Northern Ireland companies are being encouraged to take advantage of a bonanza of economic opportunities in the Middle East.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster was speaking as she welcomed His Excellency Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq to Northern Ireland, on a two-day trade and investment visit organised by Invest NI.
Minister Foster revealed that 2,000 schools and 150 hospitals are planned for the oil-rich region over the next 15 years.
Last year a new Invest NI office was opened in Erbil, Kurdistan, and both Minister Foster and President Barzani have already signed a a Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen trade links between Northern Ireland and Kurdistan, with particular attention being paid to higher education, police and security training, tourism and agriculture.
A number of Northern Ireland companies have already secured business in the wider Middle East region, particularly in the oil and gas, construction, professional services, education and agriculture sectors.
The delegation took a tour of the Titanic museum and also visited the Agri-food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government high representative to the United Kingdom, was a member of the delegation.
She said that the two regions have a lot to learn from one another.
"Both areas have been afflicted by trauma and troubles and I feel that we have a lot to learn from Northern Ireland, which is now emerging from a troubled period," she said.
"While we are very different in terms of climate, location and religion, we have a lot in common.
"We feel in Kurdistan, because of our difficulties, we are behind other regions and we can work with Northern Ireland to see how we can catch up in terms of technology and higher education. We are interested in our visit to the Titanic building, to see how one super-museum can help attract over 700,000 people to one small region."
Minister Foster agreed that there plenty of similarities between the two areas.
"We are both regions emerging from a conflict and there is a lot of experience and expertise that we can share," she said.
"Already companies from Northern Ireland are seeing the benefits of expanding to the Middle East and Kurdistan is especially interested in our IT companies. Kurdistan is an oil-rich area and we have told there are plans for 2000 schools and 150 hospitals in the next 15 tears, which will present amazing opportunities for Northern Ireland companies in many sectors.
"There is a perception that going to Iraq is dangerous in the same way that people used to be put off from going to Northern Ireland – we hope that we can help break down some of those barriers and misconceptions – we are trying to prove that Northern Ireland is a good place to do business and that we have gotten over the problems of the past and we hope to help Kurdistan do the same."
Businesses who forged links with Kurdistan through Invest NI
Northern Ireland companies and organisations which have taken part in an Invest Northern Ireland mission to Kurdistan in 2011
• Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Belfast – scientific services for the farming and food industries
• Byrne Lobby Partners, Belfast – engineering services
• CDE Global, Cookstown – quarrying, sand washing and recycling machinery
• EMS – recycling equipment and technology
• European Business Link, Newtownards – international business support services
• FG Wilson, Larne – diesel and gas electricity generating equipment
• FM Environmental, Newry – sewerage and grease removal equipment
• H&J Martin, Belfast – construction and civil engineering
• Intelligent Protection Services, Belfast – security services
• JCP Consulting, Belfast – management services
• KMC Engineering, Dungannon – materials handling
• McCloskey International, Coalisland – recycling equipment
• McCulla Ireland, Lisburn – refrigerated storage systems
• Nectar International, Carrickfergus – cosmetics and beauty products
• Omni Architects, Bangor – architectural practice
• P. Clarke and Sons, Lisnaskea – construction
• Rapid International, Tandragee – concrete batching and recycling machinery
• SRS Finlay, Ballygawley – concrete blockmaking machinery
• SSR Security Consultants
Todd Architects, Belfast – architectural practice