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dubai ecommerce

Dubai Ecommerce – The 2020 Guide




The ultramodern city of Dubai in the UAE, with incredibly high rates of Internet penetration, a tech-savvy population, and a solid infrastructure for business, is an ideal location for the start-up or expansion of an E-commerce business. This report will take you through the E-Commerce market of Dubai and the potential benefits and challenges of establishing an online business in the city. We will address the business environment, trade growth, challenges to start-ups, the state of the mobile market, and projected Dubai E-commerce market growth.


Table of Contents


Country Background


Country BackgroundThe United Arab Emirates is a desert country bordering Saudi Arabia and Oman, and a member of the GCC. Although UAE citizens account for nearly 6 million of the current population, UN estimates that take into account the large immigrant population place the actual population at nearly 9.2 million. It is estimated that 50% of the population is South Asian and that Emiratis make up only about 20%. These numbers are largely due to migrant workers attracted to the UAE’s strong economy and political security coming in from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. According to a 2015 estimate, 85.5% of this population is urban. The median age in the country is 30, with around 34.5% of the population under the age of 24. The UAE has a severe gender imbalance, with a male:female ratio of 2.2. 76% of the country is Muslim, with small percentages of representation for other religions.


Although the UAE is a resource-rich nation that built a successful economy around oil exports, recent attempts at economic diversification have proved successful in opening up the private sector and creating a wider variety of jobs. The portion of GDP based on oil outputs is now only at 25%. For comparison, 42% of Saudi Arabia’s GDP depends on these exports. The UAE’s GDP was around 370 billion U.S. dollars in 2015.


Dubai Background


Dubai is known as a popular tourist destination, a thriving hub for business, finance, and entrepreneurship, and as the second largest emirate within the UAE. Dubai has a central location in the country and is known for its open economic system, which keeps customs duties low and places no tax on corporate profits (with the exception of oil companies). Dubai’s population was recently reported by Emirates 24/7 News to have hit 4 million, and the Director-General of Dubai Municipality expects it to rise to 5 million within the next 15 years.


Business Environment & Trade


In this section, we will examine both the workplace and the large-scale trade of Dubai. We will use information about business customs and norms of censorship to inform proper conduct while expanding your company into Dubai, and estimate the future growth of the economy and the Dubai market through GDP measurements and scales of imports.


Business Culture of Dubai


Successfully setting up a business in any country requires a knowledge and appreciation of the new business environment. Business practices in Dubai can vary widely from those known in the United States as well as from other Middle Eastern countries. We will quickly address the most important tenets of conducting business in Dubai – talking about differences and similarities between this city and the United States in terms of greeting, calendars, work habits, and navigation of religious norms and inter-gender relationships.


Although other Middle Eastern business cultures may hold cheek-kissing as the common mode of greeting (e.g. Lebanon), a firm and professional handshake will suffice in Dubai. The handshake should be followed by the presentation of a business card and a polite as-salamu alaykum (“peace upon you”). Although due to a large expatriate community knowledge of Arabic is not necessary, knowing at least a few key phrases is polite and could help integrate you further into the community. A small chart of key Arabic phrases can be found here.  Do not greet a member of the opposite gender with a handshake; instead, place your right hand over your heart.


Dubai follows the typical Middle Eastern working week, with a Friday/Saturday weekend. During the month of Ramadan, most businesses – including Western companies – close at around 1:00 PM. Meetings should not be scheduled near any major Muslim holidays, or near prayer times. Prayer times in Dubai can easily be found in newspapers, or online.

Cup of TeaMeetings typically begin in a leisurely manner, with plenty of time for small talk and getting to know the other business partners. Hospitality is a prized virtue, so many meetings may begin with a casual cup of tea or coffee (which it may be considered discourteous to refuse). However, the work attire of a business in Dubai tends to be very formal. Some businesses might dress more casually on Thursdays. Professional dress should be very modest, especially for women. Most Emirati businesswomen wear abayas (modest robes that cover the arms and touch the floor) in public, and expatriate women are expected to be respectful of the modest culture by covering at least their upper arms and knees. Public drinking, and the use of alcohol in business meals and company functions, is generally discouraged in Dubai. It is illegal to consume alcohol outside of licensed hotels. It would also be considered very bad taste to order pork at a restaurant.


A 2014 article in Forbes claimed that women in Dubai face as little discrimination in the workplace as women working in London or New York, and that female entrepreneurship is common and widely accepted. While female participation in the labor force may be celebrated and commonplace in Dubai, businesswomen may find difficulty in career advancement. Few women are employed at senior levels of companies, and some women claim that stereotypes against working women can create a hostile work environment. In terms of proper conduct for business meetings, boundaries between men and women are an important part of the office – more so than in the United States. For example, it would be improper for an expatriate businessman to shake the hand of an Emirati businesswoman without an express invitation.


