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Northern Ireland keen to deepen trade ties with Gulf

Northern Ireland Gulf trade Creative Commons/William Murphy
Belfast's Titanic Quarter: Northern Ireland aims to grow its economy tenfold through increased investment and trade, including with Mena countries
  • EU access an advantage for NI
  • Aims to boost NI-Gulf trade
  • NI-GCC exports $1bn in 2021

The recent Brexit deal for Northern Ireland places it in a strong position to deepen trade links with the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), especially in manufacturing and life sciences, according to the regional head of Invest Northern Ireland. 

The economic development agency aims to grow the number of Northern Irish businesses active in Mena from around 120 in 2021 and increase exports to the region, said Swathi Sri, head of territory for India, Middle East and Africa.

“Never before have we been in such an advantageous position,” she told AGBI. 

Northern Irish exports to the GCC reached £829.5 million ($1.03 billion) of goods, excluding services, as of December 2021, according to the UK’s HM Revenue & Customs.

Imports totalled £136.5 million, mainly oil and gas. The 2022 figures are due out later this year.

Known as the Windsor Framework, the new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland was formally adopted by the UK and European Union in March.

It aims to make trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK easier, and gives the Stormont Assembly – Northern Ireland’s parliament – more say over EU rules and better access to the European single market. 

In practice, companies moving goods between Europe and Northern Ireland will be freed of unnecessary checks, taxes and bureaucracy. 

Swathi Sri, head of territory for India, Middle East and Africa, Invest Northern Ireland

“The Windsor framework places Northern Ireland in an advantageous position,” Sri said.

“If you are set up in Northern Ireland as a manufacturing business and seeking to serve both the UK and EU markets, there is no other place in the world that can give you tariff-free access to these two distinct markets. 

“That is the play we would like to make for any international companies – including from the Middle East – looking to expand their manufacturing footprint into Europe.”  

In 2021, Northern Ireland launched 10X Economy, a strategy to grow the size of the economy tenfold. Many of its strategic sectors are what Invest NI will promote in the Middle East.  

“We are here to widen the base of exporters,” Sri said.

“We do not want one or two large companies exporting [the bulk of the total]. The more companies that export outside Northern Ireland, the better for our economy because we are such a small place.” It has a population of just 1.8 million.


Manufacturing is a key sector in Northern Ireland – it produces 40 percent of the world’s crushing and screening equipment used in mining, according to the UK government.

It also makes one in three double-decker London buses, aircraft passenger seats and components for Airbus wings. 

Life sciences and healthcare is another area, said Sri. Around 10 percent of cholesterol tests worldwide are made in Belfast and there is a cluster of research centres.

Technology is another, including semiconductors and chips, for which a global race is on to beat China and the US. 

“As an agile, small location, Northern Ireland is well positioned to offer the perfect test bed for such technologies – also electric vehicle batteries.” 

Invest Northern Ireland is focusing on the Gulf’s two biggest markets – the UAE and Saudi Arabia – and Egypt.

It opened an office in Cairo last year and, despite ongoing currency woes causing payment and other issues for businesses, sees potential to tap Egypt’s construction and education sectors, Sri said. 

In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, fast-growing infrastructure, life sciences, education and technology sectors present opportunities, while Qatar, Kuwait and Oman are also “interesting.”

CDE Global, headquartered near Belfast, has the world’s biggest sand washing plant in Qatar, where it prepares sand for use in construction. 

Northern Irish businesses are getting involved in other areas of Middle East construction, including soil remediation in Kuwait following the Iraq War, Sri said.

In Oman, Northern Irish healthcare companies are selling to the Ministry of Health.  

Interest in the region is rising, she added.

“Even during Covid, we received enquiries from at least 100 companies interested in exporting to the GCC and there continues to be appetite on both sides.”

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