Opinion & Analysis

Beyond competition: How Europe can harness the UAE’s energy ambitions in Africa


  • Since 2020, the UAE has strategically expanded its involvement in Africa, marking a significant shift in its foreign policy and becoming an influential middle power on the continent.
  • The monarchy has focused particularly on Africa’s energy sectors, increasing its stakes in oil and gas, renewables, and in critical minerals. This is driven by its ambition to become a global leader in the energy transition and backed by its substantial logistical and financial resources.
  • This growing engagement presents challenges for Europe, as the UAE captures market shares and promotes a green transition model that resonates more with African countries’ needs and ideology.
  • However, Europe shares some common goals with the UAE and Africa, such as expanding renewable energy and increasing Africa’s access to energy.
  • European countries should pursue a strategy of “co-opetition” towards the UAE, balancing competition in areas in which they have comparative advantages with cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
  • By cooperating with the UAE, the EU could help fast-track the implementation of green initiatives in Africa and promote pragmatic solutions for the energy transition, possibly also improving its appeal as an inclusive partner in the global south.

Africa’s new power player

A critical mass of middle powers, from India and Turkey to the Gulf monarchies, are increasingly affecting Europe’s engagement across Africa. These middle powers have expanded their involvement in Africa’s political, security, economic, energy, and climate spheres in recent years, leveraging great power competition and the fragmentation of global order to their advantage. They do not tend to operate according to a logic of fixed alliances, interacting instead with key partners from the global north and south on various issues despite divergences – and shaping an increasingly transactional global order, for which Europeans are ill prepared.

Their presence in Africa presents new challenges for Europe in a region of growing significance. Economically, they not only capture market shares in critical industries but their economic models – which are often state-backed – also tilt the playing field away from Europe. Normatively, they tend to align more readily with developing and emerging economies’ aspirations for prioritising economic development, compared with Europe’s emphasis on principles such as democracy, human rights, and good governance, including when it comes to environmental standards. Their appeal in Africa threatens to further dilute Europe’s influence on the continent and give shape to an international system that is less aligned with European values and interests.

The United Arab Emirates has emerged as an exceptionally active middle power in Africa. Since 2020, the UAE has expanded its power projection and economic presence from its traditional areas of engagement in north and east Africa across the entire continent, employing a more centralised and geostrategic approach than ever before, and establishing the monarchy as one of Africa’s most prominent investors and trade partners. In particular, the UAE has focused significant attention on Africa’s largely untapped energy sectors, expanding its stakes in both oil and gas and renewables, as well as in the critical mineral sector – the backbone of the green transition. The monarchy is an attractive partner for African countries in this regard, thanks to its deep pockets and its advocacy for African positions towards the energy transition. Its preference for a gradual phase-out of fossil fuels – rather than the rapid phase-out advocated by the European Union – resonates with African countries’ imperative to balance their green agenda with economic and social considerations, which is also shared by much of the global south.

European policymakers cannot afford to disregard the UAE’s expanded presence in Africa. The UAE’s financial muscle, alongside its existential need to diversify revenues from oil and gas, sprawling logistics network across the continent, and geopolitical ambitions to become a leader in renewables sectors makes Abu Dhabi a potential risk for Europe’s influence in Africa. Faced with these factors, Europe could quickly see a loss of market access and control over trade routes. Furthermore, by actively contributing to Africa’s electrification and connectivity, and portraying itself as a responsible global player, the UAE is winning favour in Africa which could further dilute Europe’s already diminishing appeal on the continent. Meanwhile, its different perspectives regarding the pursuit of net-zero climate goals challenge Europe’s approach to decarbonisation.

The EU and its member states therefore need to reassess both their perception of and engagement with the UAE in Africa, identifying areas in which they continue to be competitive and acknowledging their widening deficiencies in others. In this policy brief we outline the UAE’s growing involvement in Africa, tracing the key diplomatic and economic instruments that are contributing to the UAE’s sway on the continent and the risks and opportunities that this presents for European interests.

Rather than viewing the UAE as solely a rival, we argue that the EU and member states should devise a more nuanced approach of so-called co-opetition, balancing competition and cooperation. The energy sector presents an ideal opportunity for such an approach. European countries continue to have comparative advantages that they can use to compete with the UAE in some areas: Europe is the largest holder of foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in Africa; its energy companies remain dominant players in traditional energy sectors and possess significant technological and human capital; and its historic involvement in African countries give it a wealth of knowledge and networks. However, beyond competition and despite differing perspectives about the speed and path towards the energy transition, European, Emirati, and African positions converge on the overall goals – namely the expansion of renewable energy and increasing Africa’s access to energy. Here, all partners could benefit from coordination, which would mitigate the risks and reduce the costs of investment. To this end, we highlight some areas where cooperation would be particularly fruitful and provide some strategic recommendations to guide European policy and industry players in navigating this complex landscape.

The UAE’s shifting approach towards Africa

Before 2020, the UAE’s engagement with sub-Saharan Africa evolved through distinct stages driven alternately by economic and security considerations. Africa began to capture the UAE’s attention in the 2000s. The Dubai emirate – with its relatively limited oil reserves, especially compared to the capital emirate Abu Dhabi – started to expand its involvement beyond the oil and gas sector, investing in various sectors and initiatives to ensure its continued prosperity. Africa was an appealing destination for such investments because of its untapped markets and natural resources, and the Horn of Africa ranked particularly high on the UAE’s agenda due to its proximity and pre-existing trade and migratory relations. Emirati investors, mainly from Dubai, started to seize opportunities in sectors such as infrastructure, tourism, and agribusiness. Agricultural imports were particularly important for the UAE, which today still imports over 85 per cent of its food due to its limited arable land and challenging climate. Meanwhile, the country’s growing imports of African gold played a strategic role in fuelling a burgeoning domestic gold-refining industry and re-export trade.

