE and in Ireland, we see the support for small and medium enterprises as critical to a growing economy overall.”
Irish nationals are particularly well represented in high-level positions in regional aviation sector. Aside from Dubai Duty Free’s Colm McLoughlin, other Irish aviation leaders in the region include Paul Byrne, the CEO of Saudi Arabia’s FlyNAS, Ray Gammell, Interim CEO and Chief People and Performance Officer of Etihad and Eugene Barry, Executive VP Commercial Group, Dubai Airports.
“There are a lot of successful Irish people in senior positions in the aviation sector. Those links are really important, in terms of opening doors and introducing Irish suppliers to people. [It helps] their quality and reputation go before them.” Sinnamon explains. “You need someone to open those doors. They are all ambassadors for Ireland.”
Fitzgerald notes that the secret to success may be even simpler: Irish citizens feel welcome in the UAE, which more than 10,000 people now call home, making it one of the largest communities of Irish expatriates outside of Europe and North America.
Given the size of the community and the success that Irish citizens have achieved in prominent regional businesses, Fitzgerald says it’s little wonder that Irish businesses are flourishing and continuing to grow in the UAE and across the Gulf.
“It’s a very big group. It’s way more than in China, for example, where it’s 2,000,” she says. “Irish people seem very happy here. I have to say, they’re made to feel very welcome. Irish people really like living here.”
Ireland in Oman
In Oman, the Irish trade mission focused heavily on technology, with a number of Irish tech companies signing deals with Omani investors. Additionally, Enterprise Ireland signed agreements with the Oman Technology Fund to create more co-investment opportunities for Irish companies and help Oman create a start-up ecosystem suitable for the its own needs.
Among the companies that penned deals in Oman was iheed, a Dublin-based medical technology company, which announced that it secured a EUR3m ($3.58m) investment from Atlantic Bridge – one of Europe’s best performing tech funds – supported by the Oman Technology Fund along with ACT Venture Partners.
In a separate agreement, Atlantic Bridge signed a strategic investment partnership with the Oman Technology Fund and the Oman Investment Fund – Oman’s sovereign wealth fund – to enable investment into Atlantic Bridge III and co-investment opportunities for companies looking into expand into the Middle East through Oman.
Irish food in GCC
According to Bord Bia – the Irish Food Board – Irish food and drink exports to the countries of the Arabian Gulf are currently estimated to be worth EUR250m ($298m), a 26 percent increase over the course of the last five years.
In the past, Bord Bia officials have stated that the Gulf – which imports between 80 and 90 percent of its food products – is a “perfect fit” for Ireland, which exports the same percentage of food and drink products produced in the country. Additionally, Bord Bia has announced that it is now the largest exporter of cheese products to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with 10,344 tonnes of cheese products coming from Ireland in 2016.
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