Economy of the United Arab Emirates

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Economy of the United Arab Emirates
Dubai skyline 2015 (crop).jpg
Dubai, the financial center of the United Arab Emirates
CurrencyUnited Arab Emirates dirham (AED, د.إ)
calendar year
Trade organisations
Country group
PopulationIncrease 9,770,529 (2019)[3]
  • Increase $421.142 billion (nominal, 2019)[4]
  • Decrease $647.650 billion (PPP, 2020 est.)[4]
GDP rank
GDP growth
  • 1.7% (2018) 1.7% (2019e)
  • −4.5% (2020f) 1.4% (2021f)[5]
GDP per capita
  • Increase $43,103 (nominal, 2019)[4]
  • Decrease $58,466 (PPP, 2020 est.)[4]
GDP per capita rank
GDP by sector
-1% (2020 est.)[4]
Population below poverty line
32.5 medium (2014)[7]
Labour force
  • Increase 6,922,233 (2020)[10]
  • 78.3% employment rate (2019)[11]
  • expatriates account for about 85% of the workforce[6]
Labour force by occupation
UnemploymentPositive decrease 2.2% (2019)[12]
Main industries
Decrease 16th (very easy, 2020)[13]
ExportsIncrease $308.5 billion (2017 est.)[6]
Export goods
Crude oil 45%, natural gas, reexports, dried fish, dates (2012 est.)
Main export partners
ImportsIncrease $229.2 billion (2017 est.)[6]
Import goods
machinery and transport equipment, chemicals, food
Main import partners
FDI stock
  • Decrease $129.9 billion (31 December 2017 est.)[6]
  • Increase Abroad: $124.4 billion (31 December 2017 est.)[6]
Increase $26.47 billion (2017 est.)[6]
Negative increase $237.6 billion (31 December 2017 est.)[6]
Public finances
Positive decrease 38.33% of GDP (2020 est.)[6]
−0.2% (of GDP) (2017 est.)[6]
Revenues15.79 billion (2021 est.)[6]
Expenses16.6 billion (2021 est.)[6][note 1]
Standard & Poor's: AA[14]
Outlook: Stable
Moody's: Aa2
Outlook: Stable
Fitch: AA
Outlook: Stable
Foreign reserves
Increase $95.37 billion (31 December 2017 est.)[6]
Main data source: CIA World Fact Book
All values, unless otherwise stated, are in US dollars.

The economy of the United Arab Emirates (or UAE) is the fourth largest in the Middle East (after Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran), with a gross domestic product (GDP) of US$421 billion (AED 1.5 trillion) in 2020.

The UAE has been successfully diversifying its economy,[15] particularly in Dubai. But the country still remains heavily reliant on revenues from petroleum and natural gas, which continue to play a central role in its economy, especially in Abu Dhabi. In 2009, more than 85% of the UAE's economy was based on the oil exports.[16][17] While Abu Dhabi and other UAE emirates have remained relatively conservative in their approach to diversification, Dubai was bolder in its diversification policy. Dubai has far smaller oil reserves than its counterparts.[18] In 2011, oil exports accounted for 77% of the UAE's state budget.[19]

Tourism is one of the bigger non-oil sources of revenue in the UAE, with some of the world's most luxurious hotels being based in the UAE. A massive construction boom, an expanding manufacturing base, and a thriving services sector are helping the UAE diversify its economy. Nationwide, there is currently $350 billion worth of active construction projects.[20]

The UAE is a member of the World Trade Organization and OPEC.

The UAE government has long been investing in the economy to diversify and reduce its dependence on oil revenue.

