United Arab Emirates
Information and Telecommunications

This is a best prospect industry sector for this country. Includes a market overview and trade data.

Last published date: 2019-10-13


The UAE is a regional leader and a competitive market for the Information Communication Technology (ICT) industry.  In a bid to reduce dependence on oil revenue and establish a larger private sector,  Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, and  UAE Vision 2021 – both government initiatives – set out to build competitive knowledge economies and establish an open, efficient, effective and globally integrated business environment. Integral to its vision is UAE investment into the ICT sector. 

The UAE is working to grow in the product development, manufacturing and software programming sectors.  While growing in this industry, the UAE maintains its status as a re-export hub for consumer ICT goods, with more than half of all shipments to the UAE in many sub-sectors (e.g. PC monitors, smartphones) being ultimately re-exported to other markets.  This has left the indigenous IT industry relatively underdeveloped, allowing foreign companies the opportunity to seize market share. 

In particular, the UAE Government has several free trade zones (FTZs) including Dubai Internet City (in 1999), Dubai Media City (in 2000) and Dubai Silicon Oasis (in 2005) that are specialized in the ICT industry and act as global centers for high technology and innovation.  Within these zones, firms are allowed 100 percent import and export tax exemptions, 100 percent repatriation of capital and profits and corporate tax exemptions for 50 years, on a renewable basis.  These minimal trade barriers have made the UAE generally, and Dubai specifically, the preferred location for businesses serving the entire Middle East and North Africa and is driving demand for IT software and services from the private sector. 
ICT trade free zones in the UAE include:

In a bid to entice foreign companies, the UAE government established the UAE ICT Fund, which educates hundreds of Emirati students overseas in the ICT field.  Moreover, the UAE SmartPass system has created a digital framework for the operations of all government services and ministries, and the UAE 2031 AI Strategy plans for artificial intelligence (AI) technology to be incorporated into these services.  These vast government projects will require the expertise and services of foreign firms, in which many American companies have a comparative advantage. 
UAE ICT market challenges include the relatively high cost of internet access and bandwidth and its exposure to cybersecurity risks.  In addition, there are intellectual property right (IPR) concerns in the sectors. 

Leading Sub-Sectors>

Cloud Computing 
The cloud computing industry in the UAE has significantly grown in the past few years and is forecasted to create over 32,000 jobs in the UAE between 2017 and 2022.  The UAE is, once again, the region’s most significant player, with $411 million forecasted in yearly expenditures on public cloud services by 2022.  Microsoft has cloud data centers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and Alibaba cloud opened its first data center in Dubai in 2016.  With growth in the private sector, efforts by the government to bring in digital transformation technologies are clearly visible too.  The Government Information Authority (GIA) is currently developing cloud technology to be used by federal government entities in the UAE, and the services it offers include electronic hosting, file management and database systems, intranet portals, email and meeting management systems.  The SmartPass service allows citizens to conduct their affairs with four federal government departments currently, and there are plans to connect the remaining entities soon.  With the exponential investments by the UAE government in cloud computing, and the UAE’s competitive business laws, as well as strong technological infrastructure, the sector is forecasted to continue expanding in the years ahead.  A public cloud, due to its nature as an off-site internet-based service provided to multiple clients, provides some very specific advantages to companies. Several business models require companies to operate with demands constantly fluctuating.  Public cloud hosting in the UAE has addressed these variations in resource and expertise efficiently and through highly specialized solutions. 

Despite these significant expansions, there is still sizeable room for sector development that will require the expertise and know-how of American firms.  Up to 51 percent of organizations in the GCC named cloud computing as a priority, and two of three Gulf enterprises plan on investing at least five percent of annual revenue into the digitization of operations.  As local enterprises adopt Software-as-a-Service, Infrastructure-as-a-Service and Platform-as-a-Service (SaaS/IaaS/PaaS) to cut costs and increase flexibility, and as the government moves to store all its data in the cloud and offer more services online, there is substantial potential for American firms to invest into this sub-sector throughout the UAE.

