The federal government’s decision to open up 13 business sectors, which will include 122 business activities, to increased foreign ownership is the most highly anticipated news of the year for the business community.
The UAE over the past 47 years has attracted many of the best-known companies in the world to the country, helping to establish it as a global business hub. However, the requirement for a local partner who would be a majority owner, is still a sticking point for many international firms and a point of contention for many of the existing local firms. The removal of this barrier in selected areas will open up the country to more foreign direct investment, especially for firms with intellectual property.
Along with the immediate economic benefit of higher foreign investment will be a tighter, more competitive market place. The region has seen a number of issues from the lack of corporate governance to its preference for closely aligned board members. Outside perspectives will help resolve this issue, either by providing direct competition or by increased representation on corporate boards. Addressing this issue and increasing global best practices at the corporate level will help boost Dubai’s reputation worldwide.
But time is an issue. The announcement was highly anticipated, but investors are still eagerly awaiting its implementation, which will likely not come quickly. It is still up to the local governments to determine the level of ownership for eligible companies, and therein lies the details that will be of major consequence to everyone. Business leaders will want 100 per cent owners, but government will likely want to determine the appropriate level for them, which will likely vary from emirate to emirate.
While this issue may be contentious, action should be taken quickly to ensure the window of opportunity does not pass the country by. While both sides will have legitimate reasons to argue for a greater stake in the companies, a quick resolution will also help the local economy in uncertain times. The global economy is struggling, thanks to trade wars, and growth is uncertain.
Hopefully, as the UAE’s business community discovers the benefits of increased foreign ownership, the number of business activities eligible for increased foreign ownership will also be increased. While the 13 sectors are critical for the growth of the UAE, the country would like see an even greater wave of investment if its more dominant industries, such as retail and tourism, were also opened up.