Remarks from the Tánaiste at the Arab Irish Business Forum
Speech13 September 2023
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to be here today to speak on the occasion of the fourth Arab Irish Business Forum.
At the outset I would like to extend my condolences to the people of Morocco after the devastating earthquake on Friday. People across our country have been deeply moved by the scenes of devastation and loss that have emerged.
On Monday, I announced a contribution of €2 million in support to the people of Morocco following the tragedy, to support urgent and immediate humanitarian needs on the ground.
I was also shocked and saddened by the devastation caused by flooding in Libya. My department is closely monitoring the situation as it develops and my thoughts are with the emergency responders and people of Libya at this very sad time.
Earlier in my career, while serving as Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, I accompanied the then Taoiseach in what was at the time, one of the largest ever Irish overseas trade missions to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. With the involvement of over 120 companies, we met with government ministers, business leaders, and Irish communities.
What is very striking today is just how far Ireland’s trading and business relationships with the Arab world have come since that visit.
It is not hard to see why Irish businesses are attracted to Arab markets. With a fast growing population of more than 440 million people and rapidly growing economies – economies that could more than triple in size in the coming decades – both the government and Irish businesses see the great economic potential in the Arab world.
As a small nation with an open economy, Ireland depends on trade and we owe much of our prosperity to the sale of our goods and services around the world.
The ongoing economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have made trade challenging. Nevertheless, Ireland’s trade and business links with the Arab world have proven to be resilient, and also that there is much potential for further growth.
Over the past decade, Irish goods exports to the Arab world have increased by almost 70%, and with exports already just short of €1.5 billion, we are on course for another record year in 2023.
Many Irish businesses now maintain a physical presence in Arab countries, in sectors such as aviation, financial services, financial technology, engineering, construction and healthcare. The promise and potential for Irish businesses in the region is something that the government recognises, nurtures and supports through our trade and investment agencies, Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia, Tourism Ireland and IDA Ireland; and of course our embassy network.
These business links create jobs and wealth, and they also spread elements of Irish life across the Arab world. There are Butlers Chocolate Cafés in Saudi airports. Last year Musgraves opened a Centra store in Qatar, its first ever store outside of Ireland.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE continue to be dominant markets for Irish exports to Arab countries. But our trading relationships are not confined to the Gulf region. With a population of 46 million, Algeria is another major importer of Irish dairy goods and medical and pharmaceutical products. Exports to Algeria increased by an extraordinary 153% in the first quarter of this year alone.
Egypt is also a major consumer of Irish milk powders, butter and cheese. And Irish exports are not just continuing to rise in established markets, we are also witnessing excellent continued growth this year with less established trading partners, including Oman, Iraq, and Jordan.
What this all means is that there is demand for Irish products in the region that is worth exploring. There are clearly opportunities for businesses to scale up operations and consider diversifying into new markets.
I should note also that since the last forum air connectivity between Ireland and Arab countries has improved significantly and we are continuing to support the expansion of routes into Ireland from the Arab world, enhancing the possibilities for trade yet further.
2023 marks 50 years of Ireland’s membership of the European Union. Following the decision of our nearest neighbour to leave the EU, Ireland’s commitment to the EU has never been stronger.
Our membership of the EU is fundamental to our foreign policy interests and helps shape our engagement with the Arab world.
The EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council have both recognised the potential of an enhanced strategic partnership, as shown by the publication of the Joint Communication in May of last year.
Together the EU and GCC represent 20% of the global economy and we have identified a range of areas where we can work to enhance cooperation, including on trade, energy, climate, political dialogue, and visas. The joint communication and the recent appointment of a new EU Special Representative to the Gulf demonstrate the EU’s commitment to the region.
North Africa is also a very important part of the EU neighbourhood. In June, the EU and Tunisia agreed to work together on a comprehensive partnership package, including cooperation in the areas of economic and trade ties, energy, and further developing people to people contacts.