The UAE’s geopolitical position and importance to the world economy through trade, tourism and oil and gas resources have made it vulnerable to a high volume of IT security attacks, triggering rapid growth in its IT security market.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that Emiratis report the highest number of malware incidents among consumers in the GCC.  To protect the UAE’s critical data information infrastructure and improve national cybersecurity, the government introduced the UAE Information Assurance Standards (UAE IAS) which are a set of guidelines for government entities in critical sectors. Compliance with these standards is mandatory for all government organizations and businesses that are identified as critical infrastructure in the UAE. 

Several local players are developing cybersecurity capabilities to capitalize on rising demand, while international IT security firms are expanding their presence in the country.  Cybersecurity is a top priority for UAE firms.  The Dubai government introduced the Dubai Cyber Security Strategy, which involves the implementation of five main domains: becoming a cyber-smart nation (through public awareness), innovation through research, user cybersecurity (confidentiality and privacy), cyber resilience (maintaining the non-stop availability of IT systems) and national and international collaboration in the realm of the cyberspace.  As the UAE government continues to diversify and digitalize its economy, the demand for cybersecurity to protect high value assets against increasingly complex attacks will continue rising, meaning the cybersecurity sub-sector provides many opportunities for American businesses.

Internet of Things (IoT)
The IoT encompasses developments under several other labels such as machine-to-machine communications, smart services, and the industrial internet.  There are applications in the public sector, for instance smart cities and telehealth, while enterprise solutions include smart metering, asset tracking, and production optimization.  The UAE, and particularly Dubai, has emerged as a leading global location for the deployment of IoT solutions to enhance public infrastructure – as it becomes a ‘smart city’.  This burgeoning reputation has been built on a foundation of cooperation across multiple sectors including ICT, power, transportation, infrastructure, healthcare, and government.  The government has a strong interest in developing the IoT sector in the UAE and is estimated to spend more than $35 billion by 2019, with anticipated annual growth of 29 percent.  The Abu Dhabi government owned telecom giant Etisalat has announced that, in cooperation with Emirati authorities, it is planning a mass IoT introduction into the UAE market by 2020. 

In April 2018, the UAE Government launched the Emirates Blockchain Strategy 2021. The strategy aims to capitalize on the blockchain technology to transform 50 percent of government transactions into the blockchain platform by 2021.  The UAE’s continuous desire to serve as a key tech player and offer the best services to its residents, which gives birth to such ambitious goals, will give American firms the opportunity to impart knowledge and help achieve these plans, as the government’s goals far exceed the supplying abilities of the local industry. 

Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is equally crucial to the UAE’s security industry.  As part of the government’s UAE Centennial 2071 plans, the UAE AI Strategy 2031 was created to improve efficiency in the transport, health, space, renewable energy, water, technology, education, environment, and traffic sectors.  In order to achieve this, the UAE has appointed Omar bin Sultan Al Olama as the Minister of State for Artificial Intelligence – the first position of its kind – and the UAE spent $8.98 billion in 2017 on artificial intelligence.  AI is forecasted to contribute almost 14 percent of the national GDP by 2030 ($96 billion), and the annual growth in AI contribution to the UAE’s economy is forecasted to grow by 33.5 percent between 2018 and 2030. 

The ambitious plans of the UAE government to have the most innovative country by 2021, means a significant amount of budget has been set aside to import the appropriate technology and achieve the Vision 2021.  The UAE is currently developing the UAE AI Council, providing all government services via AI and training all government employees to operate with AI.  The UAE launched a Think AI initiative, a series of roundtables with over 100 government officials, exports and industry leaders, to discuss the UAE’s deployment of AI.  The nation has already begun integrating AI with the education and healthcare industries; the government has collaborated with Alef Education to include digital education platforms in several schools in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, and the Dubai Health Authority has outlined a strategy that uses AI and robotics to automate surgeries and other procedures.  The aviation industry too is being integrated with AI; Emirates is developing an AI-powered assistant for customers, and the UAE’s aviation authority has signed an agreement to explore the use of AI in air traffic management, while airport officials are developing plans to use robots which detect wanted criminals and suspicious activity. 