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Download the list of Dubai’s 30 best-selling products




The censorship practiced by the United Arab Emirates has been labeled as “substantial” by the Open Net Initiative. The ONI reported that the amount of censorship has grown in recent years and is most commonly used to block alternative religious or social views from those of the government as well as criticisms of the state. Authorities claim that censorship’s goal is to preserve the moral status of the nation, and that most of the population finds the restrictions to be acceptable. Though Dubai previously enjoyed free Internet access, the state recently expanded censorship in 2008 to include the city.


Open Net InitiativeProhibited Content

Following is a short list of commonly censored content in Dubai and the UAE, compiled using research by Freedom House and the Open Net Initiative.


Content critical of the government and/or human rights practices

Content critical of Dubai/UAE societal customs

Content demonstrating unorthodox/extremist perspectives on Islam

Secular and atheist websites

LGBTQ* and feminist websites

Content promoting alcohol or drug use

Content promoting gambling or dating

Websites related to sexual health education

VoIP websites


Trade and Country Growth in the United Arab Emirates


The rate of country growth in the UAE has been on a steep decline since a high in 2010 with a nearly 25% growth rate. Though the rate is declining, trade has continued to boom. In 2018, the country had $387,910 of Exports and $244,646 Imports. More than $100 millions of exports in 2018 included petroleum oils.


The Top 5 Imports of the UAE 


Machines 23%

Precious Metals 21%

Transportation 11%

Textiles 6.7%

Metals 6.5%


This list of imports for 2018, provided by the OEC, demonstrates that the largest market for imports was in jewelry and precious metals – most of which were supplied to the UAE by India, Italy, and Turkey. While the market for refined petroleum has declined since a peak of 11% in 2012, recent numbers indicate modest growth. The gold market in the UAE is greatly volatile. Nearly 80% of the UAE’s imports and exports are handled in Dubai.


OEC and World Bank DataOEC and World Bank data are lacking in data on recent years and growth rates as well as projections in the UAE. However, we have compiled here a chart with World Bank data detailing the growth rates of GDP and country imports in the past few years. The chart shows a slow decline in GDP growth rate but a general rise in imports, with a sharp spike in 2011. It’s important to note that this chart does not represent GDP or number of imports, but rather the rate at which they are growing. This chart is, then, optimistic about the level of imports continuing to rise in the UAE and the continued growth of the economy.


Prohibited Imports into Dubai and the UAE

It’s important to make sure that your business meets all regulations before you expand it into Dubai to ensure cultural sensitivity and to avoid punishment by authorities. Following is a short list of prohibited imports to the UAE. A more comprehensive list can be found here.


All varieties of narcotic drugs

Goods from Israel or other boycotted countries, and goods with Israeli logos

Goods related to gambling

Original sculptures, statues, prints, etc.

Any art or writings that are immoral or contradict or maliciously criticize Islamic teachings.

Forged currency

Home-made foods


Download the list of the top 3rd Party Logistics (3PL) Companies in Dubai.

Internet Penetration


The UAE is one of the most well-connected countries in the Middle East and GCC, with around a 98.4% internet penetration rate in 2018. This rate is outperformed in the region only by Bahrain and Qatar. This number reflects both the Emirati population and the migrant workers, telling us that over 9.4 million people in the UAE are currently Internet users. The penetration rate has grown greatly from 2000. In 2020, the UAE had 9.7 million active accounts on social media. These statistics reflect the popularity of the Internet in Dubai and the UAE and the growing reliance on it for business and social connectivity.


The Top 10 Websites in the UAE


Following is a list of the most popular websites in the UAE in April 2020:
Top 10 Websites in UAE



For the most part, this list consists of universally popular websites that generate high rates of search traffic. The only two websites on this list that are specific to the Middle East are dubizzle.com and souq.com – both online marketplaces that target the entire region. It is unusual that there are no country-specific news websites in the top 10 list, as there are for many other Middle Eastern countries. Instead, this list shows great connectivity with the rest of the world with many social platforms being represented. We can infer a strong ecommerce market from the presence of 2 online marketplaces in the top 10 list as well as high levels of connectivity and social knowledge in the UAE from the numerous social media platforms.


Another interesting thing to note is the presence of Indeed.ae and Bayt.com ranking at 28 and 29 on the list of most trafficked UAE websites. These are both career search websites, and indicate high interest in business and employment in the country, and desire to participate in the business environment.


