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United Arab Emirates

Flag of United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates country brief


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is situated in the Southeast of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering Oman and Saudi Arabia. In December 1971, the UAE became a federation of six emirates - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al-Quwain, and Fujairah, while the seventh emirate, Ras Al Khaimah, joined the federation in 1972. The capital city is Abu Dhabi, located in the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates.

Since its Federation in 1971, the UAE has developed rapidly and is now noted for its modern infrastructure, international events and status as a trade and transport hub.

Political overview

The President of the UAE is His Highness (HH) Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is also Ruler of Abu Dhabi. The Ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, is the Vice-President, Prime Minister and Defence Minister. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE armed forces is HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The UAE’s federal structure includes a Supreme Council (comprising the Rulers of each Emirate), a Council of Ministers and Federal National Council. Each Emirate is governed by its own Ruler, with its own local government, courts and police forces.

The Federal National Council comprises 40 members half of which are appointed and half elected. Elections were last held in October 2019 and for the first time the UAE implemented a requirement for 50 per cent of total members to be women. This requirement saw a significant increase in the number of female candidates. The Federal National Council has an advisory role and is a forum in which concerns of Emiratis are raised.

The UAE is a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the United Nations, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Non-Aligned Movement and the World Trade Organization. The International Renewable Energy Agency, established in 2009, has its headquarters in Abu Dhabi.

On 15 September 2020, the UAE and Israel signed the Abraham Accords Peace agreement in Washington, DC.

Bilateral relations

Bilateral relations between Australia and the UAE are friendly, multi-faceted and growing rapidly. They are underpinned by extensive trade relations, and the UAE is Australia’s largest Middle East trading partner. The two countries enjoy good defence, aviation security and law enforcement cooperation, the latter underpinned by agreements on mutual legal assistance in criminal law matters and extradition. The Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the United Arab Emirates on Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy entered into force in April 2014, paving the way for Australia to provide uranium for the UAE’s civilian nuclear energy program.

The Australian Ambassador to the UAE is based at the Australian Embassy in Abu Dhabi. Australia also has a Consulate-General/Trade Commissioner in Dubai. State government offices representing New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, and Victoria are also based in the UAE.

People to people links

People-to-people contacts have expanded rapidly on the back of the strong growth of direct air links. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, over 100 Emirates and Etihad flights per week operated between the UAE and Australia. An estimated 15,000 Australians live and work in the UAE. In 2018, there were approximately 400 Emirati students studying in Australia and Australia is a popular holiday destination for Emiratis.

At the start of 2020, in response the severe Australian bushfire season, the UAE donated fire trucks and generators to several affected communities. On 16 January 2020, the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building which is located in Dubai, was lit up with the phrase ‘#mateshelpmates’ as a sign of the UAE’s support for bushfire response.

Economic overview

The UAE is the Middle East’s second largest economy, after Saudi Arabia, and one of the wealthiest countries in the region on a per capita basis. Its GDP in 2019 was estimated at US$427.9 billion, a real GDP growth rate of around 1.6 per cent.

The UAE has six per cent of the world’s oil reserves and the seventh largest proven natural gas reserves. Petroleum exports were US$ 49.6 billion in 2019. In the medium term, oil and gas (which account for over two-thirds of exports and the bulk of government revenue) will continue to underpin the UAE’s economy. However, significant steps towards economic diversification have already been taken, with approximately 70 per cent of GDP now generated by sectors other than oil and gas. The UAE is also developing a civil nuclear energy program and plans to build four nuclear power reactors by 2020. The first, the Barakah nuclear power plant was opened in 2020. Renewable energy generation is also a focus for the UAE, both for domestic energy needs and in terms of investment abroad.

Abu Dhabi, which has the vast majority of oil and gas reserves in the UAE, has made significant investments in establishing aerospace, nuclear power, defence, information technology (micro-processing), petrochemical and clean-tech industries – the latter most prominently represented by the multibillion-dollar initiative of Masdar City, a zero-carbon city outside Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is also investing heavily in educational institutions, and cultural and sporting attractions such as the Formula One racing track, Ferrari theme park, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi to diversify the economy away from oil and encourage tourism.

Dubai has also diversified into the exhibitions, events, ICT, re-export and financial sectors. Taking advantage of its position near the head of the Gulf, it has consolidated its historical reputation as a regional entrepôt. Dubai has developed luxury hotels, large port facilities (including Jebel Ali) and a range of free trade zones to attract both manufacturing and services industries.

