Free zone
UAE free zones such as Jafza are promoting the nation’s start-up ecosystem to keep the innovation flag flying high

"Free zones have been an intergral contributor to the growth of Dubai"

Martin G. Pedersen, Chairman, IFZA

Martin G. Pedersen

In your view as Chairman of a premier UAE free zone community, which UAE sectors are primed for exponential growth over the next five years and why?

The UAE has experienced remarkable and sustained economic growth over the past few decades, propelled by its diversified economy, strategic geographic location, and forward-thinking policies such as the Dubai Economic Agenda D33, UAE Centennial 2071 Vision, and Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan.

This progress has transformed the nation into a global business and investment hub, and, in fact, according to the United Nations World Investment Report 2022, the UAE remained the largest recipient of FDIs in the region, with inflows having increased from $19.88 billion (Dh73 billion) in 2020 to $20.7 billion in 2021. The country is also predicted to continue its position as the preferred destination for the world’s high net worth individuals (HNWIs).

Looking at the current trends, I believe that the technology sector will continue to experience remarkable growth and development in the next half-decade, driven by the government’s continued emphasis on innovation and digital transformation through initiatives such as Dubai 10x and the UAE AI Strategy 2031. Generative AI, in particular, is expected to bring about $23.5 billion economic impact per year to the region by 2030, placing the UAE in the hotspot for tech companies and start-ups.

In addition, the sustainability sector that covers green technologies and future energy are seeing continued investments from a new generation of entrepreneurs thanks to the UAE’s leadership in these industries.

The UAE’s retail sector has been resilient, adapting to changing consumer preferences and demands. The growth of e-commerce, omnichannel strategies, and the presence of global brands in the region have boosted the retail sector’s expansion. IFZA has been instrumental in attracting businesses in the e-commerce and general trading domains, underscoring the significance of this sector. As e-commerce and retail evolve, the UAE’s retail industry will thrive, offering abundant opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors alike.

Considering these trends, it is evident that the UAE’s commitment to fostering innovation, sustainability, and economic diversification will be instrumental in driving the exponential growth of these key sectors, thereby reinforcing the nation’s position as a thriving economic powerhouse regionally and globally.

At IFZA, we are helping to fuel this growth by setting up branch offices in key feeder markets, including an office we opened in Spain this month, we are opening in Germany next month and will continue to roll out this expansion plan with offices in India, China and the UK, to name a few. Being on the ground and present in these key feeder markets, enables us to connect directly with business owners, entrepreneurs and investors to highlight the benefits of setting up a business here in the UAE.

How is IFZA hoping to contribute towards the growth of the sectors you mention?

Free Zones have been an integral contributor to the growth of Dubai. Being the first emirate in the UAE to pioneer the free zone model, Dubai’s free zone sector developed from a single entity in 1985 to more than 24 jurisdictions that presently provide more than Dh167 billion in economic value and an expected increase to about Dh250 billion by 2030.

As the most dynamic and truly international free zone community in the UAE, IFZA has been expanding its reach to key international markets in order to attract FDIs to the UAE and solidify Dubai’s position as a leading destination to conduct business.

We have leveraged our strategic location in one of Dubai’s most innovation-focused districts and combined it with the highest levels of competence, customer-oriented service, and regulatory knowledge. By doing so, we have built a powerful platform that empowers international and local businesses to thrive within an environment where knowledge-sharing and innovation is continuously cultivated.

Ultimately, we support SMEs by being so much more than a free zone – IFZA is a community where entrepreneurs are motivated to create, inspired to succeed, and enabled to become part of an ever-evolving ecosystem that nurtures energy, creativity, and excellence.

We empower SMEs by offering them a growing range of products and services, including commercial real estate and fit-out, medical insurance, corporate banking support, professional training, events services, corporate services and so much more. As the needs of SMEs change, IFZA is committed to remain proactive in developing and offering services and solutions.

We will continue to roll out more initiatives and establish more international offices to contribute to the government’s efforts to foster an ambitious entrepreneurial sector in the UAE.

As the UAE readies to host COP28 this month, How is IFZA helping drive the sustainability agenda through its value partners?

The UAE will be an incredible host for the COP 28 conference as it welcomes leaders and decision makers from all over the world to collaborate and address our planet’s pressing environmental challenges.

I believe that we, at IFZA, have both the responsibility to create a better world for the communities in which we operate and the ability to contribute to the nation that has given us unmatched opportunities to thrive.

