While many Wisconsin businesspeople are intimidated by the challenges presented by markets in the Middle East and Africa, many countries across this expansive region offer significant opportunities to companies that do their research and approach key markets in a systematic fashion. Within this part of the world can be found some of the poorest countries and also some of the wealthiest. Demand is strong for infrastructure supplies and equipment; basic and cutting-edge health care devices; energy generation and distribution equipment; information technology; manufacturing equipment; and mining, agriculture and food processing machinery.

Although no African countries rank among Wisconsin’s top 20 export destinations, the potential exists for significant growth as Africa’s economies and population continue to grow. The office of Wisconsin’s trade representative, based in South Africa, serves more than 30 countries in Africa, and has regional staff in Malawi, Morocco, Mauritius, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Tunisia and Zimbabwe, offering vast geographic coverage to Wisconsin exporters. In the Middle East, Wisconsin has trade representation in the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. These countries are working to diversify their economies away from petroleum and natural gas extraction. Public infrastructure megaprojects, especially in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are expected to spur strong expansions in the tourism, transportation, construction and wholesale/retail sectors.

View detailed country information: Saudi Arabia, South Africa, United Arab Emirates


View All


Saudi Arabia is the Gulf region’s largest economy and largest exporter of oil. In 2020, its cabinet approved a budget of $272 billion. The Saudi government’s goal is to move away from dependence on oil and gas and focus on other sectors. The kingdom has significant economic reform plans, such as Saudi Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program, which seeks to increase foreign investment, enhance the overall competitiveness of the Saudi economy, and promote economic diversification through development of the private sector. The government has announced megaprojects such as NEOM, the Red Sea project and Qiddiya, which are expected to have a positive impact on the economy.

Many Saudi nationals have studied in the U.S., and the personal relationships created in the process can lead to commercial relationships and valuable business connections. Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state, and its judicial system is based on Islamic (Shari’ah) law for both criminal and civil cases. Shari’ah law is derived from the Holy Quran and the practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime. The government plays a major role in the economy of Saudi Arabia, so it is important to be aware of the political connections of business contacts.

Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves are the second-largest in the world, and the country is the world’s leading oil producer and exporter. The Saudi government is encouraging private sector growth to lessen the kingdom’s dependence on oil, and increase employment opportunities for the growing population. Wisconsin companies dealing in cybersecurity; smart grid; health care, including e-health, hospital management solutions, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices; and architecture and engineering have strong opportunities at present.


image with charts and numbers related to Wisconsin's import and export activity with Saudi Arabia


South Africa is a middle-income emerging market with an abundant supply of natural resources; well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy and transportation sectors; and a stock exchange that is Africa’s largest and among the top 20 in the world. Trade is important to South Africa’s economy, and the country serves as a gateway to much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa; the value of exports and imports taken together equals 63% of South Africa’s GDP.

South Africa is the economic powerhouse on the African continent and provides a gateway to Southern African markets. Wisconsin exporters have recognized this, as export growth to South Africa and Africa overall have grown 205% and 153%, respectively, since 2005, outpacing export growth to most markets by a wide margin, including China and India. Access to regional markets is facilitated by South Africa’s membership in the Southern Africa Customs Union and the Southern Africa Development Community. It boasts one of the strongest financial systems in the world and has a rich cultural heritage, a growing middle class, strong rule of law and substantial infrastructure that will promote strong future economic growth. English is the business language across the region, making for ease of visiting and transactions.

South Africa has a dominant mining industry, a large agricultural and food/beverage processing sector, and an advanced aerospace and defense industry as well as a strong manufacturing capacity. These sectors offer opportunities for advanced Wisconsin companies. The focus on renewable energy has increased, which provides a good platform for Wisconsin companies that can assist at the developmental stage. Education and health care are further areas where Wisconsin companies can pursue opportunities. Wisconsin’s South Africa-based trade office serves more than 23 countries in southern and eastern Africa, and has regional sub-offices in Tanzania and Mauritius, offering vast geographic coverage to Wisconsin exporters.


image with charts and numbers related to Wisconsin's import and export activity with South Africa


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has long been recognized as the commercial and business hub of the Middle East, and can be one of the easiest markets in the region for U.S. exporters to enter. The COVID-19 crisis hit the UAE hard in 2020, because of the shock of low oil prices and the huge toll it took on tourism. Events such as the Dubai Expo World’s Fair, scheduled to run from October 2021 to March 2022, as well as the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, should help the economy recover. After more than three years of an embargo against trade and travel links with Qatar, normal relations between the Gulf states have been resumed.

The UAE is a strategic hub with business-friendly free zones. The UAE has developed a leading role in business services, including finance, and has effectively created a logistics hub between East and West. It is home to the busiest man-made port and two of the fastest growing airlines in the world. With an ambition to become a diversified regional economic hub, the UAE is undertaking a carefully planned expansion, including noteworthy projects in tourism, urban development, alternative energy, aerospace and composites manufacturing. The UAE’s efforts to diversify its economy create opportunities for Wisconsin companies dealing in aerospace manufacturing, life sciences, water technology, energy, and food and beverages.


image with charts and numbers related to Wisconsin's import and export activity with United Arab Emirates


Reach out to WEDC’s Global Trade and Investment team to learn more about global market intelligence, exporting and more.


The views or opinions expressed here are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of WEDC. WEDC is not responsible for the contents nor does WEDC guarantee the accuracy, completeness, timeliness or reliability of this information.