Top 10 Ecommerce Websites in Dubai


Following is a list of popular online shopping websites  in the UAE in 2020:
Top 10 Ecommerce Website in UAE

  • Amazon.ae
  • Dubizzle.com
  • Aliexpress.com
  • Awok.com
  • Groupon.ae
  • Cobone.com
  • Supermart.ae
  • Jadopado.com
  • Namshi.com


This list of online markets can tell us a lot about the state of ecommerce in the UAE. After Amazon.ae the most notable are the presence of Awok.com, Groupon.ae, and Supermart.ae. Awok.com and Supermarket.ae are both founded and based in Dubai. Groupon is an international company, but has a headquarters in Dubai. The UAE headquarters is the only representation of Groupon in the Middle East, which has offices in nearly 50 countries. Since Groupon recently pulled out of Morocco and 6 other countries due to investment and costs outweighing the opportunity for growth, its continued presence in the UAE suggests strong and growing online market opportunities in the country. These websites and the general popularity of online marketplaces in the UAE give an optimistic outlook on the state of ecommerce in Dubai.


Challenges to E-Commerce Start-Ups


Although the UAE holds the largest and fastest-growing E-commerce market in the Middle East, and nearly 81% of the Dubai’s adult population regularly purchases goods online, there are region-specific challenges to overcome before starting or expanding a successful business in Dubai.


One of the major issues in establishing an online market in the Middle East is a lack of trust by consumers in online payments. Although E-commerce has been steadily growing in the UAE and online payments are becoming more familiar, much of the population is still uncomfortable with making major purchases online or buying from retailers they don’t recognize or trust. In October 2015, experts reported that over 75% of payments in the country are still made with cash. Around 85% of consumers in the Middle East have indicated a preference for this method over using bank cards. To make an online market sustainable, many Dubai-based retailers such as Awok.com offer “cash on delivery” systems of payment. Though this seems a workable solution, it leads to higher levels of product returns and high delivery fees. Another, more successful answer to this problem has been the use of secure and trusted payment gateways (e.g. Paypal, CashU) to transfer money online. The growing popularity of these systems and growing trust of Emiratis in these platforms could lead to a much larger E-Commerce market in coming years. A start-up E-commerce business in Dubai should integrate with a trusted payment gateway in order to build trust among its customers. Listed below are the most popular third-party and integrated payment gateways in Dubai.


Most Popular Payment Gateways
Payment Gateways in Dubai

  • PayPal
  • 2Checkout
  • Telr
  • Gate2Play
  • PayFort
  • CashU
  • Checkout.com
  • CyberSource
  • Paytabs


Benefits to E-Commerce Start-Ups in Dubai


Dubai’s E-commerce market is unquestionably the largest and fastest-growing in the UAE.  81% of Dubai’s population regularly engages in online shopping. This is a shockingly high percentage for the city with the most malls in the world. There are many advantages to starting an E-commerce business in Dubai now while the market is still growing and strengthening.


A crucial benefit to starting an online business in Dubai is the ability to do so quickly and cost-efficiently. In the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” report, the UAE scored 34th in the world for 2016 and is projected to improve to 26th in the next year. This high ranking is due to low “e-friction”, or few constraints in Internet use (outside of certain areas of censorship discussed above) as well as the existence of solid infrastructure to speedily and easily get businesses started. It takes an average of 8 days to register a business in Dubai and the UAE, compared to a Middle East average of 20. The cost of registering a firm in the UAE is also about half of the average cost to register a firm in the Middle East. Starting an online market in the UAE should be an efficient and easy process.


Another great advantage to creating a business in Dubai concerns the greater trust in buying from locally based retailers. The two most frequently visited online markets in the UAE are Souq.com and Amazon.com. MasterCard’s 2015 Online Shopping Behavior study indicated that 45% of its respondents had purchased goods from Souq.com, whereas only 16% shopped from Amazon. The reasons cited by respondents for this trend were fears of bad security and hidden charges on foreign websites. A business based in Dubai might receive a much greater market share from Emiratis and higher profits than a foreign business trying to attract buyers from overseas.


Although a major deterrent to E-commerce start-ups in Dubai was a lack of trust in online businesses payments, the young and increasingly tech-savvy population seems ready to adapt to a new mode of doing business. Although many consumers interviewed by MasterCard claimed that they would feel much more comfortable with digital penetration and use of online and mobile payment platforms were there guarantees for data protection, they also indicated enthusiasm for new technology and a digitalization of the way they shop. Increasing normalization of technology, the technological and business culture of Dubai, and a young population could greatly lessen this problem and promote E-commerce markets in the future.


Hopes for Future E-commerce Developments


Although MasterCard found in 2014 that over 80% of online shoppers in the UAE were happy with the experience that they had, fewer than 60% of Emiratis were engaging in online shopping and even those who enjoyed the experience saw room for improvement in the process. A large majority of shoppers were irritated by high delivery charges and service fees associated with buying online. Over 60% of survey respondents in the UAE indicated that they would be more likely to shop online if these fees were lessened or eliminated.

master cardMasterCard reported that fewer survey respondents indicated preference for brick-and-mortar stores in 2015 than in 2014. This statistic is most credited to the greater convenience and safety of online shopping. However, this preference is restricted mainly to local websites – which are considered faster and safer than foreign markets. A good solution to increasing website traffic and purchases is to set up a local base in Dubai. This strategy has worked well for Groupon, which is one of the most popular websites for E-commerce in the UAE. Another solution is to use secure gateways – such as PayPal or CashU – and offer fast and low-cost shipping to increase trust among Emirati consumers. It has also been found that offering coupons and discounts greatly increases trust and customer loyalty in the UAE.


