Leaders interview
Image Credit: John Catherall/ Gulf News

“The free zone landscape in the UAE has changed dramatically over the past few years”

Martin G. Pedersen, Chairman, IFZA

Martin G. Pedersen, Chairman, IFZA

Supporting entrepreneurship is a priority in the UAE’s Fifty Economic Plan. How does IFZA support the UAE’s drive to become an entrepreneurship hub in the region?

IFZA places a particular focus on the MSME sector, which comprises more than 94 per cent of the total registered companies in the UAE and contributes over 60 per cent of its GDP.

Together with our global network of professional partners, we are collectively moved into action by our strong conviction that Dubai is the absolute place to be for global businesses and we extend ourselves to supporting its drive to become an entrepreneurial hub, regionally and internationally.

How has your business been in the past eight months of this year? How many start-ups have launched their businesses at IFZA in the first half of this year?

We have witnessed continuous and remarkable growth over the past eight months. To date, we have already surpassed our record performance in 2021 in terms of new business licences issued. Our current projections are that we will achieve 150 per cent growth in performance by the end of the year. This growth is undoubtedly an outcome of our pioneering business model and the government’s efforts to drive foreign direct investment within a safe, secure and business-friendly environment.

IFZA has recently entered into a partnership agreement with Commercial Bank of Dubai to offer banking solutions to companies. What do partnerships mean to your business strategy?

Forging long-standing partnerships is in IFZA’s DNA – partnerships that are based on fairness, equality and respect.

Our agreement with the Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD) illustrates our strategic approach to partnerships.

We carefully analysed and studied the critical challenges faced by new businesses in the UAE, the outcomes of which led us to create partnership agreements with industry leaders who can help us create viable solutions.

We do not simply sign partnership agreements on paper. In the case with CBD, IFZA opened a new banking department run by experienced professionals and established a CBD presence here in the IFZA headquarters so that our partners will have access to competent support for their clients to open a corporate bank account within a matter of days. This is a real investment for us in order to provide the benefit of securing tangible bank accounts for our licensees through our professional partners.

We actively find ways to add value to our free zone community and search for strategic partners that enable us to meet the realities of an ever-evolving global business landscape.

IFZA has registered significant growth in the past few years. How do you stay ahead of other free zones in the UAE?

The free zone landscape in the UAE has changed dramatically over the past few years and all free zones are bidding to attract local and international customers across various channels. Our key to staying ahead is our dedication to constant improvement as we continue to bridge businesses from the world to Dubai. We are relentless in our search for ways to be better and do better in terms of the products, services and processes that answer the needs of our partners and licensees. Then, we carefully look for global benchmarks and, where none exists, we set out to create new best practice standards. This leads to a critical service mindset that we ensure is translated across all members of our organisation.

“HFZA is committed to nurturing an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Sharjah”

Saud Salim Al Mazrouei, Director, Hamriyah Free Zone Authority (HFZA)

Saud Salim Al Mazrouei, Director, Hamriyah Free Zone Authority (HFZA)

Innovation is the way forward to stay relevant in the post-pandemic world. What does innovation mean to Hamriyah Free Zone? How is HFZA constantly innovating to support investors, companies and the UAE business community, in general?

HFZA aims at ensuring the business continuity of our investor companies and providing them the support they need to successfully overcome the current crisis.

New businesses and existing companies will find our investor-friendly ecosystem, built around the emerging needs of the markets, in a growth climate beyond the pandemic.

We are aiming to future-proof ourselves through innovation in our product and service offerings and driving digital transformation across our various departments to continue to offer top-of-the-line customer experience to our partners and investors.

HFZA signed an agreement with Etihad Credit Insurance. How will it benefit SMEs and start-ups?

Our agreement with UAE federal export credit company is a major effort in unlocking new avenues of financing for companies seeking to open operations in Sharjah.