Through IFZA Cares, our dedicated CSR arm, we have been active in growing the IFZA Mangrove Forests in the UAE, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of 2030 and the UAE Net Zero 2050 goal.

We are proud to have successfully planted more than 10,000 mangrove saplings at the Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi through the GROW Initiative, which sees saplings planted in the name of every IFZA Professional Partner, licencee, and employee. This effort is estimated to sequester 2.3 million kg of CO2 over the lifetime of the forest. In addition, we are currently on track in planting 20,000 more mangrove trees at Jebel Ali Wildlife Sanctuary in Dubai by the end of the year and look forward to witnessing the positive impact this will have on our environment.

In response to the growing concern for e-waste, where the UN estimates that 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste is produced every year worldwide, we have also embarked on a new campaign to donate used tech gadgets to carefully selected school networks, extending the useful life of this equipment.

“Shams is committed to supporting start-ups and SMEs”

Dr Khalid Omar Al Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Media City (Shams)

Dr Khalid Omar Al Midfa

Are there specific measures in place to help start-ups and SMEs flourish within your free zones?

Sharjah Media City (Shams) is committed to supporting start-ups and SMEs specialising in the media sector grow within the free zone through a number of specific measures in place, such as the Shams Innovation Hub, Shams Accelerator, and Shams Venture Capital Fund.

The Shams Innovation Hub is a collaborative workspace and support centre for start-ups developing innovative media products and services. The hub provides start-ups with access to mentorship, training, and resources, as well as a network of investors and potential partners.

The Shams Accelerator is a 12-week programme that provides intensive support and mentorship to early-stage media start-ups. The programme helps start-ups develop their products and services, attract funding, and launch businesses to market.

How do you facilitate funding, resources and mentorship for creative and media businesses looking to expand in your free zone?

The Shams Venture Capital Fund is a $100 million fund providing start-ups with the capital they need to grow and scale their businesses.

Shams also offers a range of other benefits such as 100 per cent foreign ownership, no corporate tax, easy business set-up, world-class infrastructure, and a vibrant business community.

To facilitate funding, resources, and mentorship for creative and media businesses looking to expand in the free zone, Shams offers a variety of programmes and initiatives.

“SRTIP Accelerator is a comprehensive support hub for entrepreneurs”

Kallol Ghose, General Manager, SRTIP Accelerator

Kallol Ghose

How do you address the evolving regulatory landscape and compliance requirements that start-ups must navigate during their growth journey?

Navigating the evolving regulatory landscape and compliance requirements in the UAE is crucial for the growth and success of start-ups. To address these challenges, hire local legal advisors with UAE expertise. Choose the right legal structure – free zone, mainland, or offshore – and secure the necessary licences. Free zones allow full foreign ownership.

Conduct regular internal audits to maintain compliance. Comply with VAT, tax, and labour laws, and stay updated with regulatory changes. Seek support from UAE legal experts for specific challenges and consider insurance coverage for protection. Collaborate with free zone authorities for location-specific compliance. These steps help start-ups navigate the dynamic UAE business environment while ensuring regulatory adherence.

What are the key advantages start-ups get by working with SRTIP Accelerator and what strategies have you taken to stay competitive in this fast-changing market?

The SRTIP Accelerator is a comprehensive support hub for entrepreneurs. It offers a wide range of services, including SRTIP free zone licensing and access to over 1,500 business activities. These services cover various areas such as technology, research, innovation, trading, consultancy, and more. The accelerator acts as a concierge for entrepreneurs, providing banking, VAT and accounting, trademark and patent services, and legal support.

Furthermore, the SRTIP Accelerator creates a dynamic entrepreneurial ecosystem with top-notch infrastructure, advanced research facilities, and a skilled professional workforce. It provides tailored packages to suit entrepreneurs at different stages of their journey.

In essence, the SRTIP Accelerator is committed to helping entrepreneurs launch and expand their businesses with minimal financial investment, providing a personalised approach for success in a dynamic business landscape.

“Our advanced solutions cater to diverse client needs”

Mariben Christine Eustaquio, Founder and Managing Director, EZONE Business Setup

Mariben Christine Eustaquio

How have tech advancements influenced the ways businesses are set up and managed in the UAE and how can your services adapt to the same?

