Economic Development

Untapped opportunity: Deepening trade and investment between sub-Saharan Africa and the GCC

October 12, 2021


Untapped opportunity: Deepening trade and investment between sub-Saharan Africa and the GCC

October 12, 2021

Melanie Noronha

Principal, Policy & insights

Melanie is a principal at Economist Impact. She has over ten years of experience delivering consulting and thought leadership projects to public, private and not-for-profit organisations. Based in Dubai, she leads the Middle East and Africa team on research across a range of sectors including food sustainability, recycling, renewable energy, fintech, trade and supply chains. She is a specialist in advanced recycling technologies and international trade. She is a seasoned moderator, having chaired numerous panel discussions and presented Economist Impact's research at global in-person and virtual conferences.

Before joining The Economist Group, she was a senior analyst at MEED Insight, a research and consulting firm serving Middle East and North Africa. At MEED, she developed expertise in bespoke market studies and financial modelling across a range of sectors spanning construction, finance, power and water, oil and gas, and renewable energy. She held previous posts at the Office of the Chief Economist at the Dubai International Financial Centre and at the San Francisco Center for Economic Development. Melanie has an MSc in International Strategy and Economics from the University of St Andrews and a bachelor’s degree in business administration.


Executive summary

Sentiment on the economic promise of Africa seems to ebb and flow. African economic growth has been anaemic over the past decade, and the continent continues to grapple with fundamental challenges around improving transport infrastructure and electrification. Since the start of the covid-19 pandemic, some of these development priorities have been pushed further down the agenda.

The continent’s governments must recognise that addressing these challenges will be pivotal in realising Africa’s potential. But to achieve these goals with limited resources, African governments must cultivate relationships with other regions, not just as potential investors in African businesses and infrastructure but also as markets for their products and services.

This report, following on from a series of reports prepared by The Economist Intelligence Unit over the past seven years, examines the potential for Africa to deepen ties with the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, in the context of sectors currently poised for growth as well as those that are greatly in need of external support.


The key findings of this report are:


  • Africa must get the basics—including regulation and infrastructure—in place to spur growth in key sectors. ‘Burdensome regulation and bureaucracy’ was the top impediment to business growth in our survey, cited by 59% of respondents. In addition, addressing the continent’s transport, electricity and digital- infrastructure deficits will be critical in delivering growth in key sectors. Executives in financial services and fintech (90%), healthcare (89%), agriculture and food (87%) and retail and e-commerce (74%) are expecting revenue to expand in 2022.

  • The digital economy will be an essential component of African growth. In 2022, 35% of respondents to our survey are expecting online channels to generate the bulk of their revenue, compared with 22% in 2019. All the sectors poised for expansion in 2022 have strong digital delivery links— from fintech to telehealth, and from digital platforms for farmers to e-commerce for broader retail. There are some lessons that Africa could learn from regions such as the GCC, which have led strong digital transformation programmes domestically.

  • The GCC region can support Africa in addressing critical infrastructure deficits. GCC-based companies such as DP World and ACWA Power are making progress on transport and energy infrastructure in Africa. Etisalat is operating on the continent, expanding their telecommunications infrastructure, which is vital in enabling e-commerce, fintech and education, among other sectors, to thrive.

  • African businesses can help the GCC’s strategic initiatives too. Healthcare companies such as Mediclinic have been operating in the UAE since 2007, helping to expand services in this vital sector. Meanwhile, efforts to efficiently deliver agricultural products from Africa to the GCC can help with the latter region’s food security.

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