When global and regional markets see an economic shake-up, the UAE also witnesses a ripple effect leading to job losses. While many people update their CVs and return to the interview circuit in search of their next job, some choose to strike out on their own. For many, the appeal lies in running their own businesses as the region heads towards a time of tremendous economic opportunity. In this context, the UAE’s many free zones, which allow 100 per cent ownership, serve as enablers. 

“A free zone presents an ideal environment to establish a business with many benefits,” says 47-year-old Mohammad Baida, Managing Director at Content Plus, an online content solutions company based in the Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Centre (Dtec) within the Dubai Silicon Oasis (DSO) free zone. “The company formation is quicker and it is easier to recruit employees.” He also finds the option to lease properties for a 25-year period a key driver.

Free zones across the UAE are seeing an uptick in business. In March, Abu Dhabi Ports announced plans to expand Kizad, its industrial manufacturing zone, in response to demand from existing and international investors. The expansion, revealed at the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit 2017, adds an additional 100 square kilometres of space as well as a new business park and will make the free zone the largest in Abu Dhabi.

The Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (RAKEZ), the authority established to oversee, regulate and consolidate the services, facilities and activities of the Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone (RAK FTZ) and RAK Investment Authority, has witnessed a 50 per cent increase in business since 2012, says Ramy Jallad, Group CEO. The combined free zones have seen more than 13,000 companies register across sectors such as manufacturing, trading, services, tourism, education and media over this period. 

Like others in the UAE, the free zone helps companies in many ways. It hosts events and seminars for clients such as an academy for small and medium businesses, an annual business excellence award and a buyer interaction session for punters keen to capitalise on the upcoming Expo 2020 Dubai. It also offers supplier registration through its procurement department. 

“At RAKEZ, our biggest market has always been the SME community, also considered the backbone of the UAE’s economy and 75 per cent of registered companies are SMEs and entrepreneurs,” says Jallad. “In 2015, we also launched the Startup Champ Competition for aspiring entrepreneurs to pitch innovative ideas and win a complete business set-up package.”

Thirty-five-year-old Egyptian Yasmine Hammad is a past winner of the Startup Champ contest. She is Founder and Creative Director of Salaty, a company that provides women and children with made-in-the-UAE prayer gowns and related essentials. “If you strongly believe in your concept and business, you will always find incubators and consultants in the UAE who are willing to help new businesses to reach their goal,” she says. “When I decided to set up my business, I did my research and went to a few free zones. From the first time I stepped into the RAKEZ office in Dubai — I live here —  it took me four weeks to set up my own business. I enjoy the networking events and the freedom to operate my company with 100 per cent ownership.” 

As a mother of two, Yasmine wanted the option to work from a home office and chose a flexi-desk option, which is basically a desk in a sharing office.

Baida, who is of Palestinian origin, picked Dtec based on cost considerations. “It is the best choice as the majority of costs are only charged in the first year while the trade licence and residency visas are valid for three years,” he says. “Besides, Dtec gives me good opportunity to get in touch with potential clients on a daily basis in addition to the DSO-organised networking events.”

Meanwhile, a chance stopover in Abu Dhabi led Hussain Spek Yousuf, Founder and Board Director at PopArabia, a company dealing in music copyrights to take the plunge and set up shop at twofour54. The 41-year-old Canadian quickly settled on the Abu Dhabi media free zone when he started out in 2011, he says. “Everyone from the government level to media stakeholders pointed me towards the work that twofour54 were doing in the regulatory environment but with a focus on content creation,” Yousuf says. “It seemed like an obvious fit for my vision with the UAE being the centre of media activity in the region.” 

The music publisher and music rights consultancy works with international, Arabic and Indian music, as well as compositions from Africa and North Africa. “We are agnostic about what we represent, which is whatever is relevant to the region,” he says.

Yousuf says his company has seen double-digit growth year-on-year. “As we enter the next phase, we might see triple-digit growth when we launch a few new initiatives.”

Yasmine, too, feels she made the right decision to start her own business. “Given the appetite in the UAE in general to take on new businesses and concepts, there is always opportunity,” she says, adding that the positive feedback to her products is the best indicator for a start-up. She sees herself growing locally and distributing worldwide.

Baida expects the Expo 2020 to serve as a major economic  driver for the region. “It is expected to open new and innovative opportunities,” he says.