UAE looks south of the Sahara: the United Arab Emirates are increasingly looking beyond North Africa to invest in sub-Saharan business.

Author:Ford, Neil
Position:SPECIAL REPORT: UAE-AFRICA - United Arab Emirates

United Arab Emirates' businesses with a global reach are increasingly looking beyond North Africa to invest in industries that are vital to the long-term economic development of sub-Saharan Africa.

Companies from the UAE have long invested heavily in Africa, with billions of dollars poured into wheat farms in Egypt and telecoms and banking operations in Morocco. Investment has traditionally focused on the five countries north of the Sahara rather than on the rest of the continent. Yet this is rapidly changing, as they are attracted by some of the fastest growing economies on the planet and a rapidly growing consumer base, rather than the raw materials that have proved such a draw for many other investors.

According to officials in the UAE, North Africa still attracts more investment from the country than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa put together. There are obvious cultural reasons for this: the region largely shares the UAE's Sunni Muslim religion and Arabic language, plus the historical and cultural ties that come with these links. Roughly two-thirds of all Arabs are also Africans, so it seems reasonable that Gulf firms would look to North Africa for cultural and economic connections.

However, this situation is starting to change, as sub-Saharan Africa begins to exert more of a pull on UAE investors. Emirati companies are investing in many of the same sectors as in the North; it is just that they are doing so from a lower base and within cultures that are slightly less familiar. Total trade in goods between the UAE and Africa increased from $5.6bn in 2005 to $17.5bn in 2014. As a result, the UAE's share of total African trade increased from 1.0% to 1.5% over the same period.

The country's interest in Africa is part of more general investment by Gulf states in Africa. Speaking at last year's Africa Global Business Forum, UAE economy minister Sultan Bin Saeed Al Mansouri said: "We realise the future of business is located most significantly in the continent of Africa ... in various sectors, especially in agriculture, infrastructure, mining, trade, logistics services, tourism and financial services."

Building ties

For the uninitiated, the UAE is a federation of seven Gulf emirates, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are perhaps the best known. The seven act together but also with a great deal of autonomy. In 2010, the government of Dubai decided to start to promote trade with Africa and the Dubai Chamber of Commerce took on a leading role in...

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