New Middle East exports open up to Northern Ireland businesses


Noel Johnston, Invest NI Regional Manager for Qatar, Iran and Kuwait outlines how local challenges are presenting export opportunities for NI businesses.

I have been working in international trade for longer than I care to put in print! Initially with the Industrial Development Board, and subsequently Invest Northern Ireland. I recently relocated from the Belfast offices of Invest NI to Doha as Regional Manager for Qatar, Iran and Kuwait, helping Northern Ireland businesses break into and grow exports in these markets.

Qatar is the third largest economy in the Middle East behind Saudi Arabia and UAE. It was previously a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): a political and economic alliance of six Middle Eastern countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. However, last year Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE, and the internationally recognised Yemeni government severed their diplomatic relations with Qatar, and the land border between Saudi Arabia and Qatar was closed. While this disagreement has many ramifications locally, it has also opened up export opportunities.


Due to host the football World Cup in 2022, work continues apace on the venues and infrastructure for this major event offering opportunities for construction, sporting event management, hotel products and software exporters. As a result of the split from the GCC, Qatar’s traditional dealer networks based in Saudi and UAE have dissolved and Qataris are looking for new dealers and suppliers for major projects, such as the World Cup, and equipment purchases.

As a result of the closure of the land border with Saudi Arabia all food supply into Qatar, which imported 90 per cent of its food across the border, effectively stopped. The country reacted quickly and has actively sought new suppliers and developed a new food supply chain to ensure more food security in the future. This has opened up opportunities for Northern Ireland food companies, especially for niche products and speciality health foods. There are noticeably more NI products on the shelves of Qatari supermarkets.

Iran is also experiencing a period of change following the relaxation of sanctions against Iran by the EU. This is a major development in the market and has opened up new opportunities. With 80 million people this is a huge untapped market and Iranians are hungry for new ideas and modern manufacturing and marketing methods. Northern Ireland companies that have visited the region have received a lot of interest so it is certainly a market worth considering, in particular for agri-tech, food, aerospace and design and packaging manufacturers.


However, banking difficulties are a significant obstacle to successfully exporting here and businesses need to have sound payment systems in place. UK Export Finance is a good source of information and advice on ensuring you protect your interests.

Kuwait is a growing market as it continues to build confidence. Northern Ireland equipment is already being used at Kuwait airport, audit software by local businesses and NI food on Kuwaiti supermarket shelves. Kuwait businesses are very receptive to new and innovative products and IT systems, and there are export opportunities for aerospace, and oil and gas equipment providers. The business community here appreciates face to face meetings and the small but significant ex pat network in Kuwait is ready and willing to offer advice and support when it can.

From our base in Doha, Qatar we are actively developing trade opportunities across all three countries. Our strong relationships with the UK Department for International Trade, regular Trade Missions and a network of contacts means we are able to offer practical advice and introductions for Northern Ireland companies.

A robust business plan is vital. Identify your USPs, and in particular the value of your product over cheaper far eastern competition – this will be an important selling point when meeting with potential distribution partners and customers. It is also important to have worked out what credit terms you are willing to offer. A word of caution though, don’t be overly generous, and don’t risk offering credit terms here that you wouldn’t offer at home. And, as mentioned before, make sure you have strong payment mechanisms and banking terms in place.

A robust business plan is vital. Identify your USPs, and in particular the value of your product over cheaper far eastern competition...

All three countries see these as challenging times, so any business visiting now will be building a good foundation for the future. For any business entering these markets building relationships is key – in fact it is paramount. It is important you factor in regular visits to your Middle East partners as part of your export strategy, if you don’t you won’t succeed.

Finally, be prepared to be patient. It will likely take a lot longer to success in the Middle East than you anticipate!

For advice and guidance on exporting contact your Invest NI Client Manager or the Business Support Team on 0800 181 4422.