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How Ireland does business with Saudi Arabia, a regime with a questionable human rights record

Several Irish people lead projects there, and exports from Ireland in the first five months of this year were €390m

The director of football of the Saudi Pro League is clear about his ambition: sign “all the top players” and make it one of the strongest competitions in the world within two years. While Ronaldo, Neymar, Jordan Henderson and Karim Benzema have led the defections from European clubs to the desert kingdom, another wealthy Saudi outfit is starting a recruitment drive.

Peter Bellew, an economics graduate from Trinity College Dublin, had senior roles at Ryanair, Malaysia Airlines and EasyJet before being hired last March as chief operating officer of Riyadh Air, a new Saudi airline owned by Public Investment Fund, the country’s sovereign wealth fund. He has since been joined by Ray Gammell, the former army officer from Greystones, as chief corporate development and enablement officer.

Riyadh Air needs a lot of pilots. Bellew has said the interview process will start in September and “with 39 aircraft coming, we’re going to hire 700 pilots across the next three years”. Just as European football clubs dread the Saudi knock on their dressing-room doors, airlines such as Aer Lingus and Ryanair must be nervous about losing cabin crew to a well-resourced rival.

Enda Corneille, who has been a country manager for both Emirates and Aer Lingus and is now chairman of the Arab-Irish Chamber of Commerce, says the launch of Riyadh Air offers opportunities not just to personnel but to Irish leasing companies, the likes of AerCap, Avolon and SMBC Aviation Capital. “There is a well-documented shortage of aircraft coming from manufacturers and long lead times so I would imagine Riyadh Air will be leasing significant numbers of aircraft,” he said. “Ideally, in aviation, you want to lease half your fleet and own the other half. With the lag in delivering aircraft, short-term leasing may be their only option.”


While Bellew and Gammell get a new airline off the ground, DAA International is helping to open a new Saudi airport. Last year, the agency won a contract to operate the Red Sea International Airport, which is being built on Saudi’s west coast. DAA International already manages Terminal 5 at King Khalid International Airport, where Riyadh Air will be based, and recently won a five-year contract to manage King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, the main entry point for pilgrims to Mecca.

Nick Cole, chief executive of DAA International, will be among the speakers at a forum in Dublin’s Mansion House on September 13th, jointly organised by the Arab-Irish Chamber of Commerce, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and Emirates. He will be joined by Niall Gibbons, the former chief executive of Tourism Ireland, who earlier this year was hired by Neom Tourism, an agency promoting a new 10,000-square-mile carbon-free city being built on the Red Sea coast.

Vision 2030

These new airlines, airports and cities are all part of Vision 2030, a programme devised by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, to wean the desert kingdom off its dependence on oil and to develop public services. It is an almost unprecedented economic and social experiment and one that MBS, as he is known, is backing with all the state’s immense resources.

In practical terms, it means abundant opportunities for Irish companies and entrepreneurs. As Enterprise Ireland points out, “giga projects” within Vision 2030 include Red Sea Global, another tourism project on the west coast; turning the historic town of Diriyah into a city; and Roshn, real-estate development which aims to increase the rate of home ownership to 70 per cent within a decade. “Irish companies have already won business with these projects,” Enterprise Ireland points out.

Another recent Saudi recruit is Tony Coveney, a brother of enterprise minister Simon, who has been appointed manager of Marriott’s two Red Sea resorts including Nujuma, the first property in the Middle East to carry the Ritz-Carlton Reserve brand.

Browse a list of Neom staff on LinkedIn and you’ll spot many Irish names among senior staff. John Kilmartin, hired as a senior manager of business attraction last November, is a former director with IDA Ireland. Gavin Donovan, a development lead who started with Neom in January, was project manager at Hibernia Reit.

Kingspan, engineering companies Nicholas O’Dwyer and the Jones Group, plus Alliance Aviation Group are among the Irish companies doing significant business in Saudi Arabia. Ornua has a base in Riyadh, where it manufactures white cheese using Irish dairy.

After the United States and China, Saudi Arabia is the largest importer of Irish agri-food outside the European Union. Keoghs crisps, Butlers chocolates, Red Mills horse feed and Kerrygold all sell into the country. After agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue completed a trade mission to the country last year, he announced an expansion of beef exports.

Enterprise Ireland says exports by its client companies to Saudi Arabia were down by 1 per cent in 2022. The value of Irish sales in the first five months of this year was €390 million, however, up from €363 million in the same period in 2022, according to the Central Statistics Office.

The interchange between the two countries is completely one-way, though, with no investment of any note by Saudi Arabia here, apart from in bloodstock. The retail giant Fawaz Alhokair Group was close to investing in a development on the north quays in Waterford a few years ago but pulled out of negotiations at the 11th hour.