This deal will strengthen the existing initiatives in the free zones to enhance SMEs’ contribution to the local economy with ECI’s insurance and project finance facilities as well as the market intelligence and advisory services. It signifies our collective vision to nurture an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Sharjah, thereby contributing to the sustainable economic growth of the UAE.

ECI will offer its range of flexible trade credit insurance and financial solutions, including its Sharia-compliant insurance product ECI Islamic, to start-ups and SMEs operating in the free zone.

How do you think free zones in the UAE can stay profitable in the long run while strengthening the UAE’s start-up ecosystem?

We believe that free zones are a driving force for the growth of the UAE economy. They help stimulate economic development, create jobs, boost and diversify exports, and expedite the industrialisation process of an economy at lower costs for the government.

HFZA is committed to nurturing an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Sharjah by helping emerging companies in our free zones expand their businesses and, as a result, contribute to the sustainable economic growth of the UAE.

Free trade zones can help businesses compete globally, lowering costs through inventory management and deferred customs duties and federal excise taxes.

Going forward, what are your plans to attract more investments to Sharjah and the UAE?

Hamriyah Free Zone plays an important role in accelerating business activities within Sharjah by attracting environmentally friendly industries and enhancing the overall economic development of the country.

HFZA is committed to building a business conducive ecosystem for our investors and accelerate their growth and competitiveness. This stems from our strong commitment towards our investors and is a part of our mission to provide an incubating environment for their business. This commitment has reinforced the deep confidence and global reputation that HFZA enjoys as a leading destination for international and local investors.

“We are witnessing a growing culture of entrepreneurship”

Hamed Ahli, Associate Director, Free Zone Leasing and Licensing, Meydan Free Zone

Hamed Ahli, Associate Director, Free Zone Leasing and Licensing, Meydan Free Zone

Your website states that Meydan is the world’s number one digital free zone. What kind of digital services do you offer that make the free zone stand out from other free zones in the UAE?

The Meydan Free Zone is a 100 per cent digital zone, and our award-winning portal is designed to help businesses transact and manage their operations end to end. Our e-commerce solution includes a cost calculator offering transparent pricing and enables customers to apply for licences online from the convenience of their homes.

We offer an integrated bank account opening feature on our customer portal, allowing customers to apply and submit KYC documents digitally without having to prepare any paperwork. In addition, our integrated visa system with Dubai Immigration makes security approvals swift, easy and efficient.

Businesses are operating in an environment full of uncertainty and constant change. Can you shed light on the challenges and opportunities UAE free zones face within an industry context and how can free zones accelerate growth with purpose in the long run?

Covid has posed challenges to the market. A new era, however, is dawning – full of opportunities and prospects. According to the latest figures published by the Business Registration and Licensing (BRL) department at the Department of Economy and Tourism (DET), Dubai issued 45,653 new business licences in the first half of 2022, registering a growth of 25 per cent compared to the same period in 2021. The figures are promising, and we are witnessing a growing culture of entrepreneurship, thanks to the government’s incentives for free zones.

The landmark changes to the 100 per cent UAE foreign ownership laws and new visa rules have also attracted foreign investors and entrepreneurs and further improved the ease of business in the country.

“We are creating opportunities for innovators and creators”

Dr Khalid Omar Al Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Media City – Shams

Dr Khalid Omar Al Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Media City – Shams

Shams has launched a business centre earlier this year. How does it add value to your existing service offering and how does Shams empower both aspiring and established entrepreneurs with its services and support?

Shams marked its fifth anniversary this year with the inauguration of a new, state-of-the-art business centre that places cutting-edge technologies and facilities at member companies’ disposal. This is in line with our commitment to supporting business and encouraging creativity. The centre consists of three buildings, housing a physical incubator for entrepreneurship, innovation and smart projects. Our mandate consists of paving the way for game-changing ideas and creating opportunities for innovators and creators, allowing them to hone their media skills and transform their visions into concrete, viable media projects with a meaningful message. We are also committed to channelling these ideas and embedding them into a sophisticated economic system.

