How the UAE set the global trade agenda in 2023

The World Trade Organisation's headquarters in Geneva. The WTO's 13th Ministerial Conference will be held in Abu Dhabi in February 2024. AFP

In another year marked by noteworthy achievements for the UAE, a case can be made that the nation’s most significant success story in 2023 was trade. In the past 12 months, trade has emerged as a record-setting driver of growth, a pillar of economic policy, a lynchpin of foreign relations, and, at the recently concluded Cop28, a new frontier 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, it signifies growing international influence.

Trade has always been crucial to the UAE, acting as a bridge that connects our products, skills, and natural resources to the world, infusing our economy with the latest ideas and innovations. However, as emphasized 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. The 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) reflect trade’s catalyzing power.

It is these goals that have directed the Ministry of Economy’s efforts in 2023, particularly regarding our landmark Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) program. This program aims to remove or reduce tariffs, eliminate technical barriers to trade, and improve market access to strategically important international markets. Since the beginning 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 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, driving a new era of prosperity. With ten CEPAs concluded to date and negotiations ongoing with many other countries, the CEPA program is projected to increase our exports by 33% and deliver more than Dh153 billion to the national GDP by 2031, representing growth of almost 10% of GDP compared to 2022. In fact, the impact of the program 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 crucial to the UAE, acting as a bridge that connects 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% of the global total.

These combined efforts are not only creating a world of opportunity for our exporters, industrialists, and investors but are also ensuring the UAE is 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 program for the first time, with Trade Day on December 4 placing trade front and center of the climate debate and helping to galvanize efforts to deliver a cleaner, smarter, and more inclusive trading system.

Throughout the year, the UAE has led by example, advocating for the benefits of open, rules-based trade and embodying 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 it requires.

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


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