Historical background[edit]

Prior to independence from the UK and unification in 1971, each emirate was responsible for its own economy. At the time, pearl diving, seafaring and fishing were together the mainstay of the economy, until the development of Japanese cultured pearls and the discovery of commercial quantities of oil.[21] Previous UAE President Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan is credited with bringing the country forward into the 20th century and using the revenue from oil exports to fund all the necessary development. Likewise, former UAE vice-president Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum had a bold vision for the Emirate of Dubai and foresaw the future in not petroleum alone, but also other industries.[22]

In the 1980s Dubai's diversification centred around trade and the creation of shipping and logistics centres, notably Port Rashid and the port and Free Zone of Jebel Ali as well as Dubai International Airport,[23] leading to a number of major global plays in shipping, transportation and logistics (DP World, Emirates, DNATA). The emergence of Dubai's lively real estate market was briefly checked by the global financial crisis of 2007–8, when Dubai was bailed out by Abu Dhabi.[24] The recovery from the overheated market led to tighter regulation and oversight and a more realistic market for real estate throughout the UAE with many 'on hold' projects restarting. Although the market continues to expand, current market conditions for developers have been characterised as 'tough'.[25]


UAE has the second-largest economy in the Arab world (after Saudi Arabia),[26] with a gross domestic product (GDP) of US$414 billion (AED 1.52 trillion) in 2018.[27] A third of the GDP is from oil revenues.[26] The economy was expected to grow 4–4.5% in 2013, compared to 2.3–3.5% over the previous five years. Since independence in 1971, UAE's economy has grown by nearly 231 times to AED1.45 trillion in 2013. The non-oil trade has grown to AED1.2 trillion, a growth of around 28 times from 1981 to 2012.[26]

The UAE's economy is one of the most open worldwide, and its economic history goes back to the times when ships sailed to India, along the Swahili coast, as far south as Mozambique.[28]

International Monetary Fund (IMF) expected UAE's economic growth to increase to 4.5% in 2015, compared to 4.3% in 2014. The IMF ascribed UAE's potentially strong economic growth in World Economic Outlook Report to the increased contribution of non-petroleum sectors, which registered a growth average of more than 6% in 2014 and 2015. Such contribution includes banking, tourism, commerce and real estate. Increase of Emirati purchasing power and governmental expenditures in infrastructure projects have considerably increased.

Internationally, UAE is ranked among the top 20 for global service business, according to AT Kearney, the top 30 on the WEF "most-networked countries" and in the top quarter as a least corrupt country per the TI's corruption index.[29]

The government of the United Arab Emirates announced a broad restructuring and merger of more than 50% of its federal agencies, including ministries and departments, in an attempt to deal with and recover from the economic shocks following months-long coronavirus lockdown.[30]


The following table shows the main economic indicators in 1980–2017. Inflation below 2% is in green.[31]

