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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

New Irish ambassador hopes visa process for travelling Emiratis will ease

Paul Kavanagh begins his four-year posting to the country with 10,000 Irish in the UAE; 28 direct flights a week; and two-way trade at 1.6 billion euro

Paul Kavanagh has served as Irish representative to the UN, ambassador to France and, most recently, as ambassador to China. Pawan Singh / The National
Paul Kavanagh has served as Irish representative to the UN, ambassador to France and, most recently, as ambassador to China. Pawan Singh / The National

The visa regime for Emiratis travelling to Ireland is just one area that the country's new ambassador, Paul Kavanagh, hopes to achieve progress on.

Emiratis still need a visa to visit Ireland, but Mr Kavanagh said he is hopeful for change as he begins his four-year posting to the UAE.

He arrives into a country with a growing Irish expatriate community: 10,000 Irish; 28 direct flights a week; with two-way trade at 1.6 billion euro (Dh6.95bn) in 2015. There are Irish societies, Gaelic Athletic Clubs (GAA) and an Irish Business Network.

Born in Dublin, Mr Kavanagh has served as Irish representative to the UN, ambassador to France and, most recently, as ambassador to China. But it was as a young diplomat in the 1980s that he had his first taste of Middle Eastern politics. The year was 1988. The Iran-Iraq war had dragged on for years. A million had died and chemical weapons had been used. Then on secondment to the staff of the UN secretary general, he was part of the team that brokered a ceasefire between the two warring countries. Thirty years on, Mr Kavanagh recalls the fraught negotiations alongside secretary general Pérez de Cuéllar. One of the Iranian advisors was current foreign minister Javad Zarif. “The secretary general was on the telephone to King Fahd [of Saudi Arabia] and he was onto Saddam Hussein. Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, was in the room. A deal was reached,” he said. “In diplomacy, they say timing is everything.”

After the talks, UN postings relating to Yugoslavia, Cyprus and Tokyo followed. In China, Mr Kavanagh’s tenure coincided with a surge in trade between the Asian superpower and Ireland.

“When you do business with the Chinese, trust is a great factor,” he said. “[This also applies] to doing business with the UAE. You have to know about Liwa, you have to know about places where people came from. You don’t arrive in China or here, get off the plane, come in with your catalogue of products, very nice pricelist and leave that evening with your deal done.”

The Irish embassy in the capital was established in 2009 when Ireland was in the grip of a recession. But Ireland has shaken off the downturn that ended the Celtic Tiger years and has the fastest-growing economy in the EU. But more people from Ireland than ever before are living here.

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The relationship, then, is deep and historic, going beyond mere economics as Irish citizens have contributed to the development of the country. Tom Barry, for example, became chief executive of Arabtec, the construction giant that built the Burj Khalifa; Gerald Lawless led the Jumeirah Group at one point; while Colm McLoughlin played a role in establishing the billion-dollar business that is Dubai Duty Free and is now the chief executive.

Now many Irish citizens work in healthcare and education, with Ireland a popular destination for Emirati students, particularly among those studying medicine, with hundreds attending medical school there. His road map for the next four years is clear: building the political relationship; boosting trade, particularly in food; and building ties in everything from education to technology. It is also hoped that the visa developments will spur more Emirati tourism to Ireland, which is increasingly halal-friendly.

On issues on concern such as Brexit, Mr Kavanagh is sanguine. The loss of a key ally in the EU is worrying but there is also opportunity as Ireland will be the only mother tongue English language country in the EU after Brexit. “This is an ideal platform for Emiratis to study inside the EU in the English language. Ireland will also be the only English common law country within the EU after Brexit.”

Kuwait, Qatar and Afghanistan also fall under his remit. There was concern about how the Qatar crisis would affect the 2,000-strong Irish community there but it has not been difficult. “We follow it closely and we are not going to interfere.”

Last Sunday, Mr Kavanagh presented his credentials to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai. Sheikh Mohammed has strong interests in the equine sector in Ireland, which should come as no surprise considering Ireland is the third-largest producer of thoroughbred horses in the world.

It’s already been a frenetic six-week start but outside of the grind, Mr Kavanagh is hoping to realise a dream held since his teenage years to learn how to sail. Living on the seafront in Abu Dhabi certainly works as an incentive.

“The best time to go out for a walk is about 6.30pm,” he says. “It is just like being at home, with slightly different weather.”

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