A final consideration is the preference among the UAE population to engage in “ethical spending”. Almost half of the MasterCard survey respondents indicated that they would be more likely to buy from companies which they believed were environmentally and socially responsible. This includes merchants who sell green products as well as firms that donate to or partner with nonprofits and charities. Emiratis tend to look for ethical companies with reasonable shipping fees, and secure and trusted payment options when they shop online. MasterCard concluded that if more of these preferences were met, Emiratis would be much more comfortable with and likely to shop online in the future.


Top 10 Online Purchases in the UAE


Airline Tickets

Hotel Reservations

Event Tickets

Clothing and Accessories

Computer Software




Videos and Games

Electronic Equipment


This list reflects the eagerness of Emiratis to buy goods related to technology and entertainment online. It also shows that it is growing much more common to buy tickets and make reservations online for the much greater convenience. The one market that doesn’t seem to transition well into the UAE is consumables. Less than 20% of MasterCard survey respondents indicated that they would be comfortable buying groceries online, due to their perishability.


Top USA Online Stores that Ship to UAE – Get the List Here

The State of Mobile Commerce in the UAE


According to a 2016 MasterCard press release on attitudes toward using phones as payment devices in the UAE, nearly 40% of consumers in the country take eager attitudes toward technological advancements. It found that many were attracted to shopping online and using mobile payments due to their convenience and simplicity. It claimed that members of the UAE were demanders of innovation, good candidates for introducing new mobile capabilities and building up strong technological markets. This is why a greater number of Middle Eastern survey respondents responded that they found greater trust in using fingerprint verification (30%) for mobile payment purposes rather than PIN codes (20%). Though Emiratis generally have low trust in online and mobile payment systems, they are receptive to changes in technology that make them more secure.


smartphone marketThis receptiveness to technology is reflected in the already high rate of using smartphones to engage in online purchases. In 2015, nearly a third of MasterCard’s survey respondents reported making multiple mobile purchases. They claimed that this was due mainly to the great convenience of shopping from their phones, especially because of the wide range and availability of mobile shopping applications. Nearly 60% of mobile shoppers in the UAE prefer purchasing through an application to shopping on a browser.


PayPal revealed in 2015 the status of the UAE as the second largest smartphone market in the world. This has led to a great surge in mobile spending – PayPal predicted a near doubling in the revenue generated by mobile commerce from 2013 to 2016. The largest markets for mobile commerce in the UAE were airline tickets and phone apps, which were followed by products such as clothing, hotel bookings, and movie tickets.


Recent Market Growth


All E-commerce market reports on Dubai in the past few years have been overwhelmingly positive. A 2014 article in Gulf News proudly proclaimed that the UAE was “leading the e-commerce revolution in the Middle East” due to its high internet penetration, tech-savvy population, and increased confidence in online shopping. It was predicted that the market would experience incredible growth by 2018, reaching a $10 billion value. In 2014, the total value of the market was only at $2.5 billion. This indicates that there will be astronomical growth in this market within the next few years. In 2015, the value of the market increased by 19% and similar numbers are expected for 2016. Although experts claim that E-commerce in Dubai may currently be experiencing a small slow-down due to economic uncertainty and lower oil prices, the convenience and the deals available at online markets and shopping apps are still driving consumers online. Start-ups looking to expand into eager online markets might do very well to introduce their business into Dubai now and build trust while E-commerce is still rapidly growing and becoming popular.





Although economic uncertainty and lack of trust in online payments have recently been slowing the spread of E-commerce and the value of its market in Dubai, the value of E-commerce is expected to continue steadily increasing at high rates over the coming years. Start-ups can expect tech-savvy, smart, and young audiences in Dubai looking for trusted and ethical businesses offering quality products. This is a great time to jump into the E-commerce market of Dubai, while the market is strong and still growing and while Internet and business regulations make starting up a company easy.

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Jordan Boshers

Jordan Boshers is the Chief Digital Strategist at IstiZada, a digital agency that helps companies market to Arabs. He has 10+ years of experience running successful digital marketing campaigns in the Arab world. His insights into Arabic SEO helped him grow previously unknown websites to dominate Arabic niches on Google including growing one site from 0 to more than 1 million users monthly. Jordan has consulted for hundreds of companies including helping corporations like Amazon, Berlitz, and Exxon Mobil with their Arabic digital marketing. Learn more here or on LinkedIn.