Year GDP
(in Bil. US$PPP)
GDP per capita
(in US$ PPP)
GDP growth
Inflation rate
(in Percent)
Government debt
(in % of GDP)
1980 75.1 74,759 Decrease−1.8 % Negative increase10.1 % n/a
1981 Increase89.2 Increase81,075 Increase8.0 % Negative increase7.9 % n/a
1982 Decrease87.9 Decrease75,134 Decrease−7.2 % Negative increase7.0 % n/a
1983 Decrease86.6 Decrease71,554 Decrease−5.3 % Increase1.3 % n/a
1984 Increase93.6 Decrease71,482 Increase4.5 % Negative increase2.4 % n/a
1985 Increase94.2 Decrease68,263 Decrease−3.5 % Negative increase3.5 % n/a
1986 Decrease77.6 Decrease53,878 Decrease−19.3 % Negative increase5.4 % n/a
1987 Increase83.8 Increase55,856 Increase5.3 % Negative increase5.5 % n/a
1988 Increase84.4 Decrease47,175 Decrease−2.6 % Negative increase5.0 % n/a
1989 Increase101.5 Increase54,585 Increase15.7 % Negative increase2.8 % n/a
1990 Increase130.1 Increase70,548 Increase23.6 % Increase0.6 % n/a
1991 Increase137.3 Increase71,231 Increase2.1 % Negative increase3.4 % n/a
1992 Increase144.8 Increase71,991 Increase3.1 % Negative increase6.4 % n/a
1993 Increase148.2 Decrease71,136 Steady0.0 % Negative increase5.3 % n/a
1994 Increase162.5 Increase72,858 Increase7.4 % Negative increase5.7 % n/a
1995 Increase176.8 Increase73,320 Increase6.6 % Negative increase4.3 % n/a
1996 Increase189.6 Increase77,615 Increase5.3 % Negative increase3.0 % n/a
1997 Increase209.4 Increase81,145 Increase8.6 % Negative increase3.0 % n/a
1998 Increase213.3 Decrease75,265 Increase0.8 % Increase2.0 % n/a
1999 Increase224.7 Decrease74,081 Increase3.8 % Negative increase2.2 % 4.8 %
2000 Increase258.1 Increase86,187 Increase12.3 % Increase1.3 % Positive decrease3.0 %
2001 Increase267.3 Decrease84,408 Increase1.3 % Increase2.8 % Positive decrease2.7 %
2002 Increase278.2 Decrease83,054 Increase2.5 % Negative increase2.9 % Negative increase3.6 %
2003 Increase308.7 Increase86,933 Increase8.8 % Negative increase3.1 % Negative increase4.4 %
2004 Increase347.6 Increase92,413 Increase9.6 % Negative increase5.0 % Negative increase5.6 %
2005 Increase376.2 Decrease91,623 Increase4.9 % Negative increase6.2 % Negative increase6.6 %
2006 Increase425.9 Decrease84,967 Increase9.8 % Negative increase9.3 % Negative increase6.8 %
2007 Increase451.3 Decrease72,576 Increase3.2 % Negative increase11.1 % Negative increase7.9 %
2008 Increase475.0 Decrease58,833 Increase3.2 % Negative increase12.3 % Negative increase12.5 %
2009 Decrease453.6 Decrease55,315 Decrease−5.2 % Increase1.6 % Negative increase24.1 %
2010 Increase466.6 Increase56,457 Increase1.6 % Increase0.9 % Positive decrease21.9 %
2011 Increase506.5 Increase59,502 Increase6.4 % Increase0.9 % Positive decrease17.5 %
2012 Increase542.2 Increase61,837 Increase5.1 % Increase0.7 % Positive decrease17.0 %
2013 Increase582.8 Increase64,537 Increase5.8 % Increase1.1 % Positive decrease15.7 %
2014 Increase612.8 Increase65,877 Increase3.3 % Negative increase2.3 % Positive decrease15.5 %
2015 Increase643.1 Increase67,127 Increase3.8 % Negative increase4.1 % Negative increase18.7 %
2016 Increase671.1 Increase68,092 Increase3.0 % Increase1.6 % Negative increase20.7 %
2017 Increase686.8 Decrease67,741 Increase0.5 % Increase2.0 % Positive decrease19.5 %

External trade[edit]

Emirati exports in 2006

With imports totaling $273.5 billion in 2012, UAE passed Saudi Arabia as the largest consumer market in the region. Exports totaled $314 billion, which makes UAE the second largest exporter in the region.[26]

UAE and India are each other's main trading partners, with the latter having many of its citizens working and living in the former. The trade totals over $75 billion (AED275.25 billion).[32]

The top five of the Main Partner Countries of the UAE in 2014 are Iran (3.0%), India (2.9%), Saudi Arabia (1.5%), Oman (1.4%) and Switzerland (1.2%). As for the top five of UAE suppliers are China (7.4%), United States (6.4%), India (5.8%), Germany (3.9%) and Japan (3.5%).

Diversification of UAE's economy[edit]

Graphical depiction of UAE's product exports in colour-coded categories (2017)

Although UAE has the most diversified economy in the GCC, the UAE's economy remains extremely reliant on oil. With the exception of Dubai, most of the UAE is dependent on oil revenues. Petroleum and natural gas continue to play a central role in the economy, especially in Abu Dhabi. More than 85% of the UAE's economy was based on the oil exports in 2009.[16][17] While Abu Dhabi and other UAE emirates have remained relatively conservative in their approach to diversification, Dubai, which has far smaller oil reserves, was bolder in its diversification policy.[18] In 2011, oil exports accounted for 77% of the UAE's state budget.[19]

Dubai suffered from a significant economic crisis in 2007-2010 and was bailed out by Abu Dhabi's oil wealth. Dubai's current prosperity has been attributed to Abu Dhabi's petrodollars.[33] In 2014, Dubai owed a total of $142 billion in debt.[34] The UAE government has worked towards reducing the economy's dependence on oil exports by 2030.[35] Various projects are underway to help achieve this, the most recent being the Khalifa Port, opened in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi at the end of 2012. The UAE has also won the right to host the World Expo 2020, which is believed to have a positive effect on future growth, although there are some skeptics which mention the opposite.[36]

