There are some obvious political, social, cultural and climatic differences between Ireland and the UAE, but when Enda Kenny, the Irish taoiseach (prime minister), arrives in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday he will surely be more aware of the similarities.
Both countries are in the second tier of global economies. According to the IMF, the UAE is rather larger than the Irish, with Emirati GDP at US$359 billion in 2012, compared to Ireland’s $210bn; oil production accounted for most of the difference.
Ireland is at number 46 in the global GDP tables, the UAE at number 33; per capita, the Emirates, with a population of 8.5 million, is better off with $49,000 income per year per head, compared with Ireland’s $41,000 per head for its 4.5 million people.
Both are exporting economies, each accounting for just over 1 per cent of total world trade, making them comparatively big actors in global commerce, relative to their size.
It was this skill in exporting that made Ireland one of the models of economic development studied by Abu Dhabi some years in the preparation of its 2030 strategy plan.
But perhaps the biggest the two economies share in common now is that both have gone through the ravages of the global financial crisis and the economic downturn that followed, and appear to be coming out the other end.
The Irish experience has been by far the more severe. The property-fuelled years of the Celtic Tiger ended in a 2008 collapse in property prices that had immediate and severe implications for the country’s banking system, which had to be taken over by the government.
It’s worth noting that both the Irish and UAE governments at an early stage in the financial crisis decided to guarantee bank deposits; the difference was that the UAE had the capital to make the guarantee meaningful.
Ireland had to appeal to the European Union and IMF for help, and a $90bn package saw it through the crisis, but only at a bitter cost: public spending had to be slashed, public-sector jobs cut and taxes raised. Property valuations collapsed.
The UAE crisis experience was not so harrowing, but was significant nonetheless. Dubai needed some help with its financial liabilities back in 2010, and this was provided by the capital; there was a period of contraction in economic growth, and the UAE went through its own version of an “austerity programme” in 2010-2011 when public-sector projects were cancelled or shelved and existing projects scaled back.
But the UAE, with capital reserves vastly bigger than Ireland’s and a much better international credit rating, was able to get through the downturn with less noticeable pain.
Ireland did it the hard way. Property prices are still 50 per cent off their pre-crisis peaks; bailing out its banks has led to huge levels of public debt that will weigh on the economy for years to come; unemployment and emigration are running at high levels.
But last month Ireland became the first European nation to exit the bailout package provided by the EU and IMF. It has regained control of its own public finances after a gruelling five-year slog. Now it is time to get the economy growing again.
This is part of the reason for Mr Kenny’s visit to the UAE. Ireland needs inwards investment to encourage growth, and Irish firms need export markets.
The Irish leader will not be appealing directly to UAE financial institutions to inject capital into its bust banks or prop up the property market, though if any Emiratis felt so inclined he would probably be grateful.
Rather, he will be looking for investment in those industries that Ireland is already good at: pharmaceuticals manufacture, food and agriculture, leisure and tourism, for example.
What can Ireland do in return to cement ties between the two economies? Irish businessmen have already made a significant contribution to the economic development of the UAE, with involvement in some of the growing country’s most impressive success stories.
But one area of opportunity is food. Ireland produces enough to feed 30 million people per year; the UAE has been scouring the world to find safe and secure food supplies. The synergies are obvious, especially if Ireland were to adopt halal standards for exported foodstuffs.
The two economies have much more in common than is apparent at first glance, and Mr Kenny’s visit can only encourage them to closer co-operation on the future.