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Economy of the UAE: from a sandy desert into a global phenomenon

By Valerie Medleva

13:51, 31 October 2019

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uae economy

The United Arab Emirates can be rightfully termed a global phenomenon. In less than 50 years, the country has emerged from a sandy desert into a futuristic centre. It is an oasis, rich in history and traditions, but also embracing modernity.

With a population of over 9.5 million people, 80% of which come from around the world as expatriate, the country is known for its fascinating architecture, luxury resorts, golden beaches, expensive cars and desert safaris. However, these are not the only factors that allure hundreds of thousands of international investors each year. The United Arab Emirates’ oil production, along with robust growth in other business sectors, has transformed the country into one of the Middle East’s major economic powerhouses.

Do you also want to add the UAE to your list of investment destinations? Then, this article is for you. 

Below, we detail the country’s history, take a closer look at how the economy of the UAE functions and check what the UAE stock market can offer you today.

Historical background: through hardship to the stars in a few decades

You may already know that the United Arab Emirates is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. However, before gaining that title, its road to success was rather thorny, with endless negotiations, meetings, agreements and disagreements.

In its beginnings, the UAE was a desert, inhabited with mostly Bedouins, who travelled far and wide searching for shelter, food and water.

In the early 16th century, European intervention in the area began with the Portuguese. A century later, the British and Dutch competed for domination, with Britain coming out on top.

Following a series of truces with Britain during the 19th century, then-separate emirates united to form the Trucial States, which remained under British protection until 1971. In July of that year, the United Arab Emirates, as we know it today, was formed, with the city of Abu Dhabi serving as the capital.

In fact, few countries in history can boast of such a huge shift in development and growth in such a short period of time, comparable to that of the UAE. Today, the country is a member of the most influential global alliances, including the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Non-Aligned Movement and OPEC.

UAE economy overview: a diamond in the desert 

Prior to the discovery of oil in the mid-20th century, the economy of the United Arab Emirates was based primarily on fishing, seafaring and the pearl industry. Once oil production and export began in the 1960s, the country’s economy rapidly transformed, allowing the UAE to advance by leaps and bounds.

Today, the production of petroleum and natural gas contributes about one-third of the nation’s GDP, which is on par with those of leading Western European nations.

economy of the uae

The United Arab Emirates’ oil and gas reserves are both the seventh-largest around the globe. The country is currently fifth on the list of the world’s largest oil exporters. In 2018, for example, the UAE exported 5.2% of the globe’s total oil exports, accounting for $58.4 billion. The wealthiest of the emirates, Abu Dhabi, is responsible for almost 95% of the country’s oil production, contributing the majority tof the national budget. 

The largest oil concessions are held by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company’s subsidiary – Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company, which is partially owned by French, British and Japanese interests.

However, while the UAE has the most diversified economy in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), it still remains heavily reliant on the oil industry. For that reason, over the past few decades, the country has started to look for additional sources of revenue.

Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, the Emirati political scientist, has previously told Khaleej Times:

"The UAE is the only country in the region that is talking about 2050. His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, already said that in 2050, the last drop of oil will be exported and the UAE will no longer be an oil-based economy. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, talked about UAE 2071 and it's very clear idea about where it wants to be in the future. As a matter of fact, it is already living in the future."

Over the last twenty years, the UAE's economic diversification program has led to the rise of several non-oil industries, which now make up a substantial percentage of the country’s GDP. These include manufacturing (12.6%), commerce and hotels (11.4%), real estate (9.1%), construction (8.6%), transportation (7.3%) and finance and insurance (6.4%).

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uae economy overview

High-class tourism, with some of the world's most luxurious hotels, and international finance continue to be developed in the UAE.

The emirate of Dubai, for instance, serves as a commercial and financial hub for the region and leads the country in economic diversification, housing hundreds of multinational corporations in a forest of sleek skyscrapers.

Industrial growth was primarily facilitated by free trade zones, such as Jebel Ali in Dubai, which have served as magnets, enticing international businesses. In recent years, Dubai has attracted many technology mammoths to the emirate's "Internet City," including Oracle, Cisco Systems, Microsoft and Hewlett Packard.

In addition, the UAE is starting to see the emergence of local manufacturing as a new source of economic development, with examples of significant government-led investments like Strata in the aerospace industry.

In regards to foreign trade, the country offers one of the most dynamic markets worldwide, listed among the 16 largest exporters and 20 largest importers. In June 2019, the top five main export destinations included India (29.79%), Iran (12.33%), Qatar (5.66%), Switzerland (5.41%) and Iraq (5.37%). As for the major importers, the list included China (12.22%), India (11.85%), United States (8.53%), Japan (8.24%) and Germany (7%).

Nevertheless, the health of the overall country’s performance continues to fluctuate with the value of petroleum, which, in turn, indicates a strong correlation between the global oil price and the UAE economy.

What does the future of the UAE economy hold? According to the latest news, the country’s economy has been accelerating so far in 2019, driven by works related to infrastructure projects for Expo 2020. Next year, the UAE economic growth is expected to accelerate further as oil production increases and Expo 2020 bolsters the tourism industry.

FocusEconomics panellists expect GDP to increase by 2.3% in 2019 and 2.8% in 2020. However, the possibility of further subdued global growth and extension of OPEC production cuts, combined with volatile oil prices, does pose downside risks to the forecast.

Located in a region that faces many obstacles and challenges, the UAE is setting a positive example of how countries can evolve and blossom, despite being in the centre of ongoing conflict and chaos. 

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Investing in the UAE: what are the options in the stock market?

Thanks to the diversity of the business environment, there are a number of companies one may invest in the United Arab Emirates. According to figures revealed by the country's two main exchanges, the capitalisation of UAE capital markets reached $244 billion (AED895.5 billion) by the end of the second third of October 2019, up 5.6% compared to the start of the year.

As per the UAE economic growth forecasts, the market value of listed public and private joint-stock companies is predicted to continue its upward movement and break the $245 billion (AED900 billion) mark by the end of this year.

uae economic growth

Do you fancy the UAE oil business? Then you may want to consider investing in Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOCDIS).

Looking for some industry-based diversification, while adding UAE shares to your portfolio? Luckily, the UAE stock market has a plethora of options to offer, including Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB), Dubai Islamic Bank (DIB), First Gulf Bank (FGB), Finance House (FH) and Union National Bank (UNB) in banking and finance; Abu Dhabi National Insurance Company (ADNIC), Abu Dhabi National Takaful Company (TKFL) and National Takaful Company (WATANIA) in insurance; Emirates Telecommunications Company (ETISALAT), Ooredoo (ORDS) and Sudan Telecommunications Company Limited (SUDATEL) in services; Emaar Properties (EMAAR) and Union Properties (UPP) in real estate and construction, and Agility Logistics (AGLTY), Air Arabia (AIRARABIA) and Aramex (ARMX) in transportation.

In addition, you can invest in NMC Health PLC (NMC), a healthcare chain and distribution business in the UAE, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange and is a constituent of the FTSE 100 Index.

What are your bets on the further development of the economy of the United Arab Emirates? Will UAE stocks rise or fall in 2020? Make your own forecast and try to profit from the price fluctuations in one of the country’s most valuable commodities: oil. You can invest in Brent Crude Oil, as well as US Crude Oil and US Natural Gas, through contracts for difference, or CFDs. Learn more about CFD trading with our free online courses and comprehensive guides.

Stay on top of the latest news and market updates with Capital.com to keep up with the trends and take advantage of emerging trading opportunities.

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