You have earlier stated that Shams aims to become the regional centre of media technology. How do you plan to achieve this?

One of Shams’ most important directions is to present its vision of a media sector based on innovation and creativity, which is in line with the position of the Emirate of Sharjah as a global centre for culture and civilisation. It strives to do this by qualifying human cadres that support the innovation system and establish new ways of working that can propel the media scene to greater heights. To train and nurture media talent, Shams holds regular workshops aimed at refining the skills of media professionals and entrepreneurs in the sector. We believe in creative ideas and we have the capacity and enthusiasm to turn these into viable projects.

Shams creates talent and entrepreneurs by providing opportunities for their ideas to take flight. Every pioneering project starts with an idea, and we take these concepts and shape them into tangible initiatives that can set new standards in the media sector. Our future is bright and I see Shams becoming established as a leader in the local and regional media sector within the next few years.

“Incorporating a business in an established free zone has several advantages”

Syam P. Prabhu, Founder and Managing Director, Aurion

Syam P. Prabhu, Founder and Managing Director, Aurion

What challenges do entrepreneurs usually face when setting up a company? How can they avoid such pitfalls?

As there are more than 40 free trade zones in the UAE offering various packages for business incorporation, it becomes challenging for an investor to choose the right one for their business.

Entrepreneurs often get lured by cheap free zone company formation packages. But such packages may have lot of limitations and hidden costs that may come up after the company starts operating.

Incorporating a business in an established free zone has several advantages such as value-added tax exemption, ability to take a physical office premise, availability of warehouses, and easy bank compliance processes.

Furthermore, it becomes quite overwhelming for foreign investors to get an understanding of all the UAE business laws relevant to their business activity. Aurion educates investors with up-to-date knowledge about the necessary rules related to their business operations in the UAE.

It is also challenging for a new business to open bank accounts due to compliance policies. In order to support entrepreneurs in opening their bank accounts, we help them build their profiles projecting their business experiences and source of funds.

What initiatives has Aurion taken to contribute to the UAE’s thriving start-up ecosystem?

Aurion strives to educate clients on the latest company laws and also assists them in administrative work. The team of expert business consultants at Aurion organises regular business workshops for clients.

As part of our 15th anniversary celebrations, we conducted Consultants Conclave 2022 and discussed ways of improving ease of doing business in the free trade zones.

“We are always ready to give 360-degree support to our clients”

Rupa Jha, CEO and Founder, Black Swan

Rupa Jha, CEO and Founder, Black Swan

What are the key jurisdictions where you can help businesses set up operations?

Black Swan helps entrepreneurs set up their businesses in Dubai, Oman, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries.

We are in the market since 2016 and until now we have incorporated more than 1,000 companies.

We are a registered agent with more than 20 free zones in the UAE such as IFZA, Shams, Meydan, Rakez, DMCC, Dafza, Kezad, Jafza, Umm Al Quwain Free Zone, Saif, and Hamriyah Free Zone.

Tell us a bit about Black Swan. How diverse is your service portfolio? Are there any expansion plans for the firm?

Our vision is to help businesses enter dynamic and promising markets easily and chart the road to success for international brands and companies. The GCC region is growing fast, providing amazing opportunities to global businesses with its world-class lifestyle and infrastructures.

We want to help entrepreneurs relocate to Dubai and launch their businesses with ease.

Black Swan has a competent team of business consulting professionals who are always ready to give 360-degree support to their clients — from consultation to incorporation, visas and bank account opening. We also support our clients in bringing their families, recruiting employees and choosing an office. We offer all these services under one roof.

“We are reinforcing our tax and accounting division”

Mahima Sharma, Managing Partner, Smart Zone

Mahima Sharma, Managing Partner, Smart Zone

What are the challenges you see SMEs facing in the post-pandemic, volatile business world and how can Smart Zone help them manage the same?