Over the decades, the Emirate of Dubai has started to look for additional sources of revenue. High-class tourism and international finance continue to be developed. In line with this initiative, the Dubai International Financial Centre was announced, offering 55.5% foreign ownership, no withholding tax, freehold land and office space and a tailor-made financial regulatory system with laws taken from best practice in other leading financial centres like New York, London, Zürich and Singapore. A new stock market for regional companies and other initiatives were announced in DIFC. Dubai has also developed Internet and Media free zones, offering 100% foreign ownership, no tax office space for the world's leading ICT and media companies, with the latest communications infrastructure to service them. Many of the world's leading companies have now set up branch offices, and even changed headquarters to, there. Recent liberalisation in the property market allowing non citizens to buy freehold land has resulted in a major boom in the construction and real estate sectors, with several signature developments such as the 2 Palm Islands, the World (archipelago), Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Lake Towers, and a number of other developments, offering villas and high rise apartments and office space. Emirates (part of the Emirates Group) was formed by the Dubai Government in the 1980s and is presently one of the few airlines to witness strong levels of growth. Emirates is also the largest operator of the Airbus A380 aircraft. As of 2001, budgeted government revenues were about AED 29.7 billion, and expenditures were about AED 22.9 billion.In addition, to finding new ways of sustaining the national economy, the UAE has also made progress in installing new, sustainable methods of generating electricity. This is evidenced by various solar energy initiatives at Masdar City and by other renewable energy developments in parts of the country.[37][38]

In addition, the UAE is starting to see the emergence of local manufacturing as new source of economic development, examples of significant government-led investments such as Strata in aerospace industry, under Mubadala are successful, while there are also small scale entrepreneurial ventures picking up, such as Zarooq Motors in the automotive industry.[39]

Foreign trade[edit]

With reference to foreign trade, UAE's market is one of the world's most dynamic markets worldwide, placed among the 16 largest exporters and 20 largest importers of commodities.[40] The top five of the Main Partner Countries of the UAE in 2014 are Iran (3.0%), India (2.9%), Saudi Arabia (1.5%), Oman (1.4%) and Switzerland (1.2%). As for the top five of UAE suppliers are China (7.4%), United States (6.4%), India (5.8%), Germany (3.9%) and Japan (3.5%).

UAE's Foreign Trade Indicators[41]
Indicator 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Imports of Goods (million USD) 165,000 203,000 226,000 251,000 262,000
Exports of Goods (million USD) 214,000 302,000 349,000 379,000 360,000
Imports of Services (million USD) 41,337 55,702 62,301 66,413 70,279
Exports of Services (million USD) 11,028 12,063 15,276 17,345 19,769
Imports of Goods and Services (Annual % Change) 2.1 18.8 5.2 6.5 6.1
Exports of Goods and Services (Annual % Change) 2.5 20.7 17.0 4.5 8.2
Imports of Goods and Services (in % of GDP) 72.2 72.3 75.3 76.8 77.9
Exports of Goods and Services (in % of GDP) 78.8 90.3 100.6 101.3 98.0

In 2014, the United Arab Emirates managed to export 380.4bn dominated by four products which are Petroleum oils and oils obtained from bituminous...[permanent dead link] (19.8%) Diamonds, whether or not worked, but not mounted...[permanent dead link] (3.4%) Gold in UAE(3.2%) incl. gold plated with platinum, unwrought...Articles of jewellery and parts thereof, of...[permanent dead link](2.8%). In the same year, the United Arab Emirates imported 298.6 bn dominated by five countries which are China (7.4%), United States (6.4%), India (5.8%), Germany (3.9%), Japan (3.5%).

On one hand, the United Arab Emirates managed in 2013 to export 17 bn USD services exported in 2013 dominated by travel (67.13%), transportation (28.13%), Government services (4.74%). On the other hand, it imported 63.9 bn USD of services imported services dominated by transportation (70.68%), travel (27.70%) and government services (1.62%).