The UAE supports AI-related start-ups; Dubai’s AI Lab helps the 29 AI-based start-ups registered in the city, and as part of the government’s Smart Dubai strategy, works to provide them with the best environment for growth (e.g. Derq raised $1.5 million in seed funding in Dubai after graduating from the TechStars Mobility Accelerator). 

The never-ending race between Gulf States to have the newest and most sophisticated technology, particularly in the field of AI, provides a large, untapped market in which U.S. firms have huge comparative advantages.  The UAE has a minimal role in the production of AI technology and there is a huge potential for U.S. companies to both implement this technology and conduct the training for employees. 

Companies seeking to test innovations that use future technology (especially AI) must receive a temporary license from the UAE cabinet, and laws governing AI are in the process of being created with the establishment of the Regulations Lab, or RegLab, in January 2019, and which signed an agreement with government entities in May 2019 in an effort to create an optimal legislative environment for companies using future technologies. 

Smart Cities
In a bid to fully transition away from dependence on oil, the UAE has made huge investments into projects for smart cities, with goals to both build smart cities from scratch and to improve infrastructure in existing ones.  Since October 2013, the Dubai authorities have undertaken a mission to transform Dubai into a smart city, with innovations centered on 6 key areas: transport, communications, infrastructure, electricity, economic services and urban planning. These are to be achieved through 100 initiatives, and more than 1,000 government services are predicted to go smart in the city.  Examples of the initiatives include the provision of public Wi-Fi, electric car charging stations, live traffic monitoring and a eWallet for the Roads and Transport Authority, highlighting how there are tech-related opportunities for American firms in all sectors of the Emirati economy.  Moreover, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Planning and Municipalities launched a pilot phase of the Zayed Smart City Project in 2018, which aims to achieve the same goals as the Dubai initiative. 

With Abu Dhabi topping the smart city rankings in the Middle East, and Dubai ranking second, UAE authorities will want to maintain the reputation of the UAE as a smart country, and continuous public sector investments into large-scale, infrastructure projects revolving around ‘smart’ building will continue growing, providing significant room for American firms to take the lead on development and execution of the projects.
UAE’s telecom giants Etisalat and Du signed their intent in June 2019 to launch limited 5G networks in the UAE, offering the service in collaboration with the 5G-enabled ZTE Axon 10 Pro smartphone to both post-paid and pre-paid customers.  Etisalat is expected to have up to 1,000 5G-enabled stations by the end of 2019, having set aside $1.1 billion (AED 4 billion) to accomplish this task.  Similarly, Du is expected to invest $408 million (AED1.5 billion) in 2019 to establish a total of 700 5G towers in the UAE by the end of 2019 (120 are already running).  In the first phase of the 5G launch, fixed wireless services and mobile services will be provided in parts of the UAE only, with esteemed areas such as the Expo 2020 venues serving as test sites for the network. By the end of 2019, it is estimated that over 100,000 5G-enabled devices will be active throughout the Middle East, and 16 million 5G smartphones will be operational in the region by 2023. With the UAE being at the forefront of technological advance, and with a strong GDP per capita relative to other Middle Eastern nations, one can assume that demand for 5G will be particularly strong in the nation. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) of the UAE has established a Steering Committee for the oversight of the 5G launch, Huawei have been named as the likely partner in the rollout of the 5G network across the country.  The launch of the 5G network in the UAE brings innumerate business opportunities for American firms.  From the increased internet traffic to American websites and technology needed to roll out the 5G network, to the development of consumer goods needed to access 5G, there is limitless potential.  The UAE proves to be a strong market for entry due to its continuous interest in technological advancement, and sizeable financial support from the government in ensuring the smooth and widespread rollout of this technology.

