For UK investors, Abu Dhabi, the largest emirate by size and gross domestic product (GDP) contribution, offers a perfect gateway to markets in the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) and Asia. With around 80% of the world reachable within an eight-hour flight, the city offers world-class infrastructure and connectivity.

More than 5,000 British companies have set up in the UAE. Trade in goods and services between the two countries increased by 63.1% or £8.9bn ($11.14bn) from the previous year, according to the UK Office for National Statistics. The UAE was also the UK’s 19th-largest trading partner over the same period, accounting for 1.3% of total UK trade.

In 2022, Abu Dhabi’s population stood at 3.3 million. It has a rich concentration of expatriates, being home to more than 200 nationalities. That year, the city experienced real GDP growth of 7.7%, according to GlobalData. The dominant sector is manufacturing and mining, contributing more than 50% of the total gross value added.

The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 is identifying key non-oil sectors for continuous investment and to diversify the economy and reduce its carbon footprint. The city aims to become a leading hub for technology and innovation in the region. It was ranked 13th in the IMD Smart City Index 2023, which considers technological advancements in monitoring the quality of life, environment and inclusiveness in a city.

In 2020, Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) launched the Dh2bn ($545m) Innovation Programme, which provides incentives to businesses within the emirate’s high-growth areas including financial services, tourism, AgTech, ICT, healthcare and biopharma.

To understand more about UK-UAE bilateral relations, Investment Monitor spoke to a representative from ADIO’s office in the UK.

How would you describe the governmental and trade relationships between the UK and Abu Dhabi?

The UK and UAE have a strong legacy relationship. Recent data from the UK Department of Business and Trade shows total trade in goods and services between the two countries was £23.1bn at the end of Q1 2023. Last year, the UK launched an ambitious trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council. This free trade agreement will lead to many more opportunities for the UK and Abu Dhabi.  

What are the standout sectors in UK-Abu Dhabi trade?

We have seen particularly strong traction in healthcare, financial services and in the sustainability and energy transition sector. The UK has a long-standing legacy of innovation in these sectors, particularly from leading university spin-outs. This year, COP28 presents a unique opportunity to showcase how pioneering UK technologies can contribute to Abu Dhabi’s transition to net zero.

What opportunities do Abu Dhabi and ADIO offer UK businesses?

The opportunities are countless, but I will focus on the two industry sectors where the UK’s strength and expertise match very well with the growing Abu Dhabi ecosystem. Within healthcare, genomics presents a significant growth opportunity for the two countries to combine their knowledge.

Last year, ADIO UK held an event called Innovation in Genomics with our partner, Public Policy Projects. Dr Fatima Al Kaabi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Bone Marrow Transplant at Abu Dhabi Stem Cell Centre and also the executive director of Emirates Genome and Health Affairs in Abu Dhabi Executive Office, presented the advancement of the Emirati Genome programme, and we discovered a number of UK companies that had the technical innovation to support aspects of the programme.

Several UK companies have since travelled out to Abu Dhabi to develop partnerships that will have an impact on the health agenda in the region and there are still more opportunities for UK healthcare companies, not only in genomics but in biopharma, digital health and pharmaceuticals.

Within financial services, fintech continues to be a standout growth sector. The UK remains the top destination for fintech in Europe, at £9.1bn. We have seen increasing interest in the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) as a rigorous and progressive jurisdiction for UK companies to set up their MENA headquarters.

Regardless of sector, Abu Dhabi’s fast-growing ecosystem is a perfect hub for UK companies to realise their Middle East growth ambitions. It has a strong and reliable economy, with an established and growing infrastructure. Companies can hire staff from more than 16 universities, and with 80% of the world within an eight-hour flight, there is a large and growing multinational talent pool. ADIO can help companies with relevant and bespoke information and support for their set-up.

What is the role of ADIO’s UK office in helping companies to access these opportunities?

In today’s economic environment, it is essential to fully understand the opportunities and the cost of market expansion. For British companies, we support their executive teams on the ground from the beginning of the expansion journey through to setting up and growing in Abu Dhabi. This includes giving them an understanding of the market landscape, macro policies, the competitive environment, hiring and talent and the culture, plus what benefits ADIO can specifically provide.

Quite often, we find that chief executives are not aware of much of the information they need to make informed decisions regarding expansion. Once we share this information, it opens the door to many opportunities and often a ‘light bulb’ moment where the synergies for expansion to Abu Dhabi are clear.

We support British companies’ visits to the region to give them full visibility of the commercial opportunities for growth. Within financial services, ADIO UK brought several UK fintech and asset management companies to Abu Dhabi during Abu Dhabi Finance Week. Exposure to the financial ecosystem during that week was a key catalyst in their decision to then set up in Abu Dhabi. 

Do you have any examples of company success stories?

We recently supported Future Arc, a leading UK venture studio, to navigate its Abu Dhabi expansion and leverage ADIO’s investor care and financial incentives. The company is part of the London & Partners Grow London Global programme and will be contributing to Abu Dhabi’s food security agenda. This is a good example of how British companies can have a direct impact on Abu Dhabi’s strategic priorities and how we, at ADIO, can act as an accelerator to that impact.

How do you envision the future of the trade relationship between the UK and Abu Dhabi? How will the opportunities for businesses develop in the coming years?

Abu Dhabi continues to pioneer a new innovative economy as it diversifies. World-leading events such as COP28, Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Abu Dhabi Finance Week and Make it in the Emirates are hosted in Abu Dhabi, which allow British companies to see the growth opportunities. This, coupled with strategic growth-enabling support from ADIO, and the progressive Vision 2030 national agenda across sectors, will help to significantly increase trade and business expansion in the next decade and beyond. 

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