The pandemic has crippled SMEs worldwide and has caused numerous businesses to either downsize drastically or shut down completely. Some of the biggest challenges concerning SMEs include generating revenues and maintaining cash flow, investing in digitisation and staffing, and managing supply chain issues.

To help SMEs survive and thrive in a post-pandemic world, we offer consultation on business plan preparation, corporate restructuring, financial planning, cash flow management, and legal services — all of these are critical for businesses to function in today’s time.

How diverse is your service portfolio and what are the future plans for the brand?

In addition to business set-up, we also provide legal services, corporate planning, accounting, tax consulting, banking assistance, trademark and patent registration, virtual/serviced offices, and UAE Golden Visa application assistance.

With UAE corporate tax just around the corner, our future plans involve reinforcing Smart Zone’s Tax & Accounting division, with all the necessary training and guidelines required to keep our clients and team members fully compliant and well prepared.

“Start-ups need the right partner to grow and scale”

Lorenzo Jooris, CEO, Creative Zone

Lorenzo Jooris, CEO, Creative Zone

Creative Zone has taken various initiatives to link entrepreneurs with mentors who can advise businesses on growth and scale. Could you share details on the measures you have taken to drive the UAE’s entrepreneurial ecosystem?

We, at Creative Zone, place prime focus on building an ecosystem where business owners can not only set up their companies through us, but scale, accelerate and grow through the several support services and initiatives that we offer.

Our team is well aware of the concerns companies face while starting or expanding their businesses in the Middle East. Hence, since its inception in 2010, Creative Zone hasn’t stopped developing and innovating ways to strengthen and push the UAE’s entrepreneurship landscape. Companies, especially start-ups, are rapidly increasing in the UAE and what they need is the right partner that will guide them from business set-up to expansion.

For over 12 years, Creative Zone has constantly provided coaching, mentorship and consultancy through numerous support programmes. Last year, we had launched the Start-Up-X Accelerator Programme in partnership with Sharjah Media City (Shams) and the She Leads 2.0 Accelerator Programme in collaboration with Dubai Business Women Council (DBWC). The mission of both programmes was to invest in the region’s most promising start-ups or businesses by giving them trade licences, free company set-up advice, banking support, and access to Creative Zone’s extensive partner list including Microsoft, Telr, AWS, Insurancemaerket.ae, and many more.

Creative Zone has launched an initiative named Setup in Abu Dhabi under the support of the Abu Dhabi Economic Development (ADDED).

Our ongoing partnerships with industry leaders like Microsoft, Stripe payment gateway, Wio Bank, and other emerging digital banking solutions are enabling to ease the business journey locally and expand to the wider Middle East.

Our latest project is the launch of our Creative Zone Premier division, catering for HNWIs and global business owners facilitating services in worldwide company formation, offshore jurisdictions, succession planning, global banking solutions, and citizenship by investment.

“We provide customised and cost-effective business set-up solutions”

Pramod Kumar, Managing Director, Axiom Mark

Pramod Kumar, Managing Director, Axiom Mark

How can Axiom Mark help entrepreneurs set up business in the UAE amid the uncertainties of the post-pandemic world?

As this region emerges from the impact of the pandemic, the business world enters a new phase of transformation, which is massive, positive and extremely fast-moving. With exceptional client records for more than a decade, Axiom Mark is able to fulfil the business needs of foreign investors by providing customised and cost-effective business set-up solutions.

Our experienced consultants coupled with professionalism are very approachable and give clients the ease to discuss their dreams of setting up their businesses. Our solutions are transparent with no hidden charges. Our marketing team constantly scans the internal and external business environments and are well versed with the latest rules and regulations of the UAE. These enable them to provide the right company set-up solutions and exceptional value to our clients driven by our core values of excellence, integrity and collaboration.

What are the key challenges you see SMEs facing and how can Axiom Mark help them manage the same?

