The UAE: The Land of Oil Pursuing a Greener Future

The United Arab Emirates is a land of miracles in the Middle East. This is also a land full of oil. In 1960s, with discovery of the “black gold”, the region began to prosper.


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Over the following decades, the UAE has transformed itself into a country with one of the highest living standards. In 2022, its GDP has reached an all-time high of 507 billion USD, with the GDP per Capita ranking 6th in the world.

Developing non-oil economy

Sitting on one of the world’s largest oil reserves, the UAE could have continued to make tremendous money simply relying on oil trade. But the leadership disagrees.

“The whole world is changing now,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Maktoum bin Juma Al Maktoum from Dubai Royal Family said, “we need to change before we are in a big problem.”

In the longer run, oil and gas reserves will eventually run out. For a more sustainable future, the country has to change. The UAE leadership wisely decided to diversify its investments to create a new non-oil economy.

Booming non-oil trade

Non-oil trade plays a pivotal role. Its strategic location and access to the Persian Gulf makes it a global transportation hub. Among all the countries, China is the UAE’s biggest trading partner.

In 2015, the UAE officially joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It has been an active partner since then. In 2022, the bilateral non-oil trade reached US$77 billion, a 27% increase from 2021 and a 50% increase compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Chinese businessman Ke Wei is one vivid example of businesses benefiting from this booming trade relations. He owns a shop selling mobile accessories in Deira, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dubai.

Taking full advantage of Dubai’s highly efficient ports, most of Ke’s products are manufactured in Guangzhou, shipped to Dubai, and sold to any market a cargo ship can reach.

“Our business basically covers Southeast Asia, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and all of Africa,” Ke told us, “We have developed our business along the Belt and Road.”

Chinese products are famous for reasonable prices and high quality. Ke can make some 10 million USD a year, simply by selling these small gadgets.

Emerging digital economy

The flourishing business of mobile accessories is a glimpse of the region’s growing digital economy. In recent years, the Middle-East region has one of the world’s highest percentages of smartphone penetration, with the UAE’s rate exceeding 96% in 2023.

As part of its efforts to diversify away from oil, the government of the UAE announced its Digital Economy Strategy in 2022 to double the contribution of the sector to its GDP from 9.7% in 2022 to nearly 20% within 10 years.

As China has emerged as the region’s closest trading partner, Chinese digital companies are also attracted to scale up their games in the region.

“Recently, China and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East market, have created a very good business environment and external environment,” said Colin Wang, the Managing Director of China Mobile International Middle East & Africa

With mature experiences in digital infrastructures, Chinese companies now play a bigger role in helping the region to improve connectivity, such as solutions supported by 5G technology.

“In this regard, China has a lot of mature solutions and cases, which are currently missing in local markets,” Wang added.

“We have the privilege to work with China,” Bocar Ba, CEO of Samena Telecommunications Council said, “we need to keep the conversation going on.

A greener future

The huge oil reserves in the UAE will not run out in at least a hundred years. However, Dr Abdullah Belhaif Al Nuaimi, former Minister of Climate Change and Environment of the UAE told us the country is determined to develop renewable energies.

“People from outside would think why should the UAE do that?”, Dr. Al Nuaimi said, “that is what I call the abundant of wisdom. You have a lot. But you have the wisdom to know that this is exhaustible.”

The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park in Dubai is one prominent landmark to showcase the UAE’s ambition in pursuing alternative energies. Built by Chinese enterprises, the mega project is the world’s largest single-site solar park. With a total capacity over 5,000MW by 2030, the solar park will reduce more than 6.5 million tons of carbon emissions annually.

Solar is just one option. A wind power project built by Chinese companies has been put into service in Abu Dhabi to generate clean electricity, which is expected to facilitate energy transformation in the UAE.

Climate change is a universal challenge that takes international cooperation to tackle. Over the past decade, under the Belt and Road Initiative, China has cooperated with more than 100 countries and regions on green energy projects.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Maktoum bin Juma Al Maktoum added, “We believe in China. China is the leading innovator for new technologies which will make the world to be greener.”

Trade, digital economy, green energies, and all sorts of infrastructures… Chinese partners can be seen in almost every sector on the UAE’s path of economic development. As the UAE strives for a more diversified economy, it is steadily advancing towards a more vibrant and sustainable future. 

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