Non-oil activity underpins UAE economy

11 April 2024

The latest news and analysis on the UAE includes:

Dubai real estate boosts construction sector
UAE and Kenya launch digital corridor initiative
UAE in talks to invest in European nuclear power infrastructure
Abu Dhabi’s local content awards surge to $12bn
Dubai tunnels project dominates UAE pipeline
UAE marks successful power project deliveries


 

Economic activity in the UAE appears to be holding up relatively well amid the regional turmoil sparked by the start of the Gaza war in November.

Abu Dhabi recorded GDP growth of 3.1% in 2023, according to full-year estimates released by the Statistics Centre Abu Dhabi on 1 April. That marks a substantial drop from the 9.3% level seen in 2022, but an improvement on the 2.3% growth over the first nine months of 2023.

Despite falling oil prices and the disruption to Red Sea shipping in the final quarter, there have been ongoing positive signs for the non-oil sector, which now accounts for around 53% of the total economy. Non-oil activity grew by 9.1% in 2023, down only slightly from the 9.2% level recorded a year earlier.

That non-oil activity is likely to continue to be a key element for economic growth for as long as the UAE and its partners in the Opec+ alliance maintain their voluntary restrictions on crude production. There is no clear timeline for when that policy might change, but David Pickett, assistant economist at Oxford Economics, said he anticipated “a significant increase in oil production from 2026, aided by new facilities and subsiding geopolitical uncertainty”.

In the meantime, the Central Bank of the UAE has adjusted its growth expectations for this year, cutting its forecast for 2024 from the previous 5.7% to 4.2% while predicting a rebound to 5.2% the following year—figures that are higher than many independent observers’ expectations.

Trade and investment

A wave of free trade deals is helping the country’s economic prospects. To date, the UAE has signed comprehensive economic partnership agreements (CEPAs) with 12 countries, the most recent being with Kenya in late February. Another is due to be finalised with Malaysia by June.

Deals with India, Indonesia, Israel, Turkey and Cambodia have already come into effect, while others with Colombia, Costa Rica, Georgia, Kenya, Mauritius, South Korea and the Republic of Congo are all in line to follow. Trade talks are ongoing with numerous other countries, including Australia, Chile, the Philippines and Vietnam.

However, the rapid pace of negotiations means it is not yet clear what impact these deals are having on trade flows.

“It is arguably too early to assess the economic impact of these trade agreements, with many coming into force less than 12 months ago and with full bilateral trade data for 2023 yet to be published,” said Jeanne Walters, senior economist at Dubai-based Emirates NBD, in a report published in early March.

Also helping the country’s position is its release in February from the strictures of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force’s ‘grey list’ of jurisdictions under increased monitoring. The UAE authorities had been targeting this development for some time, and it should ease the path of economic growth for a country that relies heavily on international trade.

Minister of State Ahmed Bin Ali Al Sayegh set out the decision’s importance soon after the announcement, saying it “enhances investors’ and international financial institutions’ confidence in the country’s economy and financial system, especially considering the UAE’s status as a financial, commercial and economic hub”.

One measure of the country’s commercial reputation is its ability to attract investment. Despite increased competition from Saudi Arabia for international capital, a March report by Emirates NBD Research found that the UAE was second only to the US globally in terms of the number of greenfield foreign direct investment (FDI) projects it attracted in 2023.

The number of UAE FDI projects for 2023 was recorded at 1,280, up 36% on the previous 12 months. Most of these were in Dubai, which attracted 1,036 projects – more than any other city in the world – while Abu Dhabi had 172 projects.

In an effort to continue to attract international capital, the government is now said to be looking at offering 10-year ‘golden licences’ to businesses. The topic was discussed at a meeting of the Economic Integration Committee, chaired by Economy Minister Abdulla Bin Touq, in late March.

Inclement geopolitics

Perhaps the biggest cloud on the horizon is the brutal Gaza war, which could yet have a larger economic and domestic political impact, not least because of the sensitivity around the UAE’s diplomatic relations with Israel.

Like other Gulf countries, the UAE has been sending a steady stream of humanitarian aid to Gaza, but those efforts received a setback on 2 April, when Israel attacked an aid convoy run by World Central Kitchen – a partner of the UAE and others in the Amalthea Initiative aimed at providing a maritime corridor for aid from Cyprus to Gaza.

The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement in which it “condemned in the strongest terms” the Israeli strike. Emirati officials were already understood to be considering ways to offer more protection to aid deliveries, and this will now be even higher up the agenda.

Even as relations have soured, there has been no indication that the country is considering altering its diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, forged under the Abraham Accords of September 2020.

Nevertheless, while there has been little outward sign of public discontent within the UAE over the conflict, officials around the Gulf are said to be increasingly wary of the potential for the war in Gaza to cause a popular backlash.

One lesson from the broader region in recent decades is that an economic downturn can encourage political discontent, too, but it is far easier to maintain public order in a prosperous economic environment. By that measure, the UAE should have little to fear, given its robust non-oil performance of late.

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Dominic Dudley
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