UAE as a Center for the 4th Industrial Revolution
The UAE serves as an affiliate center for the 4th industrial revolution for the World Economic Forum.  Established by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Centers for the 4th industrial revolution are spaces where leading technology companies, dynamic start-ups, policy-makers, international organizations, regulators, business organizations, academia and civil society can collaborate to develop the agile policy norms and partnerships needed to stimulate the enormous potential of science and technology, deliver rapid growth and generate sustainable, positive impact for all.  Fundamentally, these centers serve as spaces to pilot innovative new approaches to policy and governance in the 4th industrial revolution, a term which refers to rapid change in technology and intelligence to the point where the boundaries between digital, physical and biological worlds are dissolved (through the means of AI, robotics, the Internet of Things etc.). Affiliate centers, managed locally, are eligible to join the 4th Industrial Revolution network and can access and share resources and analysis across the four centers in the U.S. India, China, and Japan. 
This policy and governance research at WEF centers target six key areas:

  • Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

  • Internet of Things, Robotics and Smart Cities

  • Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology

  • Data Policy

  • Autonomous and Urban Mobility

  • Drones and Tomorrow’s Airspace

The UAE established its Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in 2017, which aims to:

  • Provide innovative education to provide a smart and enhanced learning experience to develop advanced technologies such as science, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence

  • Adopt intelligent and personal genomic medicine that will lead to personalized medical technologies, improved health care levels and boost the UAE’s position as a global center for healthcare

  • Adopt robotic healthcare and research in nanotechnology to facilitate the application of telemedicine and introduce cutting-edge medical solutions such as wearable and implantable technologies

  • Achieve future security of water and food supply by using bioengineering sciences and advanced renewable energy technologies

  • Enhance economic security by adopting digital economy and blockchain technologies in financial transactions and service

  • Optimize the utilization of satellite data in planning future cities

  • Develop advanced defense industries by developing national industries in the field of robotics and autonomous vehicle technologies


The UAE continues to grow rapidly in the technology space.  Private and public sector players are seeking to modernize, by adopting state-of-the-art solutions, and catching the broader global wave of innovation, data utilization, digital transformation, and technological advancement.  The needs for better infrastructure and an increased focus on the efficient use of public funds, are likely to result in increased public-sector investment in technology.  The competitive business environment and high level of infrastructure provided by the government continues to draw foreign businesses to the UAE’s private sector.  Technology players continue to see the huge potential to grow their offerings across the Middle East region. 

According to Business Monitor International (BMI), the software & services segments have seen significant investment in areas such as cloud computing, smart services, and cybersecurity.  BMI forecast UAE IT spending to increase by 8.7 percent in 2019 to a total of around $6.4 billion (AED 23.4 billion).  Software and services demand will drive IT spending growth over the medium term, especially demand from large industries for solutions around cloud computing, data analytics, cybersecurity and the Internet of Things.  The hardware segment will also see healthy value growth as the market tilts towards high-end power users and workstation purchases from the enterprise and commercial sector.

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Source: BMI Research                                               




2019 (forecast)*

2020 (forecast)*

Computer hardware sales




Software sales




Services sales




*All figures are in billions of U.S. Dollars
Source: BMI Research                                                                                         

There is also growth expected in the demand for business management software in the forecast period.  Key verticals include process manufacturing, followed by the finance sector, where regulatory compliance and new services, including Islamic banking, will help to create opportunities.  The increasing regional and global orientation of the UAE economy is a major driver for locally-based small and medium sized enterprises to enhance the efficiency of their operations. 

Fundamentally, one can expect the UAE to begin employing its sizeable budget in achieving the immense goals the government has already publicly announced.  The lack of domestic firms to achieve this goal provides American firms a substantial opportunities in the ICT industry.

Trade Events>

Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX)
Date:  October 6-10, 2019
Venue:  Dubai International Convention & Exhibition Center (DICEC)
Website:  www.gitex.com

Date:  January 19-21, 2020
Venue:  Dubai International Convention & Exhibition Center (DICEC)
Website:  www.intersecexpo.com

Gulf Information Security Expo & Conference (GISEC)
Date:  March 30 – April 1, 2020
Venue:  Dubai World Trade Center (DWTC)
Website:  https://www.gisec.ae/

International Defense Exhibition (IDEX)
Date:  February 21-25, 2021
Venue:  Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center (ADNEC)
Website:  https://idexuae.ae/

Internet of Things (IoT) Middle East 2020
Date and Venue TBA
Website: https://www.iot-dxb.com/

Additional Resources>