How the UAE set the global trade agenda in 2023

From expansive trade deals to championing more modern supply chains, the UAE has become a model for multilateralism

The World Trade Organisation's headquarters in Geneva. The WTO's 13th Ministerial Conference will be held in Abu Dhabi in February 2024. AFP
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In another year of noteworthy achievements for the UAE, there is a case to be made that the nation’s biggest success story in 2023 was trade. In the past 12 months, trade has become a record-setting driver of growth, a pillar of economic policy, a lynchpin of foreign relations and, at the recently concluded Cop28, a new front in the battle against climate change. Trade is now a central component of the UAE’s domestic success and, as we prepare to host the World Trade Organisation’s 13th Ministerial Conference in February, growing international influence.

Trade has always been important to the UAE, a bridge that has connected our products, skills and natural resources to the world and infused our economy with its latest ideas and innovations. But, as underlined by the “We The UAE 2031” vision launched at the end of 2022 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, it is now a cornerstone of our economic development and diversification ambitions. Its stated targets of Dh4 trillion ($1.09 trillion) in foreign trade, almost double the current value, and non-oil exports of Dh800 billion ($217.8 billion) are a reflection of trade’s catalysing power.

It is these goals that have focused the Ministry of Economy’s efforts in 2023, particularly in regard to our landmark Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement programme, which seeks to remove or reduce tariffs, eliminate technical barriers to trade and improve market access to strategically important international markets. Since the turn of the year, we have made extraordinary progress. We have signed Cepas with Cambodia and Georgia, implemented Cepas with Turkey, Indonesia and Israel, concluded Cepa negotiations with South Korea, Colombia, Mauritius and the Republic of the Congo, and have initiated Cepa discussions with several other countries across five continents, including Serbia, Ukraine, Australia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Chile and Vietnam, as well as the Eurasian Economic Union.

When added to our deal with India, which entered into force in 2022, this represents a powerful new trade network that covers more than a quarter of the world’s population, and will drive a new era of prosperity. With 10 Cepas concluded to date, and negotiations ongoing with many other countries, the Cepa programme is projected to increase our exports by 33 per cent and deliver more than Dh153 billion to national GDP by 2031, representing growth of almost 10 per cent of GDP compared to 2022. In fact, the impact of the programme is already being felt: in the first half of 2023, non-oil foreign trade reached an all-time high of Dh1.239 trillion, with non-oil exports reaching Dh205 billion – more than the total recorded in the whole of 2017.

Trade has always been important to the UAE, a bridge that has connected our products, skills and natural resources to the world

We can be confident there will be more trade milestones to come. In 2023, we launched two important new initiatives that will increase our re-exports – and the value we are able to derive from them – and create new global opportunities for our services exports, which already account for 2.2 per cent of the global total.

These combined efforts are not only creating a world of opportunity for our exporters, industrialists and investors, they are also ensuring the UAE is a now a leading voice on global trade issues. In Davos in January, for instance, the UAE partnered with the World Economic Forum to launch a new Trade Tech Initiative to accelerate the integration of advanced technologies into global supply chains, boosting their efficiency and accessibility. Then, at Cop28 in Dubai, the UAE was instrumental in trade being incorporated into the event’s official programme for the first time, with Trade Day on December 4 placing trade front and centre of the climate debate and helping to galvanise efforts to deliver a cleaner, smarter and more inclusive trading system.

Throughout the year, the UAE has led by example. We have both advocated for the benefits of open, rules-based trade, and embodied them – delivering a model for multilateralism that nations around the world, particularly in the developing world, are now seeking to emulate.

It is this leadership, in word and deed, that we will now take forward into the 13th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation in Abu Dhabi in February. This is a pivotal meeting that is set to define the future of trade, and ensure every nation and every community has equitable access to global markets. Our message is unambiguous: a 21st century economy requires a 21st century trading system – and it is necessary for the global trading community to come together to deliver the reforms that requires.

As we reflect on the past year, we believe we have the conviction and the credibility to ensure we all succeed.

Published: December 29, 2023, 5:00 AM