Ireland sees huge potential for cooperation with Arab partners on Energy. We want Ireland to become energy independent by harnessing our untapped renewable energy resources, and we are conscious that this is a project that will go beyond the lifespan of this government.
Clearly, the green transition and climate adaptation requires large scale investment and knowledge sharing, so we welcome the interest being shown by Arab countries in cooperating with us on this.
Global Ireland and Strategy
As a country we are and always have been ambitious in our global outreach.
Our Global Ireland strategy aims to double the scope and impact of Ireland’s global engagement in the period to 2025. It is an ambitious project to make Ireland more visible, more active, and more successful in promoting our interests and values around the world. As part of this, new Embassies opened in Amman in 2019, and in Rabat in 2020.
Not only has our Global Ireland strategy enhanced our diplomatic presence abroad, it has also significantly added value and opportunities for our Irish businesses and our diaspora across the world.
Our efforts to grow Ireland’s presence abroad and diversify supply chains and markets for exports and investments represent an opportunity for both Irish and Arab businesses to build new alliances and partnerships.
I hope it is clear that this government is committed to improving political and people-to-people engagement, which we hope will grow even stronger in the coming years.
To this end, my Department is leading the development of a whole-of-government Strategy for the Middle East and North Africa region, which will be published in December.
This Strategy will set out an expansion and a deepening of Ireland’s political, economic, cultural and development relations with the region.
Diaspora/People to People Links
Ireland has always been an outward facing country and our greatest resource abroad is our people. Thankfully there are already very strong connections and communities in the Arab world.
Many thousands of Irish people live in Arab countries. More and more of them are challenging the stereotype of the short term migrant and choosing to build a lasting life there.
These rich and ever deepening links should send a clear message to companies considering doing business in the Arab world; it is an environment with opportunity where Irish people already have and will continue to find great success.
And of course we have also seen a deepening of connections that Arab citizens have with Ireland, especially in the field of education. Ireland has longstanding educational links in Arab states, including the RCSI campus in Bahrain.
Five years ago UCD opened a Global Centre in Dubai. Arab students make up a significant proportion of international students in life sciences courses in Irish universities. The government is well aware that we are benefitting from a massive ‘brain gain’ and flow of talent and skills in to the country.
The development of a skilled and educated workforce is essential for creating successful business opportunities abroad and there are clearly further opportunities for Ireland to boost educational links in the region and vice versa.
The bilateral relationships that Ireland has with our Arab partners is always strengthened by visits both to and from the region. I am pleased to say that Ireland has a strong pattern of ministerial travel to the Arab world. My Government colleagues have attended forums, promoted Irish businesses, and forged strong partnerships with their counterparts throughout the region.
In the past year alone, there have been several very successful outward Ministerial visits. Ministers Madigan, Calleary and Naughton have engaged with Irish business figures in Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia.
I know that these visits have been invaluable learning opportunities and they have laid down the foundations for sustained cooperation on a range of fields such as education, technology, health, agriculture, aviation, and engineering. Indeed, the positive connections made on these visits have set in motion projects and cooperation, which officials in my Department in Dublin and at our embassies abroad are continuing to build on.
Now that Covid travel restrictions have ended, we are more than willing to welcome visiting ministerial delegations here in Ireland.
The most recent Irish Government visit to the region was my own to Israel, the occupied Palestinian territory, and Jordan last week.
As well as a series of meetings with political leaders, I also had the opportunity to visit the Ramallah Secondary Vocational School for Girls with the Palestinian Minister for Education.
Ireland has been a supporter of the school for many years and it is refreshing to see young Palestinian people building employable and marketable skills in a wide range of vocations.
I also met some very talented and entrepreneurial young Jordanians at the University’s innovation hub, as well as meeting some of this year’s winners of the Jordanian Young Scientist programme, modelled on our own and an important contribution to STEM education in Jordan.
It was clear to me that so much has been achieved in our bilateral relationship with Jordan, in a short period of time, and it is a great example of how a resident Embassy can significantly enhance relationships.
