Tánaiste Leo Varadkar will lead Enterprise Ireland's trade mission to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this weekend.

The four-day trade mission, visiting Riyadh and Dubai, will support the accelerated export-led recovery of Irish businesses in the Gulf region.

Concerns persist about doing business with Saudi Arabia in light of the kingdom's human rights abuses.

Amnesty International says Saudi Arabia has experienced a major crackdown on human rights, under Mohammed bin Salman's leadership. Government critics and human rights defenders have been arrested, tortured and put on trial.

Conor Fahy, Enterprise Ireland's IMEA Regional Director, said the issue is an important one.

Mr Fahy said there is ongoing dialogue on a bilateral level, following Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney's visit to Saudi Arabia in June, as well as ongoing dialogue at EU level.

He said trade connections also leads to greater dialogue

"The role of Enterprise Ireland is to grow exports, sustain jobs and companies around the country, and the 60 companies that are traveling out on this mission cover every corner of Ireland, and that's the key in terms of our activity here," Mr Fahy said.

Exports by Enterprise Ireland supported companies to the IMEA (India, Middle East and Africa) region remained strong in 2020, valued at €1.152 billion.

Growth in exports by Irish companies to the UAE and Saudi Arabia last year, even against the backdrop of the pandemic, increased by 12% and 6% respectively.

60 Irish companies, representing sectors including, aviation, higher education, healthcare, equine, agritech, food, fintech and construction, are taking part in the trade mission.

"It's a very important market for our third level sector," Mr Fahy said. "For example, we have over 1,200 students studying in Ireland and we hope to double that.

"There's huge potential in the region for education and traditionally that would be from the medical side. Every time you turn a corner here, you meet a doctor who has studied in Ireland," he said.

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The mission aligns with Ireland's participation in EXPO2020 Dubai. Twelve Enterprise Ireland client companies including Dublin Aerospace, Botany Weaving, DAAI, Aero Inspection and Shannon IASC are exhibiting at the Dubai Airshow, one of the biggest aviation trade shows in the world.

The mission is also the first high-level Ministerial trade mission to Saudi Arabia in over half a decade.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the trade mission will be about strengthening the opportunities and growing market share for Irish companies.

"Trade will be crucial to our recovery and now after Brexit, it’s more important than ever for Irish companies to diversify and explore new markets for their goods and services," he added.