When the Arab uprisings swept across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, however, the UAE began to shift towards a security-oriented foreign policy, seeking to project power against perceived regional rivals, notably Iran, Qatar, and Turkey, which it considered as threats to its influence in Africa. In 2015-2016, this regional competition extended to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa, which were particularly strategic regions for the UAE, as they allowed it control over trade routes extending from the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

In an attempt to diminish the influence of its regional rivals in the Horn and Red Sea, Abu Dhabi embraced a more proactive policy towards countries in these regions, striking political alliances, military base agreements, and port contracts, as well as injecting large amounts of aid and investments. Between 2016 and 2019, for example, the UAE strengthened its relations with Ethiopia through official visits and financial support, as well as by facilitating the historic peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018. It also built close ties with the authorities of Somaliland and Puntland (Somalia), winning concessions for the ports of Berbera in 2016 – which it used as a military base – and Bosaso in 2017. And it provided financial assistance to Sudanese opposition and military groups to oust long-time leader Omar al-Bashir in 2019, de facto sustaining the civil war that erupted in 2023 and has been ravaging the country and its civilian population. Abu Dhabi also started to expand its engagement across the rest of the continent via diplomatic and economic relations, opening embassies in Angola, Chad, Ghana, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe in 2017-2018.

Since 2020, a confluence of factors has pushed the UAE’s leadership to treat Africa as an ever more strategic region, prompting a reorientation of its foreign policy towards the continent and a more centralised, economics-driven, and continent-wide approach to its engagement. Three primary factors underpinned this shift. Firstly, the UAE needed to bolster its economy in the aftermath of the dual shocks caused by the covid-19 pandemic – which affected critical sectors for the monarchy such as aviation, logistics, and tourism – and the downturn in oil prices. It therefore began to prioritise an economics-based foreign policy and attempted to minimise the diplomatic, economic, and security risks associated with regional confrontations. Africa, with its potential consumer base of 1 billion people, burgeoning population and middle class, unmet infrastructure development needs (including for energy access), limited logistics networks, and abundant natural resources, presented an untapped market on the UAE’s doorstep for Emirati companies to explore.

Secondly, the acceleration of the global energy transition following the pandemic prompted concerns about the long-term relevance of oil-producing nations such as the UAE in global dynamics and about the prospect of comparable financial returns in a post-oil era – especially amid growing value chain disruptions and protectionist industrial policies such as China’s export controls on critical minerals or the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act. Abu Dhabi thus adopted a dual strategy, pushing back against the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, while increasing its financial involvement in multiple strategic non-oil sectors, such as renewable energy and technology. Africa, once again, was an opportune region for such investments due to its solar and wind potential, as well as reserves of critical minerals essential for manufacturing green, digital, and defence technologies. Its growing demand because of urgent energy access needs (over half of the continent’s population lacks reliable energy access) and the prospect of surging energy consumption in its rapidly growing economies also presented the UAE with opportunities to expand market shares in energy markets. Many African governments, sharing the UAE’s inclination towards a gradual transition away from fossil fuels, have also supported the UAE’s aspirations for an enhanced global profile in climate forums, such as the United Nations Climate Change Conference (more commonly known as COP).

Finally, the fragmentation of the global order that followed the covid-19 pandemic, escalating technology-trade tensions between the US and China, and Russia’s war on Ukraine provided an opportunity and incentives for the UAE to pursue a stronger global role. To this end, it began to further diversify its strategic alliances, especially with non-traditional allies in the global south. As a significant geoeconomic player in this emerging order, the UAE has been able to carefully balance relationships with key trade and investment partners in the global north, while exploring fresh opportunities with partners from the global south, such as those in the BRICS+ grouping – which the UAE joined in January 2024. The monarchy was also able to capitalise on mounting African dissatisfaction with the West, and especially Europe, owing to their perceived interference in African domestic affairs, paternalism, and double standards. This discontent, while not a new phenomenon, has intensified in recent years, and found an embrace in the increasingly available alternative models of engagement, such as the Chinese and Gulf monarchies’ focus on economic development, or Russia’s security-dominated approach. The diversification of international engagement in Africa has, in turn, empowered the continent, enabling it to assert a stronger voice in global governance settings. A notable example of this empowerment was the African Union securing a seat in the G20 in 2023, marking its increasing influence on the world stage.

COP28 in 2023, which was hosted by the UAE, exemplified the culmination of these dynamics. The conference resulted in an agreement to pursue a “swift, just and equitable transition” in a clear nod to the requests from the global south for an energy transition less dominated by the global north. In doing so, it underscored the UAE’s growing influence in climate governance and ability to garner support in climate negotiations.

About the author:

Corrado Čok is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. In his research, Čok explores the role of the Gulf states in Africa, with a focus on infrastructure and energy sectors.

Maddalena Procopio is a senior policy fellow in the Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Her main research interests are the geopolitics and international relations of the Africa region, in particular Africa-China and Africa-EU relations, emerging middle powers, Africa’s role in the global energy transition, and eastern and southern Africa.

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