Ahmad Younis, secretary general and CEO of the Arab Irish Chamber of Commerce, shares his life and business lessons.
Irish exports to the Arab world reached €1.46bn for the first half of 2023 with notable increases in exports to Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
The CEO of the Arab Irish Chamber of Commerce Ahmad Younis says that while Ireland is trading strongly with the Middle East and Gulf “it’s a region that is still underexploited in terms of the opportunities for Irish businesses.”
“The great news is that exports to the Arab states from Ireland have been increasing steadily and reached record highs last year with a total of €2.2bn worth of goods exported from here to the region”
The Arab world comprises 22 countries, many of which are experiencing rapidly growing economies, and populations.
Countries such as Saudi Arabia are investing billions of dollars in infrastructure, urban development and tourism and, with trade agreements with the EU making access to these markets easier than ever before, the potential for Irish businesses to tap into these markets is significant.
In addition to merchandise, the Arab Irish Chamber of Commerce estimates that trade in services, worth an estimated €4bn in 2022, will meet if not exceed the overall value of goods exported to the Arab states this year.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
I am Secretary General and CEO of the Arab Irish Chamber of Commerce, a position I have held since 2010. I had an Arab upbringing and moved to Ireland at the age of nine. Because of this background and connection with both regions, I am passionate about and really believe in the development of strong Arab Irish business relationships for the mutual benefit of both regions.
My first role was with AIB, where I spent 11 years across different departments ranging from the corporate function to personal finance. In 2008, I took up a position in wealth management, managing an extensive customer investment portfolio.
A difficult economic climate led me to leave this position, after which I joined the Arab Irish Chamber of Commerce, where I have been for more than 13 years. As CEO of the AICC, my role is to facilitate trade between Ireland and the Arab World. Each Arab state has its own set of import requirements which is why some people might be deterred by the process. The AICC acts as a one-stop shop to help alleviate the administrative and legalisation burden and labour-intensive processes that come with starting your shipments. For more than 35 years, we are the only organisation in Ireland that can certify and guarantee customs clearance to the region.
The great news is that exports to the Arab states from Ireland have been increasing steadily and reached record highs last year with a total of €2.2bn worth of goods exported from here to the region.
“I’m a people person; I like talking to people but I’m also a good listener which I think is such an important trait in business”
What’s your USP?
I strongly believe that the culture and traditions of the Arab world are widely misunderstood and the opportunities for business underestimated. And because I have an understanding of both regions, I know how business works in both areas and how to connect the two.
I started out at the Chamber in a hands-on role involving the physical handling of documentation relating to exports to the Arab region, and I saw that there was a clear need to move away from this time-consuming method. I decided that we needed to explore the possibility of developing tailored software to accommodate the Chamber’s customers and documentation processes and we have never looked back.
My mission is to make trade easier between Ireland and the Arab World. We do this by making transactions a lot faster. People think facilitating trade is complex but that’s where we come in – we will handle all the finer details of processing. By way of example, some people find levies and taxes difficult to navigate given there are 19 Arab states, each with different levies, different demands and different laws. We can step in and handle this for you.
The AICC currently works with more than 1,000 businesses, including multinationals and local independent companies exporting to the Middle East and Gulf.
In my role, I also deal with a wide range of stakeholders in driving Arab-Irish relations including Ambassadors to Ireland, Irish chamber groups, the Department of Finance, Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland among others.
“Always trust your own instincts. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but it couldn’t be more true. Listen to what your mind is telling you”
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I’m a people person; I like talking to people but I’m also a good listener which I think is such an important trait in business. I want to hear people’s challenges in getting set up with trading with the Arab states, and I want to help them solve them and achieve their ambitions.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
So many people have been good to me along the way that it’s difficult to name one. First and foremost, I would have to say my wife and kids who have just been there for me every step of the way.
My team around me in the Arab Irish Chamber of Commerce is amazing – I couldn’t do what I do without them, it’s such a supportive environment and I’m forever grateful for that.
I wouldn’t say I’ve one specific mentor or inspiration, but I have great admiration for sports team managers – the way they drive their teams on and lead them to success – I find that amazing.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Always trust your own instincts. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but it couldn’t be more true. Listen to what your mind is telling you.
And don’t hold onto the little things. Don’t bring the little work irritations home with you – it is very unhealthy and can change you as a person. Being self-aware really makes the difference between success and failure.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
You have to have a lot of failures in life to learn. It’s how you deal with them that matters and makes you grow as a person. This is true not only in your personal life but in business. I’m a firm believer in working with life coaches; I think they can be really helpful and it’s something I do regularly myself.
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
The biggest challenge especially in the early stages of my current role was trying to appease so many stakeholders. We had a board of 24 people from 12 different countries and backgrounds, so it was a new experience for me to try to get everyone to agree on the vision and direction of the organisation. And when you start at such a young age you need to do even more convincing. But persistence often pays off and I was lucky in that the team was very open to hearing new ideas.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
Before the pandemic we took action to ensure all of our systems would become automated, and cloud-based. Everything from processing documents and navigating international couriers to online certification. Thankfully, we had all of this in place and functioning by the time the pandemic hit, otherwise it would have made things very difficult. The fact that business owners and individuals were able to access everything they needed from their homes really helped us navigate our way through.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Absolutely, it has played a huge part for us at the Chamber in the way it has sped up all of the processes associated with getting set up to do business in or with the Arab Word.
Digitisation has actually opened the door for many different kinds of businesses to be able to trade with the region too. Take the example of fresh foods; given their shelf life it used to be difficult to manage trade of these types of products with the Arab states, but now that exports can be processed much faster, this is now possible and has definitely contributed to the growth in food exports from Ireland to the region.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I would take more time in making certain decisions. There were occasions I felt I rushed into things in my professional life when I was quite young. I also think I would have taken some time out to travel if I were to do it all over again.
Who inspires you in business today?
I am inspired by so many but again I would have to mention sports managers here. I find their drive and determination truly inspiring. If I was to name one, I would say Sir Alex Ferguson.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
I’m a big talker and like to make people feel welcome. I make a conscious effort to converse and engage with any new hires on a personal level to understand their needs and wants from the business and I do what I can to help them achieve this. I do take pride in the supportive team environment at the Chamber. It leads to great things. For example, our online software was designed and built by our employees – they saw the changes that needed to be made to make it better and they communicated that need. All ideas are welcome at the Chamber; it doesn’t matter if you’re entry level or senior level, everyone is treated the same.
“I am a firm believer in that we have to work with technology and not against it, as it’s only accelerating in terms of advancements”
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
I get great use out of my smartwatch to keep an eye on my steps and heart rate. I regularly go on two-to-three hour cycles and use it to monitor my activity including distance. Being out in the open on a long cycle gives me ideas and motivates me to do even more the next time.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
For business, definitely LinkedIn, I find it a great platform from which to learn, and I get inspired by other Chambers of Commerce both nationally and internationally. Whether in terms of events or services, it’s a great way of getting ideas as to what might work in Ireland.
I’m also starting to see the benefits of TikTok so that’s currently my second preference.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
I am a firm believer in that we have to work with technology and not against it, as it’s only accelerating in terms of advancements. I think tech in the next three-to-five years is going to become more advanced than we are with the impact of AI being more and more prevalent in business. Once human behaviour and emotions are properly incorporated, it will take it to a whole new level. If we don’t embrace it in business, we’ll get left behind as it will only serve to make doing business more efficient. Once AI is mastered, it will be a gamechanger for most businesses.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Travel the world. That is one of my biggest regrets. I bought my first house at that age. Now I realise there was plenty of time for that – you only have one life so take that year out and learn from it.