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. It possesses among the highest per capita incomes in the world.

Political overview

The President of the UAE is His Highness (HH) Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, who is also Ruler of Abu Dhabi Emirate. The Ruler of Dubai Emirate, 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 a semi-appointed Federal National Council with an advisory role. Each Emirate is governed by its own Ruler, with its own local government, courts and police forces.

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.

Bilateral relations

Bilateral relations between Australia and the UAE are 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 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, and the Australian Consulate-General in Dubai is managed by Austrade. 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. As at December 2015, over 130 return flights per week operate between the UAE and Australia. An estimated 23,000 Australians live and work in the UAE. In 2015, there were approximately 600 Emirati students studying in Australia and Australia is a popular holiday destination for Emiratis.

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 current GDP in 2015 was estimated at US$339.1 billion, a real GDP growth rate of around 3.0 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$126 billion in 2014. 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, with the first scheduled to come on-line by 2017. Renewable energy generation is also a focus for the UAE, both for domestic energy needs and in terms of investment abroad.

The UAE population of 9.3 million (2014) depends substantially on its expatriate workforce, which made up about 80 per cent of the population in 2012. The UAE government has increased spending on job creation and infrastructure expansion, including in preparation for hosting a world expo in Dubai in 2020. The UAE is also opening up utilities to greater private sector involvement.

Free trade zones attract foreign investors by offering full ownership and zero taxes. There are over 17,000 companies and FDI estimated at over US$73 billion in the free zones. Foreign investors may purchase 109 of the 135 issues on the UAE stock markets, the Abu Dhabi Securities Market and Dubai Financial Market. The remaining 26 issues are primarily those of government-related entities.

Abu Dhabi Emirate, 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, such as the Sorbonne and New York University campuses, and cultural and sporting attractions such as the Formula One racing track, Ferrari theme park, and the Louvre Gallery to diversify the economy away from oil and encourage tourism.

Dubai Emirate has diversified into the tourism, 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.

Trade and Investment

The UAE is Australia’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and 16th largest overall, with two-way goods and services trade worth $8.8 billion in 2015. Australian goods and services exports to the UAE grew 10.5 per cent to $4.0 billion in 2015. Goods exports to the UAE were worth $3.4 billion in 2015 and were dominated by motor vehicles and meat. Australian goods imports from the UAE were worth $2.5 billion in 2015 (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; 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 360 and increasing. 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 2015, UAE investment in Australia was estimated at $12.5 billion according to ABS data. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), the world’s second largest sovereign wealth fund, became Australia’s largest hotel owner in late 2013, acquiring 31 Accor-branded hotels. It has also 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.

Recent high-level visits

January 2016: Senator Colbeck, Minister for Tourism and International Education and Minister Assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment, visited the UAE for Australia Unlimited – Middle East and Forth Africa

January 2016: Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visited the UAE

December 2015: The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into Australia's trade and investment relationships with countries of the Middle East visited the UAE. Committee members were: Teresa Gambaro MP (Head of Delegation), Maria Vamvakinou MP, Sharman Stone MP and Senator Alex Gallacher.

April 2015: Minister for Trade and Investment, the Hon Andrew Robb AO MP, visited the UAE.

February 2015: HH Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the UAE, visited Australia.

January 2015: Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop MP, visited the UAE.

January 2015: Prime Minister Tony Abbott visited the UAE.

October 2014: Treasurer the Hon Joe Hockey visited the UAE.

October 2014: UAE Minister of Economy, HE Sultan Al Mansouri, visited Australia (Perth) in October 2014 to attend the IORA Ministerial Meeting.

August 2014: Prime Minister Abbott met with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi in the UAE.

April and May 2014: Minister for Trade and Investment, the Hon Andrew Robb AO MP, visited the UAE.

October 2013: UAE Minister of Economy, HE Sultan Al Mansouri, visited Australia.

October 2013: UAE Health Minister, HE Abdul Rahman Al Owais, visited Perth in to attend an IORA meeting.

October 2013: Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Defence Minister the Hon David Johnston visited the UAE.

Last Updated: 8 July 2016