Unlocking opportunities: The UAE’s top trading partners

For entrepreneurs seeking new avenues for growth, understanding the UAE’s most significant trading partners is vital. It’s a quick way to get a snapshot of the UAE’s global standing and current in-demand products and services, as well as a glimpse of what the future might hold.

There are many areas of opportunity in global trade in the UAE – from the shift to renewable energy and the growth of eCommerce to innovations in healthcare. The UAE’s key non-oil trade partners include China, India, Saudi Arabia, the US, Iraq, Switzerland, Japan, Oman, Turkey and Hong Kong. According to government data, non-oil foreign trade was valued at AED 2.2tr in 2022 – that’s 17% growth compared to the previous year. Meanwhile, the main destinations for UAE oil include Japan, India, China, Singapore and Thailand.

So, let’s look at some of the main players in UAE global trade and discuss where the opportunities lie for entrepreneurs.

1. China: The top of the list

At the forefront of the UAE’s trade portfolio is China. It is the most significant partner, and the economic ties between these two nations have deepened considerably over the years. The exchange of goods spans a broad spectrum, from electronics and machinery to textiles and raw materials. Last year, the Chinese media reported that the UAE was the country’s closest Arab ally.

Diplomatic ties between China and the UAE began in the 1980s, and if we fast-forward to 2021, we find bilateral trade between the two nations surpassing USD 75.6 billion. As of 2022, around 6,000 Chinese businesses were active in the UAE.

It’s also worth noting that the largest global container operator – China’s COSCO Shipping –

has selected Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi as the central hub for its Middle East operations. In addition, the UAE has initiated the Dubai Traders Market, the Yiwu Market UAE, and the China-UAE Industrial Capacity Cooperation Demonstration Zone – all of which supports China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which has been investing heavily in global infrastructure since 2013. The UAE remains a central international player in this Chinese strategy.

Against the backdrop of these trade relations, entrepreneurs can capitalise on expanding eCommerce collaborations, explore joint ventures in emerging sectors such as clean energy and technology, and benefit from the mutual exchange of expertise and resources in finance and infrastructure development.

2. India: Diversification and collaboration

India is another pivotal trading partner for the UAE. A diverse array of commodities, including gems, jewellery, and textiles, flows between these nations. This signals an opportunity for entrepreneurs to diversify product offerings and engage in collaborative ventures. The recent shift towards renewable energy in both countries opens doors for innovation and sustainable business solutions.

India and the UAE have historically shared a robust friendship, further solidified by the signing of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The objective of CEPA is to elevate the total value of merchandise trade between the two nations to USD 100bn by 2027. Since CEPA became operational in 2022, India’s bilateral trade with the UAE has grown significantly.

In addition, India and the UAE have engaged in bilateral forums, including the High-Level Joint Task Force on Investments, where both countries expressed their commitment to establishing efficient and integrated Single Window Solutions and Virtual Trade Corridors, aimed at reducing costs and time in bilateral trade.

3. United States: Consistent growth

The UAE’s ties with the United States go beyond traditional sectors, encompassing advanced technology and aerospace. With both nations investing heavily in these domains, entrepreneurs should explore collaborations that leverage cutting-edge innovations. It’s worth noting, too, that the UAE engages in trade with all 50 US states.

Since 2009, the UAE has held the position of the primary export market for US goods in the entire MENA region. In 2021, bilateral trade reached a total of USD 23bn, with the US exporting over USD 17bn worth of goods and services to the UAE – an increase of 16% from 2020. In terms of trade going in the other direction, in 2021 the UAE shipped goods worth USD 5.6bn to the US – the primary products including raw aluminium (USD 1.33bn), refined petroleum (USD 855m) and crude petroleum (USD 415m). Over the past quarter century, UAE exports to the US have shown consistent growth, rising from USD 376m in 1995 to USD 5.6bn in 2021.

4. Saudi Arabia: Regional unity

As a member of the GCC, the UAE maintains robust economic connections with Saudi Arabia, while through the Greater Arab Free Trade Area Agreement it enjoys unrestricted access to free trade with the Kingdom.

So, both proximity and shared economic interests make Saudi Arabia a crucial trading partner for the UAE. As the GCC nations seek to strengthen regional ties, entrepreneurs should position themselves to tap into this collective market. Areas of focus include industries such as construction, healthcare, and hospitality to align with the region’s growth trajectory.

In 2021, the UAE shipped goods totalling USD 22.3bn to Saudi Arabia, the key products including gold (USD 2.96bn), broadcasting equipment (USD 1.57bn) and computers (USD 1.01bn). Over the past 26 years, exports from the UAE to Saudi Arabia have grown from USD 350m in 1995 to USD 22.3bn in 2021.

Finally, it’s exciting to see that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have both officially joined BRICS – an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This original coalition of five major developing economies is now bringing other countries into the fold, with these two Gulf powerhouses among them.

Navigating the trade waters: What entrepreneurs should do

Let’s look at how entrepreneurs might approach opportunities around the UAE’s key trading partners.

  • Conduct market research: Thorough research is imperative before venturing into any market. Entrepreneurs must grasp the nuances of each partner country’s business culture, regulations, and consumer preferences. A comprehensive understanding of the competitive landscape ensures informed decision-making.
  • Embrace diversity: Cultural sensitivity is a cornerstone of successful international business. Entrepreneurs should tailor their products and marketing strategies to align with the cultural norms of their target markets. Building relationships based on mutual respect fosters trust and long-term partnerships.
  • Innovate: The rapidly evolving business environment demands innovation. Entrepreneurs should leverage technological advancements, explore sustainable practices, and embrace digital transformation. Staying ahead of industry trends positions businesses as pioneers in their respective sectors.
  • Collaborate: This is the linchpin of international trade. Entrepreneurs should actively seek partnerships with local businesses and stakeholders. Collaborative ventures not only facilitate market entry but also provide access to valuable insights and resources.


The UAE’s biggest trading partners offer astute entrepreneurs a wide range of opportunities. By understanding the dynamics of key markets, adapting to cultural nuances, and embracing innovation, entrepreneurs can carve a niche in the global business landscape. The future belongs to those who navigate the seas of international trade with insight, resilience, and that all-important commitment to collaboration.

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