An Irish delegation led by former prime minister John Bruton has travelled to the Middle East, gauging the interest of Arab investors, including sovereign wealth funds, in buying some troubled Irish banks, as the Dublin government seeks foreign investors for financial investment.
According to an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, The National, Bruton and his group went to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. He also met with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the chief of Kingdom Holding and one of the richest men in the world.
Officials from Ireland's Industrial Development Agency also joined the delegation to the Gulf.
"The message was 'our banks are for sale to any investors, foreign or local'," said one UAE-based sovereign wealth fund executive quoted by The National.
Bruton, the current head of the International Financial Services Centre in Ireland (which seeks to to attract financial companies to move to Ireland) said he is not representing the Irish government in any official capacity.
"We are not here to facilitate the sale of any assets or start any negotiations," Bruton told the newspaper.
"That is the government's decision and role, but obviously discussions have taken place about the Irish economy generally. The central bank has clearly said asset sales are being studied."
Having accepted an 85-billion euro bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund amidst much domestic unrest, Ireland has also just been hit by further credit downgrades to its principal banks and sovereign debt by ratings agencies Fitch, S&P and Moody’s.
To restructure its financial institutions and reduce a monstrous budget deficit, Ireland will need to raise cash through asset sales, among other measures.
However, Ireland might find it difficult to attract any Gulf investors during the current crisis; although some Middle East sovereign wealth funds did acquire stakes in U.S. financial institutions at the onset of the credit crunch.
The National quoted Victoria Barbary, a senior analyst at Monitor Group in London, who cautioned that "back in 2007 and 2008, these [sovereign wealth funds] genuinely believed they were buying good assets for cheap. Now I think everyone is a little bit older and wiser. I don't think that the Irish economy is an attractive one for any investors at the moment. It wouldn't fit that they would buy this in most cases."
Groups from two other debt-scarred European nations, Greece and Spain, have already made similar entreaties in the Gulf States.
Indeed, in September, Greece and Qatar signed a preliminary agreement under which cash-rich Qatar will invest in Greek energy and banking sectors.