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Saudi Arabia, Ireland to Forge Alliances

(Menafn-Arab News) RIYADH, 17 January 2007 With bilateral trade hovering around $360 million annually, the Kingdom and Ireland have decided to revitalize the joint economic commission and forge strategic alliances in the context of the multibillion dollar economic cities to be set up in different parts of the Kingdom.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said during his two-day visit to the Kingdom that issues relating to the opening of a Saudi embassy in Dublin and lifting the ban on the export of Irish beef to this country were also discussed.

The Irish premier, who headed the 114-member delegation, including 20 from Northern Ireland, held talks with Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan, deputy premier and minister of defense and aviation, on a number of bilateral concerns. Ahern was accompanied by Enterprise and Trade Minister Micheal Martin, Education and Science Minister Mary Hanafin and Agriculture and Food Minister Mary Coughlan.

The thrust of their discussions was how to promote inter-governmental contacts and also propel economic relations into overdrive with the Kingdom's decision to build five economic cities at a cost of SR162.7 billion aside from a foreign investment component of SR155 billion.

During his visit the prime minister delivered a speech on the political situation in the Middle East at the King Faisal Foundation in Riyadh. He paid tribute to King Abdullah's Middle East peace initiative. "His contribution to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and on the international level has been immense. So it is very important for us to keep our relations at the highest level," he said, adding that the opening of a Saudi embassy in Dublin would be of vital importance. The presence of a high-voltage delegation with a range of interests from IT, telecommunications and education to agriculture, healthcare and other sectors, set sparks flying in all directions. The Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) expressed interest in opening an office in Dublin in hopes of tapping Irish expertise and investments.

In a related development, Vilicom, the Dublin-based telecommunications firm, will open the first 100 percent Irish-owned operation in the Kingdom, creating 40 job opportunities in the process. Martin said there would be massive opportunities for Irish firms in a range of sectors in Saudi Arabia over the coming years. "They intend to spend about 600 billion euros over the next 10 years on infrastructure in all areas," he said, adding: "That opens up huge opportunities for Irish companies. We certainly believe that many Irish companies in power generation, utilities, construction, engineering, education services, mobile technology and other aspects of software can do very well."

In a statement released here, Irish companies said they were already winning business in a number of key areas. "These include information technology and telecoms software; healthcare and pharmaceuticals; third level education services; utilities, power and construction industries; and e-learning and e-government applications." Ahern was upbeat when he disclosed that a major outcome of the current trade mission was the decision of the Saudi government to send 350 students to Ireland for higher studies under its $2.7 billion King Abdullah Scholarship program.

Sama, the low-budget carrier, also wrapped up an operation & maintenance deal with SR Technics of Ireland. The airline's name figured in reply to a question on how tourist traffic to that country could receive a shot in the arm in the absence of direct flights from Riyadh to Dublin. Ahern replied that while there were no direct flights at present, the interconnectivity that Sama would provide from Dammam to Dubai could help ease the financial burden on passengers flying in to Dubai aboard such low-cost carriers (LCCs).

The prime minister welcomed the launch of LCCs in the Kingdom, as they will bring down the cost of travel. The flow of tourist traffic to Ireland, which receives nine million tourists annually, would help Saudis gain an insight into the dynamics of the Irish economy.

On the question of the Saudi ban on Irish beef, the prime minister told Arab News that the issue had been discussed between Agriculture and Food Minister Mary Coughlan and the Saudi Minister of Agriculture Dr. Fahad Balghonaim. They sought to reassure the Saudi authorities that Irish beef was of top quality as it went through a rigorous quality control regime. He pointed out that the ministry had not yet come to a final conclusion on lifting the ban, which has been in force since 2002 over concerns stemming from mad cow disease.

Asked about the scope of Irish participation in the mega-projects that are planned, Ahern said his country had a strong construction industry which contributes 30 percent to Ireland's GDP. He said his delegation includes construction companies that have handled some major projects in the UK, Eastern Europe and beyond. These companies bring with them a wealth of experience and expertise that would be particularly relevant in the Saudi context, he pointed out.



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