With such dynamic and talented young people, the future is in good hands.
But one cannot look to these business opportunities and ignore the significant challenges that the global system faces following Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine. Ireland stands resolute in its condemnation of Russia’s aggression and in its support of the Ukrainian people in defending their freedom and independence.
Russia’s actions have also further threatened the food security of several Arab countries that depend on Ukrainian grain following the failure to renew the Black Sea Grain Initiative
As a small country, Ireland is fully committed to protecting and building the global multilateral system. We are well aware of criticism in the region about a rules based order that applies only to some countries and not others, but for all its flaws it is the best way we have to advance and keep peace.
During our recent UN Security Council membership, we prioritised peacebuilding, conflict prevention and ensuring accountability, and that remains our focus.
Throughout our term on the UN Security Council, we drew on the experience and expertise of our Defence Forces and their record of service in UN peacekeeping. Nowhere has Ireland contributed more to peacekeeping than in Lebanon. It is crucial that UNIFIL continues to exercise its role and that it is allowed to fulfil its mandate by both Israel and Lebanon.
The situation in Syria remains complex and challenging. For Ireland, preserving humanitarian access into Syria was most important during our Security Council membership, and we are deeply concerned by more recent developments in that regard.
We also hope that the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have a positive impact in Yemen. Like all of you we remain very concerned by Iran's nuclear trajectory and even now urge a return to the JCPOA.
The very real impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent for us across our planet. I am conscious that Arab states are among the most exposed in the world to the impacts of climate change. The increasing number of sand and dust storms, the impacts on water availability, and soaring temperatures, all pose great risks to Arab countries.
The effort to deal with climate change is a challenge unlike any other that the world has faced before. As a government and as a society we are obliged to rethink many fundamental aspects of how we live our lives and Ireland is committed to co-operating with our international partners.
At the United Nations in New York, Ireland and Qatar have been working together during the past year, facilitating the preparation of a Political Declaration for the Sustainable Development Goals Summit which will take place next week during the 78th session of the General Assembly.
And of course my Government colleagues and I look forward to participating at the COP28 talks in Dubai later this year.
I will leave you with what I believe are some key principles for sustaining and growing business relations between Ireland and the Arab world.
Firstly, the Irish government will continue to work to create favourable conditions for business and trade, both through our bilateral relationships and through our membership of the EU. With that in mind, Ireland is committed to sustaining the strong pattern of trade visits and bilateral contacts with our Arab partners.
In addition, the new government strategy for the Middle East and North Africa will bring further benefits to our Arab partners and increase the opportunities for business links. I have every confidence that the successes of the Global Ireland initiative will be even more apparent in the Arab world with the introduction of this strategy.
Although realising that we have achieved so much, we are of course mindful of the need to co-operate outside of our business and trade interests.
Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine requires a firm response from the international community, and we must continue to use our voices on the international stage to demand an end to Russia’s aggression.
Finally, I would like to speak to the value of today’s Forum.
As you all know we live in a globalised interconnected world. Open borders and trade have put made it more possible than ever for businesses to expand into new markets and look abroad.
However, for some small and medium sized enterprises, markets in the Arab world can still seem a faraway place.
Differences in ways of doing business can create an impression that the task of setting up abroad is harder than it really is.
In navigating these differences, our most valuable resource is the advice and guidance offered so generously by many of the people in this room. The expertise and experience that each of you bring will enable more businesses to make more connections and hopefully for some, the decision to make that first step.
Events like this help to bridge the gap for those considering new business opportunities and markets, and this is also true outside of Ireland.
I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate and thank the Arab Irish Chamber of Commerce, and in particular the Chairman of the Chamber, Enda Corneille, and its CEO, Ahmad Younis.
Tá an-áthas orm a bheith libh maidin. Tá ríméad orm go bhfuil mé in ann a bheith páirteach in ócáid atá an-speisialta. Go n-éirí libh agus go raibh maith agaibh.