In September 2021, the UAE announced its plans to aggravate its trade ties with other economies, particularly in Asia and Africa. The country indicated that it was looking for inward foreign investments of around $150 billion in the next nine years, that is, by 2030. The Emirates aimed to be one of the world’s ten biggest investment nations. However, it had to face strong competition from its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, creating a broader gap in the once-assumed alliance between the two countries. The Emirati minister of state for foreign trade said, “Let the Saudis increase the competition. It means the pie is going to be bigger and having a bigger pie means that the UAE share out of this pie is going to be bigger.”[42]

Human Resources and Employment[edit]

Two south east Asian blue-collar workers posing for a picture with Burj Khalifa on the background.

Emiratisation is an initiative by the government of the UAE to employ more UAE Nationals in a meaningful and efficient manner in the public and private sectors.[43][44] While the program has been in place for more than a decade and results can be seen in the public sector, the private sector is still lagging behind with citizens only representing 0.34% of the private sector workforce.[45]

While there is general agreement over the importance of Emiratisation for social, economic and political reasons, there is also some contention as to the impact of localization on organizational efficiency. It is yet unknown whether, and the extent to which, employment of nationals generates returns for MNEs operating in the Middle East. Recent research cautions that localization is not always advantageous for firms operating in the region, and its effectiveness depends on a number of contingent factors.[46][47]

In December 2009 however, a positive impact of UAE citizens in the workplace was identified in a newspaper article citing a yet unpublished study,[48] this advantage being the use of networks within the evolving power structures.

Overall, however, uptake in the private sector remains low regardless of significant investments in education, which have reached record levels with education now accounting for 22.5% – or $2.6 billion – of the overall budget planned for 2010.[49] Multiple governmental initiatives are actively promoting Emiratisation by training anyone from highschool dropouts to graduates in a multitude of skills needed for the - essentially Western - work environment of the UAE, these initiatives include Tawteen UAE,[50] ENDP[51] or the Abu Dhabi Tawteen Council.[52]

There are very few anti-discrimination laws in relation to labour issues, with Emiratis – and other GCC nationals – being given preference when it comes to employment.[53] Unions are generally banned and workers with any labour issues are advised to be in touch with the Ministry of Labour, instead of protesting or refusing to work. Migrant employees often complain of poor workplace safety and wages based on nationality, although this is being slowly addressed.[54]

Beyond directly sponsoring educational initiatives, the Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy[55] is funding major research initiatives into Emiratisation through competitive research grants, allowing universities such as United Arab Emirates University or Dubai School of Government to build and disseminate expertise on the topic.

Academics working on various aspects of Emiratisation include Paul Dyer[12] and Natasha Ridge from Dubai School of Government, Ingo Forstenlechner[13] from United Arab Emirates University, Kasim Randaree from the British University of Dubai and Paul Knoglinger from the FHWien.

In 2020, economy of the United Arab Emirates became vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, witnessing an economic shutdown. Among the Emirates, Dubai was facing extreme situation, where the expat workers were left jobless. Thousands of the Britons working in the city started selling off their possessions to collect money, as the strict visa regulations forced them to return to the UK.[56]

According to an April 2021 report published by the Democracy Centre for Transparency on the Discrimination against foreigners and expatriates living in the UAE versus Emirati citizens, despite labor reforms in the UAE, foreigners and skilled or unskilled migrant workers face discrimination and racialization[clarification needed] from the citizens of the country. Foreigners and expatriates are often subjected to discrimination at work concerning promotions and wages, or gender inequality. The findings of the DCT concern the organization as the UAE’s economy largely relies on foreign workers and thus fulfills a crucial international role. The organization demands that the UAE abide by universal human rights principles.[57] [58]

The 31st edition of World Report 2021 released by Human Rights Watch reiterates that labour abuses driven by an exploitative kafala system are persistent in the UAE. During the Covid-19 pandemic, migrant workers faced massive unemployment issues and were also left stranded in dire conditions without legal residencies. Also, many migrants suffered wage theft and were unable to pay rent or buy food.[59]


