A foreign investor can set-up a company in the UAE either in one of the many Free Zones or in the UAE mainland.
Free Zone Authorities are the government bodies that register and issue business licences to non-resident companies in the UAE free zone. Free Zones allow corporate structures to have a physical presence in the UAE, allows 100% foreign ownership and offers prebuilt facilities and modernised one stop-shop registration and administrative services.
Free zone companies can only carry out business in that particular free zone of registration, and overseas. On the other hand, deploying businesses in the UAE market is still feasible by assigning a local agent/distributor duly licensed within the respective Emirate itself, i.e. Onshore, not within the Freezone.
Important things to consider:
- Most free zones prescribe a minimum amount of the share capital, and some free zones require the share capital to be deposited to the company’s local bank account either prior to issuing the licence or within a certain time limit post licensing while other free zones do not require share capital to be deposited.
- Appointment of a Director(s), Manager and Secretary is required. In some free zones, the Manager must obtain a UAE residence visa under the company sponsorship.
- Most free zone companies are required to maintain accounts and submit audited financial reports to the Freezone authority on annual licence renewal date or within a set timeline.
- A free zone company is subject to annual licence renewal fees. If the company is to be liquidated, the authority’s procedure must be followed, and a liquidator must be appointed.
- A company must rent an office space or a warehouse within the free zone. Most free zones offer a minimal facility i.e. Smart/Flexi desk etc. – that reduces annual lease costs – this is convenient for companies which do not need a physical office space and do not require access to the UAE double tax treaties, but only covers a limited number of staff visas.
- Free zone companies are not subject to customs duty on imported goods, but can only import within the zone itself.
- There is no withholding tax, VAT/sales tax (except for tobacco and alcohol) in the UAE. However, it is expected that VAT will be introduced in all GCC countries, including the Free Zones, as from 1 January 2018.
- Free zone companies are excluded from the Wage Protection System (WPS), as you do not need to register with the Ministry of Labour when you set up in a Free Zone. Under the WPS, the company must transfer salaries to the UAE-based employees from its UAE bank account to their UAE bank accounts only in AED. However, it should be noted that some free zones have joined WPS for example Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority (JAFZA), while other free zones do operate their own salary payment scheme.
- The UAE has signed double tax treaties with more than 70 countries. Subject to rules and conditions, free zone companies can request a tax residence certificate (TRC) – frequently consenting access to double tax treaties – subject to tax rules in overseas country.
How do I choose the right Free Zone for my business?
Apart from one of the core advantages of establishing a free zone – which is 100% foreign ownership, a lot of investors opt for a free zone formation when considering the timeline procedures, costs, availability of the desired activity and required facilities for their companies. Free zones are well known for fast and easy registration and licensing process and provide cost-effective tailored solutions for all clients’ requirements.
There are 7 Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras Al Khaimah, Fujairah and Umm Al Quwain) and more than 40 free zones in the UAE, it is certain that each free zone offers exclusive benefits to its investors which leads to the question on ‘how to choose the right and suitable one for your business?’
We have narrowed down the top five (5) key things to consider before choosing a free zone:
- Purpose of the company/ Activity to be deployed
- Lease facility requirements
- Number of Visa (s) required
- Budget for setting-up
What are the Free Zones in the UAE?
Some of the most popular free zones in the UAE are:
Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC)
DIFC is a global financial centre established in 2002, strategically located between the East and West, providing a stable and secure platform for businesses and financial institutions to tap into the emerging markets of the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.
The Centre’s internationally recognised and autonomous regulation, common law framework, tax-friendly management, and enabling environment make the idyllic hub ideal to access the region’s fast-growing demand for financial and business services.
Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority (JAFZA)
JAFZA is the largest and oldest free zone in the UAE, established in 1985. JAFZA is an engine for Dubai’s economic and industrial growth. It’s product offerings ensure that clients will find the right set-up for their needs including plots of land, warehouses, showrooms, customised development solutions, offices, retail outlets, a business park and even on-site residences.
Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC)
DMCC was established in 2002 as a strategic initiative of the government of Dubai with a mandate to provide the physical, market and financial infrastructure required to establish Dubai as a hub for global commodities trade.
Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority (DAFZA)
DAFZA is a well-established zone that deals with import and export trades and services, established in 1996. It offers companies a base within a modern and comprehensive environment to do business from.
Dubai Creative Clusters Authority (DCCA), formerly known as TECOM
The Authority was launched in 2000 to establish Dubai as a worldwide hub for knowledge-based industries. The zone comprises 9 clusters catering to the needs of 7 creative and other knowledge-based industries – as follow:
1. Media & Entertainment
• Dubai Media City
• Dubai Studio City
• Dubai Production City
2. Information & Communications Technology
• Dubai Internet City
• Dubai Outsource City
4. Higher Education
• Dubai International Academic City
5. Human Capital Development
• Dubai Knowledge Park
6. Life Sciences / Energy & Environment
• Dubai Science Park
• Dubai Design District (d3)
Dubai World Central (DWC) – Dubai South
DWC is an emerging 145 sq km city situated within the emirate of Dubai, launched in 2006. The free zone’s economic platform supports every conceivable kind of business and industry. The free zone offers a wide variety of office solutions, ranging from shared facilities to executive offices that are perfectly aligned to the growing needs of start-ups and SMEs.
Abu Dhabi Global Markets (ADGM)
ADGM is an international financial centre located in Al Maryah Island in the heart of the UAE’s capital city, Abu Dhabi. It’s legal and operational platform is attractive for a broad range of professional and business services, along with family businesses, corporate headquarters and various management functions. ADGM also provides a beneficial environment to domicile holding companies, special purpose vehicles (SPVs) and other structures to hold and protect assets.
ADPC – Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone (KPIZ)
KIZAD is among the largest greenfield ports and industrial zones in the world, located near Khalifa Port in Abu Dhabi and has started its operation 2012. KIZAD offers proximity to suppliers, customers and other business competences, safeguarding that industrial, trade and logistics derive long-term advantage.
Masdar City Free Zone
Masdar City was established in 2006 and is widely recognized as one of the world’s most exhilarating eco-developments. It is also a Free Zone located near Abu Dhabi International Airport and 17km from downtown Abu Dhabi.
Listed below are all the UAE free zones for reference:
- Abu Dhabi Airport Free Zone (ADAFZ)
- Abu Dhabi Global Markets (ADGM)
- ADPC – Khalifa Port and Industrial Zone (KPIZ)
- Industrial City of Abu Dhabi
- Higher Corporation for Specialized Economic Zones
- Masdar City Free Zone
- Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC)
- Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority (JAFZA) and Dubai Gold and Diamond Park
- Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC)
- Dubai Airport Free Zone Authority (DAFZA)
- Dubai Creative Clusters Authority (DCCA)
- Dubai World Central (DWC) – Dubai South
- Dubai Healthcare City (DHC)
- Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO)
- Dubai Cars and Automotive Zone (DUCAMZ) also known as Dubai Auto Zone
- Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC)
- Hamriyah Free Zone
- Sharjah Airport International Free Zone (SAIF)
- U.S.A. Regional Trade Center (USARTC) Free Zone
- Ajman Free Zone
Ras Al Khaimah
- RAK Economic Zone (RAKEZ)
- Ras Al Khaimah Media Free Zone
- Fujairah Free Zone
Umm Al Quwain
- Umm Al Quwain Free Trade Zone (UAQFTZ)
Patricia Tan is the Client Relationship Executive at PRO Partner Group. For further information on setting up in a free zone and any other of PRO Partner Group’s comprehensive range of PRO, licencing and staffing services contact Pat on firstname.lastname@example.org or call a member of the team on:
T: +971 (0)4 456 1761 (Dubai)
T : +971 (0)2 448 5120 (Abu Dhabi)
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