Although we may be geographically distant from each other, our two countries share many values and interests, and Ireland is more than ready to build upon these. Economically, we have been through some difficult times, but we are now very much on our way to recovery and growth. Export levels have improved, jobs are being created and unemployment is falling. In 2013 alone, our service exports grew by almost 4%, employment by more than 3% and, having been at a high of 15% just two years ago, unemployment is now less than 12%. By late 2013, we became the first Eurozone country to exit a joint EU-IMF assistance programme, and we did so without any continuing need for support. We have made a full return to normal financial market funding and our bond yields have reached historic lows. As a result, businesses, investors and global markets have a renewed confidence in our economic future.
Trade in particular has been a driver of our economic recovery. Irish export levels are now significantly higher than the pre-crisis peak in 2007. Saudi Arabia is one of those countries that we have classified as a priority market and we have accordingly seen significant growth in bilateral trade. In 2013, the value of Irish goods and services exported to Saudi Arabia amounted to more than €1bn, which had an important impact on our overall international trade balance.
Furthermore, net job creation in Ireland, both from inward investment and by our small and medium-sized exporting companies, was higher in 2013 than it has been for 10 years. The country’s overall competitiveness relative to our trading partners has improved considerably, with labour costs, commercial property prices and other business costs being reduced.
There are a number of reasons for these positive developments. We have one of the most open economies in the world and are strongly pro-enterprise. In fact, at the end of 2013, Forbes magazine ranked us as the best country in the world for business. Other independent studies, meanwhile, have rated Ireland first internationally for inward investment by quality and value, and as the leading country in Western Europe in which to invest. In addition, we are ranked first globally for the flexibility and adaptability of our workforce, and third for the availability of skilled labour. Ireland has a young and highly educated workforce, and is the only native English-speaking country within the Eurozone, which allows barrier-free access to 500m consumers. Moreover, Dublin is currently ranked as the leading city in the world for human capital.
In the context of foreign direct investment, 1033 overseas companies have so far chosen Ireland as their base in Europe. This includes eight of the top-10 global information and communications technology firms, nine of the world’s top-10 pharmaceutical firms, and all of the world’s ten-largest online companies. During 2013, major investments in Ireland were announced by Deutsche Bank, Twitter, EMC, eBay, Salesforce, Novartis, Vistakon, Facebook, Zurich, Symantec, DePuy, Yahoo, Sanofi and Indeed.com.
The same factors which draw overseas firms to Ireland also make our local enterprises and start-ups dynamic and innovative. Indeed, employment in local exporting companies grew strongly in 2013, and Irish innovation in sectors such as information technology, medical devices and engineering is changing and enhancing people’s lives around the world every day.
In terms of other potential, in 2013, about 8m tourists visited the island of Ireland, up 6% on 2012, which contributed about €3.7bn to the economy and helped to sustain 240,000 jobs in local communities. Tourists from the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, made up a small but growing segment of these foreign visitors.
Ireland is also a destination for international students, providing educational excellence in a safe, English-speaking environment. At present, as many as 3000 Saudi third-level students are studying at Irish colleges and universities, the majority of them under the aegis of the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Programme. We welcome this development and hope to see more Saudi students coming to study in Ireland in the future.
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