Ezone combines technology with expertise to navigate the dynamic business landscape in the UAE. By staying ahead of industry shifts, we provide top-tier services in this tech-driven era. Our forward-thinking approach involves ongoing team training, ensuring that we consistently lead in adapting to industry changes. Our advanced solutions cater to diverse client needs, both physically and digitally, streamlining internal processes and empowering clients to monitor their business set-up progress for a swift and hassle-free experience.

Do you specialise in assisting businesses in specific sectors, and how does your expertise benefit your clients?

Ezone specialises in assisting businesses across various sectors, including but not limited to consultancy, e-commerce, trading, and technology — to name a few. We understand the unique challenges and evolving industry regulations in each field. With our experience in the field of business set-up, the ability to specialise allows us to offer tailored solutions that precisely align with our client’s specific and distinct requirements.

Whether it’s navigating the complex financial landscapes or deciphering industry complexities in starting a business in the UAE, Ezone empowers businesses to establish themselves in the UAE with confidence and efficiency. With over a decade of experience, our sector-specific knowledge and expertise remain firm, offering undivided support and attention to our clients. 

“We provide comprehensive support for start-ups”

Jean-Luc Czech, Managing Director, SwissTech Consulting

Jean-Luc Czech

What are key things entrepreneurs must keep in mind before launching a company in the UAE?

Before starting a company in the UAE, start-ups must consider several key factors. Familiarise yourself with the legal framework and regulations governing business set-up in the UAE. Understand the necessary licences and permits required for your specific industry. Conduct thorough market research to assess the demand for your product or service, analyse the competition, and identify your target audience. Develop a comprehensive business plan that outlines your objectives, strategies, pricing, and financial projections, and ensure that you have a clear understanding of start-up costs, cash flow, and potential funding sources. Depending on the nature of your business, you may require a local partner or sponsor who holds a majority stake. Find out about the regulations surrounding local partnerships.

Respect the UAE’s cultural norms and business practices. Familiarise yourself with local customs and traditions to build strong relationships with customers and partners.

In what ways does SwissTech assist start-ups in navigating the complexities of company formation and early-stage operations?

SwissTech Consulting provides expertise in company formation, guiding start-ups through the entire process, including legal compliance, licence acquisition, and registration. We assist with visa applications, residency permits, and other immigration procedures, ensuring a smooth transition for entrepreneurs and their team.

SwissTech Consulting facilitates the seamless opening of bank accounts, leveraging its knowledge of local banking practices and regulations. We also offer services related to corporate structuring and help start-ups understand and comply with the UAE’s tax requirements.

We assist with post box and mail management, virtual offices, EJARI, accounting services, and other compliance-related needs.

Beyond core services, SwissTech Consulting offers real estate assistance, schools assistance, and insurance-related services, providing comprehensive support for start-ups in various aspects of their operations.

By leveraging SwissTech Consulting’s expertise and services, start-ups can navigate the intricacies of setting up a company in the UAE with confidence, ensuring a strong foundation for their early-stage operations.

“We’ve observed notable growth in start-up activities across diverse sectors”

Prakhar Varshney, Partner, Rank Accounting and Consultancy

Prakhar Varshney

Could you share details about the services you offer to help businesses navigate the complex world of taxation?

Our tax experts are dedicated to helping businesses successfully navigate the intricate realm of taxation in accordance with UAE Federal Tax Authority (FTA) laws. Our services are crafted to address the intricacies of maintaining accurate financial records and optimising tax management. These include offering comprehensive tax guidance tailored to your unique needs; thoroughly handling tax return preparation and submissions; developing personalised tax strategies for compliance and minimising tax liabilities; and assisting businesses in navigating AML compliance complexities and managing potential risks effectively.

Are there any particular sectors or industries where you are noticing a significant increase in start-up activities and how do you tailor your services to meet their unique needs?

We’ve observed notable growth in start-up activities across diverse sectors, such as general trading, investment, metal trading, raw material trading, and commercial brokerage. To cater to their specific needs, we provide expert tax advice. Depending on the business’s nature, we often recommend setting up in free zones or the mainland. Many businesses engaged in buying and selling goods from outside the UAE find free zones advantageous, as they can enjoy zero per cent corporate tax rate by adhering to FTA requirements. Our tailored services ensure that start-ups receive the guidance and support necessary to establish their operations with tax efficiency and compliance at the forefront of their business strategy.

“We aim to be hands-on partners”

Jovana Jancic, Chief Operating Officer, Decisive Zone

Jovana Jancic

What are some of the key sectors where you foresee growth opportunities for start-ups? How do you plan to support ventures in these sectors?

