The past century has seen the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia emerge from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the Middle East. The country sits on more than one-quarter of the world’s known oil reserves and is recognised as one of the Gulf states best equipped to drive forward a rapid rate of planned expansion.
In April last year, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Coughlan, led an Enterprise Ireland trade mission of 64 Irish companies and organisations to Saudi. Trade between the two countries has increased substantially in recent years. In 2009, Irish exports to the Kingdom were worth over €400 million and there are more than 120 Irish SMEs operating in the Middle Eastern country. Some months later, education minister, Batt O’Keeffe attended the opening of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah, which has identified four key strategic research themes: resources, energy and environment; biosciences and bioengineering; materials science and engineering; and applied mathematics and computational science.
Also reflecting this strengthening relationship, the first Saudi Arabian embassy to Ireland opened its doors in September 2009. Speaking at the time, the new Ambassador, Abdulaziz Aldriss, said that he would “make every possible effort to enhance and develop this relationship and encourage trade and investment opportunities for the people in both countries.” Ambassador Aldriss visited AIT this week, accompanied by HRH Prince Turki Bin Nawaf Al Saud and other members of the Saudi diplomatic team.
The day proved a tremendous success in terms of enabling all parties to become familiar with one another and in building the personal relationships that are so central to international partnerships. The ambassador had an opportunity to visit some of AIT’s research and innovation facilities, the new engineering and informatics complex, as well as meet with the 25 Saudi students who have been attending AIT since September last year. The students who are undertaking full-time undergraduate programmes in engineering, science and business, have integrated remarkably well into campus life and especially into life in the Irish midlands.
Next week, accompanied by the presidents of GMIT and WIT, I will have the opportunity to continue discussions with our education partners in Riyadh. While we are still in the initial stages of building relationships with the Saudi ministry for higher education, the success of the ambassador’s visit during the week and the experiences of our initial cohort of full-time Saudi students augurs well for the future.