The stock market capitalisation of listed companies in the UAE was valued at $109.9 billion in October 2012 by Bloomberg.[60]

Outward investment[edit]

A investment institutions were created by the government to promote manage investments made by the UAE abroad:

Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA)

Inward investment[edit]

The UAE is in the 17th position in term of the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI). The report says that the UAE competitiveness stems from "high quality [...] infrastructure" and "highly efficient good markets." [62]

Corporate Governance Code[edit]

The Securities and Commodities Authority (SCA) introduced a new corporate governance regulation (the Corporate Governance Code), which applies to all joint stock companies and institutions whose securities are listed on Dubai Financial Market (DFM) and Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange (ADX) in 2009.[63]


On 19 June 2020, rating agency Moody's changed its outlook regarding eight banks in the United Arab Emirates from stable to negative. The change was due to “the potential material weakening in their standalone credit profiles”, where the UAE's economy was facing additional challenges amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and low oil prices. The eight banks included Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, Emirates NBD, HSBC Bank Middle East, Dubai Islamic Bank, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, National Bank of Fujairah, National Bank of Ras al-Khaimah and Mashreq Bank.[64]

The Fitch Ratings in its June 22, 2020 report predicted that the Standalone Credit Profiles of UAE-based banks are to possibly weaken in the following year owing to the financial crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic and oil price collapse. As per the Fitch report, despite the implementation of timely measures for supporting the economy, the profitability of banks in the UAE are prone to get affected by a lower non-interest income worsened by a controlled business volume, lower interest rates, and higher loan recovery charges. In addition, the asset quality is expected to weaken, too, following the unbearable impact of the economic downturn that all borrowers may not be able to withstand.[65]

Real estate[edit]

The development in the real estate and infrastructure sectors during the recent year has contributed in making the country a global touristic destination. The contribution of tourism in the Emirati GDP increased from 3% in the mid-1990s to more than 16.5% by the end of 2010. This trend is supported by the huge public investments in touristic projects (47 Billion Dollars per annum) carried mainly to expend airports, increase their capacity, set up new airports and ports.

The real estate sector have a positive impact on development, job opportunities, investments and tourism as estate projects were launched to meet the needs of market and the increasing demand for housing and commercial units especially in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The UAE has 18 tour hotels out of the 155 (150 meters high) that exist around the world. This makes the UAE the third destination with such tours after China and America in 2014. These buildings are among the UAE's attractions for tourists. Dubai has adopted dazzling ideas in construction and design of these tall tours.

The leap in real estate sector along and infrastructure development in the UAE during the recent year has contributed in making this country a global touristic destination par excellence. Therefore, the contribution of tourism in the Emirati GDP increased from 3% in the mid-1990s to more than 16.5% by the end of 2010. This trend is supported by the huge public investments in touristic projects (47 Billion Dollars per year) carried mainly to expend airports, increase their capacity, set up new airports and ports.

The UAE has about 37% of the region's petroleum and gas industries, chemical industries, energy and water and garbage projects. The UAE's government have been injecting huge funds in tourism and real estate projects, especially in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Al Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi and Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest tower in the world, world central near “Jebel Ali” are a point in case of the milestones that have given the UAE its high profile of a global tourist destination. According to 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report, the UAE ranked fourth worldwide in terms of infrastructure quality.

On 28 November 2020, the Abu Dhabi Media Office announced that the government of United Arab Emirates, ahead of the 49th National Day, granted house loans, land and homes worth $2 billion (7.2 billion dirhams) to their citizens. The package is said to consist 3,099 plots, 2,000 house loans and 601 homes and exempting some families of the deceased citizens and retirees from the repayment of mortgage. The Director General of the Abu Dhabi Housing Society, Basheer Al Mehairbi said the initiative of providing sustainable housing aimed at ensuring a good standard of living for the citizens of the UAE.[66]

Real-estate projects[edit]

Some of the significant real-estate projects are:

Financial centers[edit]

Among the most prominent financial centers in the UAE are:

See also[edit]


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  1. ^ the UAE federal budget does not account for emirate-level spending in Abu Dhabi and Dubai

External links[edit]