UAE's economic recovery to continue in 2022 despite Covid-19 headwinds

The Emirates' high vaccination rate and relatively young population puts the country in a strong position to withstand the current wave of infections

Expo 2020 Dubai and a tourism rebound helped to boost the UAE's economy in the second half of 2021. Victor Besa / The National
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The UAE enjoyed a strong economic finish to 2021, with Expo 2020 Dubai and rebounding tourism boosting domestic demand.

While the tourism sector is likely to take some time to fully recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, the latest data from the Department of Economics and Tourism shows that international visitor numbers to Dubai in November rebounded to almost 76 per cent of 2019 levels and the December data is likely to show further improvement.

Hotel occupancy and revenue per available room, a key performance metric calculated by multiplying a hotel’s average daily room rate by its occupancy rate, have also improved significantly from 2020 despite the challenges posed by new variants of the coronavirus.

The recent survey data for the UAE supports this view: even with a slight decline in the December Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) reading, the average PMI for the fourth quarter of 2021 was the highest since the second quarter of 2019.

This indicates that the UAE economy probably posted faster gross domestic product growth in the final quarter of last year. Emirates NBD estimates non-oil GDP grew 3.5 per cent in 2021 after a sharp Covid-related contraction in 2020.

While the near-term outlook is clouded by the surge in coronavirus case numbers, the UAE’s high vaccination rate and relatively young population places it in a strong position to withstand the current wave of infections without needing to reimpose the strict measures implemented in the second quarter of 2020.

Although growth may slow somewhat in early 2022, the non-oil sectors are expected to expand by about 4 per cent this year.

Oil prices recovered sharply in 2021, rising more than 60 per cent on average compared with 2020, boosting sentiment and allowing GCC governments to narrow their 2020 budget deficits significantly.

The UAE probably recorded a budget surplus in 2021 and with oil prices expected to average about $70 per barrel again in 2022, there is fiscal space for increased public sector investment in strategic growth sectors.

With Opec+ expected to continue increasing oil production in the coming months, the hydrocarbon sector should contribute positively to the UAE’s GDP growth in 2022 for the first time in three years. Emirates NBD expects headline GDP growth to accelerate to 4.6 per cent this year from an estimated 1.9 per cent in 2021.

While the outlook for 2022 is broadly constructive, uncertainty persists because of the evolution of the coronavirus pandemic.

The recently identified Omicron variant appears to be much more easily transmitted and has led to a surge in Covid-19 cases globally that far exceeds previous peaks. This has led to renewed travel restrictions and lockdowns in some countries, mainly in Europe and parts of Asia, which will probably weigh on economic growth in the near term.

Another potential risk to the outlook for 2022 relates to the withdrawal of the exceptional stimulus injected into the global economy since 2020, which could lead to heightened volatility in financial markets – we have already had a taste of that in the first trading week of 2022 – and provide a further headwind to growth.

Several central banks, including the Bank of England, have already started to raise interest rates to slow inflation and the US Federal Reserve in December signalled a more hawkish view on rates than in previous meetings, citing the improvement in the US labour market in recent months.

The market is now pricing in three rate increases from the Fed this year, in line with the central bank's own projections, which would raise borrowing costs for businesses and consumers in the UAE as well as those in the US.

Higher interest rates and a stronger US dollar could prove headwinds to growth in the UAE in 2022, but the structural reforms implemented over the past couple of years will help to boost investment and drive growth over the medium term.

These reforms include the expansion of longer-term residency visas to broader categories of residents and new pathways to citizenship, wide-ranging changes to personal and labour laws, allowing 100 per cent foreign ownership of onshore companies and, most recently, the decision to align the UAE’s working week with that of larger developed economies.

These measures will serve to reduce barriers to investment and attract human and financial capital to the UAE over the coming years.

Khatija Haque is chief economist and head of research at Emirates NBD

Updated: May 19, 2023, 3:49 PM