Our post set-up support includes PRO services, visa assistance, bank account opening, legal translations, brand/logo registration, office packages, and audit and accounting services along with VAT consultation. Additionally, designing of website, business cards, letter heads and web hosting are also included in our services. SMEs often find it challenging to take care of all these after launching their businesses.

Moreover, our team adopts robust follow-up mechanism by providing timely reminders for licence and visa renewals. We give 360-degree, one-stop business set-up solutions to our clients.

“Business activities in the service sector have a promising future in the UAE”

Jovana Petrovic, Chief Operating Officer, Decisive Zone

Jovana Petrovic, Chief Operating Officer, Decisive Zone

What common challenges do entrepreneurs face when setting up a free zone company? How does Decisive Zone help them overcome such challenges?

Entrepreneurs often find it challenging to decide on the emirate to set up a business in. It is often not easy for them to understand whether their business plan and budget meet the expectations for a certain free zone, what the visa requirements are, banking and VAT implications of a business, and how to calculate the annual recurring costs.

At Decisive Zone, we take a holistic approach during a consultation to ensure all aspects of a client’s business plan are covered. Business set-up is just the beginning for us; we assist clients in banking, VAT registration, accounting and bookkeeping, trademark registrations and more.

What kind of businesses will grow in 2022 and beyond? What other trends should start-ups be aware of to stay profitable in the long run?

Business activities in the service sector, such as tourism, have a promising future in the UAE. Construction and real estate continue to be the sectors that can expect significant growth. Additionally, the UAE’s strategic location makes it a prime spot for trading business activities.

“It’s a good time to start a business in the UAE”

Ayub Ahmed Sait, CEO, Capital International Group

Ayub Ahmed Sait, CEO, Capital International Group

What is Capital International doing differently to help start-ups launch their operations in the UAE?

In recent years, the UAE has become a paradise for entrepreneurs and investors. Thanks to various economic reforms implemented by the forward-thinking governments, there is an increased interest among local and foreign investors to set up businesses in the region. Over the past 16 years, Capital International Group of Enterprises has honed its skills in providing business advice. We have helped over 60,000 entrepreneurs for company formation in the UAE. We offer comprehensive business set-up services that enable investors to establish their business in the UAE, while ensuring all legal and regulatory compliance.

What new sectors are gaining traction in the post-Covid world? What initiatives have you taken to support companies operating in these sectors?

The Covid-19 pandemic has adversely affected almost all industries and businesses. But, the UAE has lined up plenty of opportunities for new entrepreneurs and business owners so that they can accomplish their dreams. Currently, almost every sector is booming and it’s a good time to start a business in the UAE. We have developed the expertise to support clients irrespective of their business activities.

We leverage the power of market knowledge. We have also enhanced our team’s capabilities by adding professionals with experience in diversified areas in order to serve our clients better. Furthermore, we have established tie-ups with all the major free zones in Dubai and strengthened relationships with major corporates in the UAE to ensure that our clients get access to comprehensive services.

“We put customers at the heart of our activities”

Malik Khattou, General Manager, Always Improving

As a premium business consultancy firm, how is Always Improving aligned to IFZA’s initiatives and therefore uniquely positioned to serve the UAE’s expansive start-up ecosystem?

We, at Always Improving, put customers at the heart of our activities. IFZA offers many services to help entrepreneurs set up companies in the UAE and Always Improving has always had this in its DNA and strives to go well beyond the services provided by free zones so that a newcomer to the UAE can succeed.

What are the main challenges your clients face when setting up a business in Dubai and how do you help them surmount these obstacles?

Each client is unique for us so are their challenges. These can be legal challenges related to setting up holding companies and tax arrangements; commercial challenges in business development; challenges with regard to languages and family sponsorship; challenges in terms of visibility or these could be related to lack of connections in the UAE. Our team is made up of dedicated experts such as lawyers, IT consultants, business development and tax specialists who are experienced to meet all of our clients’ needs and address their critical challenges.