The UAE population of 10.4 million (2018) depends substantially on its expatriate workforce, which made up about 88 per cent of the population in 2017. The UAE government has increased spending on job creation and infrastructure expansion, including in preparation for hosting the world expo in Dubai which was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and is scheduled to commence in October 2021. The UAE is also opening up utilities to greater private sector involvement. Several free trade zones across the country attract foreign investors, by offering full ownership and zero taxes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the UAE’s economy, particularly due to the reduction in passenger numbers through air hubs, the reduction in tourist arrivals and the impact of COVID-19 measures on commerce.

Trade and Investment

The UAE is Australia’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and 17th largest overall, with two-way goods and services trade worth $10.4 billion in 2018-19. Merchandise exports to the UAE were worth $4.1 billion in 2018-19 and were dominated by red meat and machinery and automotive parts. Australian goods imports from the UAE were worth $2.1 billion in 2018-19 (mainly petroleum products).

Services trade is an increasingly important component of the commercial relationship, including construction, financial and professional services, tourism and education. Education is seen as an area of potential growth, with several Australian institutions active in the UAE market, including: Wollongong University, which in 1993 was the first private university to establish a campus in Dubai; Murdoch University, which opened in Dubai in 2007; Curtin University, which opened in Dubai in 2018; the Australian International School Sharjah; the Victorian International School Sharjah; and a number of Australian institutions with partnerships with local institutions to deliver the Australian curriculum in-country.

Australia's commercial profile in the UAE is significant, with UAE-based Australian companies numbering over 300. Australian companies, institutions and capabilities are working in a range of industries, including steel trading, building, construction and financial services, banking services, materials and equipment, agricultural supplies and services, industrial minerals, dairy products, marine manufacturing, education and training services, sports and recreation, health services, livestock, oil field supplies, courier and freight services. Many companies use Dubai as a regional base, in view of its transport, financial and communications infrastructure. UAE entities hold significant investments in Australia, including in the agribusiness, tourism, health and aged care and resources sectors.

In 2018, UAE investment in Australia was estimated at $11.1 billion according to ABS data. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), the world’s second largest sovereign wealth fund, has invested in ports, the TransGrid electricity network and the Queensland Motorway project. Other UAE sovereign wealth funds also have assets and are examining other investment opportunities in Australia.

Dubai will host the next world expo commencing in October 2021. Expo 2020 is an opportunity for Australia to showcase our culture, ingenuity and innovation and highlight the quality of our services sector and education system, agricultural products and credentials as a secure destination for investment.

Recent high-level visits

  • December 2019: HE General the Hon David Hurley, the Governor-General visited the UAE.
  • December 2019: the Hon Peter Dutton, Minister for Home Affairs visited the UAE.
  • October 2019: the Hon Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development visited the UAE.
  • July 2019: Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds, Minister for Defence visited the UAE.
  • January 2019: Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment visited the UAE.
  • December 2018: Prime Minister the Hon Scott Morrison visited the UAE.
  • October 2018: the Hon Mitch Fifield MP, Minister for Communications and the Arts, visited the UAE.
  • August 2018: HE Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al-Zeyoudi, UAE Minister for Climate Change visited Australia.
  • May 2018: HE Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, UAE Minister for Foreign Affairs visited Australia.
  • May 2018: the Hon David Littleproud MP, Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources visited the UAE.
  • January 2018: the Hon Steven Ciobo MP, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment visited the UAE.
  • November 2017: HE Sultan bin Saeed Al-Mansouri, UAE Minister for Economy visited Australia for the inaugural session of the UAE-Australia Joint Economic Committee.
  • September 2017: Sir Peter Cosgrove, Governor-General of Australia visited UAE.
  • September 2017: the Hon Keith Pitt MP, Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment visited the UAE.
  • July 2017: HE Najla Al-Awar, UAE Minister for Community Development visited Australia.
  • April 2017: Prime Minister the Hon Malcolm Turnbull visited the UAE.
  • April 2017: the Hon Steven Ciobo MP, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment visited the UAE.
  • February 2017: the Hon Christopher Pyne MP, Minister for Defence Industry visited UAE.

Last updated: January 2021

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