There is a strong Saudi connection with London, where royals and sheikhs own properties, but they have never looked across the Irish Sea. “Their focus is their own society and economy, and pouring money into that,” Corneille points out.

Doing business

How easy is it for Irish companies to do business there? PJ Moloney, the founder and chief executive of P4ML, is optimistic about winning Saudi healthcare contracts to supply precision medicine analysis and is considering setting up his headquarters at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. He admits doing business can be extremely slow and Saudi officials move at their own pace. “That’s where the pain exists – there’s no urgency to sign things off,” he says. “Contracts take time. It can take 24 to 36 months to get traction.”

Irish entrepreneurs hoping to win business in the country of 35 million people need presence and perseverance, Moloney advises. They should also be discreet. It takes time to build relationships of trust, which are crucial.

“What are the impediments to doing business? First of all, it is extremely expensive to set up. You must have a performance bond for contracts, which most companies cannot afford. In terms of culture, you have to rub shoulders with powerful Saudis. You must have a Saudi national involved with you, or their blessing, to do a project.”

Setting up a bank account and getting a visa can be long and onerous tasks. “It’s even harder to shut your business down,” he says. “There are penalties with that so you have to be careful.”

That all said, he finds the Saudis to be “very nice” people, who are highly educated, like having fun and live in cities that are safe. “Our perceptions of them need to change as Saudi Arabia is embracing the future and new technologies. They are the best people to do business with and I love it here.”

Is it morally dubious, though, to trade with a country where women’s subordinate status is enshrined in law, homosexuality is illegal and 81 men were executed on one day in March 2022?

Saudi Arabia became an international pariah following the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, an operation personally approved by MBS, according to US intelligence agencies. The world soon got back to business with the wealthy petro-state, which bought Newcastle United FC in 2021, however, and is now funding a merger of its golf league LIV with the US PGA Tour. The Guardian recently estimated the Public Investment Fund spent $6.3 billion on football between 2021 and this summer.

“Business leaders have to decide for themselves and do their own due diligence on the market and is it a fit for them and conducive to their own view of the world,” Corneille of the Arab-Irish Chamber of Commerce says in response to a question about Saudi human rights. “Our role is purely business. In terms of laws and social morals, we leave it up to business leaders to decide that.”

Ulick McEvaddy, the aviation entrepreneur who has been doing business in Saudi Arabia for 30 years, says engaging will achieve more than withdrawal. “They are changing. The pressure from the West is helping them to moderate their thinking on human rights,” he says. “It’s better not to disengage but to keep them under pressure, saying, ‘You can’t be doing that kind of stuff.’ It does make a difference. They get hurt when you criticise their human-rights record and they are changing but it’s so slow.”

McEvaddy believes Saudi Arabia will be a force for good in the global pivot away from greenhouse-gas emissions. The world’s largest green-hydrogen plant is built there, with a total investment of $8.4 billion. “Neom is the leader in blue hydrogen technology, produced by a mixture of solar power, natural gas and carbon capture,” he says. “They have spent huge money on it. MBS has produced a new era of technology.”

Another group promoting trade between the two countries is the Ireland-Saudi Arabia Business Council (ISABC), a private-sector outfit with close ties to both governments and whose chairman is Joseph Lynch, a former diplomat who helped open an Irish Embassy in Jeddah in 1972.

“We believe Ireland needs to export its products and skills to a country of such enormous business potential,” he says. “ISABC promotes regular contacts between Irish and Saudi companies to build mutual trust and develop business co-operation, leading to the signature of agreements.”

Lynch says one effect of Vision 2030 has been to make it easier for Irish companies to enter the Saudi market and they, in turn, have become more interested in acquiring skills from foreign companies. Asked about the country’s human-rights record, he replies: “[Our] focus is on business – to create access for Irish companies, especially SMEs, to the Saudi market and to encourage Saudi investment in Ireland.”

And why has there been so little of that? “Saudi Arabia has strong links with Great Britain, which are carefully nourished, and it is only relatively recently Saudis have become aware of Ireland and its potential business and investment possibilities for them,” he says.

The Department of Foreign Affairs evidently believes Ireland can do business with Saudi Arabia while also “promoting our values in relation to human rights, environment and climate, social and labour rights, sustainable development and gender equality”.

The department notes that Irish companies are particularly active in sectors that are central to Saudi Arabia’s transition, such as healthcare, fintech, education and engineering, and insists that economic partnership “does not prevent us from raising our concerns about human rights issues”.

Officials from both countries meet frequently, it says, to discuss a range of topics, including trade, regional security and human rights. From now on, Saudi football may get a mention, too.