Over the past three decades, Sri Lanka’s ties with the UAE have grown beyond labour relations — which was the focus when the island nation opened its resident mission in 1979 — to encompass bilateral trade and investments. Today, the UAE features among Sri Lanka’s top ten trade partners. “The UAE has now become Sri Lanka’s sixth-largest global trading partner and eighth-largest export partner,” says Charitha Yattogoda, Consul General of Sri Lanka for Dubai and the northern emirates.
Business of billions
Bilateral trade touched $1.34 billion in 2016 with the balance of trade in favour of the UAE, mainly due to oil exports. Meanwhile, Sri Lanka exported $275 million worth of goods to the UAE. “Our national brand Ceylon Tea is Sri Lanka’s single-largest export product to the UAE market,” says Yattogoda. Other major exports are ready-made garments, coconut- and rubber-based products, seafood, spices, gems and jewellery.
There are however plans to take bilateral relations in another direction. Last September Sri Lanka unveiled Vision 2025, which aims to position the country as an export hub in the Indian Ocean.
“As per Vision 2025, concrete steps will be taken to move from exporting mainly low-technology products to high-tech products and attracting transformational, knowledge-based investments,” explains Yattogoda. “In this context, the immense potential that exists in the UAE as an export market and as a key investor in the country will shape future bilateral relations.”
A number of UAE investors including Al Futtaim and Etisalat have already entered Sri Lanka. Recent years have also seen high-level bilateral visits. “Our bilateral ties were further cemented when Shaikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, visited Sri Lanka last year,” Yattogoda says.
Tourists from the UAE account for a considerable proportion of the total visitors to Sri Lanka from the GCC. “In 2016, we received 107,635 tourists from the Middle East and by last September we recorded 79,190 visitors, which was a significant increase,” says S. J. Mohideen, Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UAE. “Further impetus can be gained by the roadshows planned in the UAE this year.”
Foreign remittances contribute 11.7 per cent to the country’s GDP. With about 250,000 Sri Lankan expatriates, the UAE is among the major labour-receiving countries in the Middle East, alongside Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.
“This shows the significant contribution made by our migrant community,” says Yattogoda.