We see substantial growth opportunities for start-ups and key potential areas include technology and innovation, healthcare and biotechnology, renewable energy, e-commerce, fintech, sustainability, tourism and edtech. We plan to support ventures in these sectors by providing strategic guidance on how to set up your business, and access to our extensive network of experienced professionals. We aim to be hands-on partners, assisting these start-ups in reaching their full potential.

In what ways does Decisive Zone assist start-ups in navigating the complexities of company formation and early-stage operations?

Decisive Zone assists start-ups in navigating company formation complexities by providing expert advice on corporate structure, handling administrative tasks, amendments, legal and accounting services. We streamline visa processing, interact with government agencies, and offer post-formation support for any business to grow. Our comprehensive approach allows start-ups to concentrate on their core operations and growth while we manage the intricacies of setting up a business in the UAE.

“We have an unrivalled understanding of the country’s start-up ecosystem”

Paul Bryson, Managing Director, Virtuzone

Paul Bryson

In your experience, what are the key ingredients for a thriving start-up ecosystem, and how do you contribute to cultivating these elements?

With 15 years of experience working closely with entrepreneurs, founders and investors in the UAE, we have developed an in-depth and unrivalled understanding of the country’s start-up ecosystem.

Access to capital, regulatory support, mentorship and opportunities to scale are key elements that can sustain and accelerate the growth of the UAE-based start-ups and make them more globally competitive.

Using our pivotal role and extensive reach in this sector, we have established a robust support framework for start-ups that includes reliable access to banking solutions, the expertise of an in-house compliance team to help them navigate regulatory requirements, and a holistic suite of corporate services that complement their growth at different stages of their journey.

How do you stay connected with the changes taking place in the UAE’s business incorporation landscape, and how do you update your clients about the same and how can they benefit from your network?

Over the years, we have built strong and deep-rooted relationships with the UAE’s regulatory and law-making bodies, ensuring we are at the forefront of advocating for a conducive local business environment and one of the first companies to know of any changes that will impact the country’s business community. Our clients benefit from this first-to-know advantage, communicated through tailored messages and updates from their dedicated relationship managers at Virtuzone. By keeping updated on the latest changes in the UAE’s business landscape, our clients are able to gain a significant competitive edge, adopt a proactive approach, and formulate scalable and agile corporate strategies that will help them stay ahead of any regulatory curve.

“Tailoring services to meet diverse client needs is at our core”

Lorenzo Jooris, CEO, Creative Zone

Lorenzo Jooris

What are your suggestions for businesses looking to build a sustainable, green business start-up?

First, conduct thorough research and planning. Sustainability is a buzzword these days, but succeeding requires more than just wanting to create an impact. Understand your market’s needs and use it to formulate long-term solutions that address the heart of their problem, rather than just crafting band-aid fixes.

Second, prioritise innovation and collaboration. Technology allows countless possibilities to design life-changing sustainability solutions, while collaboration with like-minded companies lets you amplify the impact. Lastly, be genuine about what you do and why. Authenticity resonates deeply and can create waves for others to support the cause.

How do you tailor your services to meet the unique needs of your clients, especially when working with start-ups versus established businesses?

Tailoring services to meet diverse client needs is at our core. Our start-up approach is flexible and agile. As industry newcomers, they require more guidance. Knowing this, we offer personalised guidance and services that include crafting business plans, finding funding opportunities, and creating strong branding.

Meanwhile, for established businesses the approach is strategic. They’re well-oiled machines at this point; so we identify areas to optimise their strengths and address challenges through restructuring, improving offerings, or expanding reach to keep them competitive.

“We are devoted to empowering start-ups”

Pramod Kumar, Managing Director, Axiom Mark

Pramod Kumar

What are some of the critical challenges start-ups face during the initial phase and how could you help them overcome the same?

In the pursuit of business success, new entrepreneurs encounter common roadblocks that require early intervention. Some challenges include securing expert legal advice while choosing the right jurisdictions, comprehending the implications of UAE tax laws, acquiring adequate understanding of the regulatory frameworks, navigating up-to-date visa procedures, and understanding the importance of protecting their brands.

We help them establish a successful business and navigate the challenges of setting up a business. We provide effective business solutions backed by our exceptional experience of more than two decades. We help start-ups with our tailor-made company incorporation solutions like choosing the right jurisdiction — whether to obtain a free zone or a mainland licence, and understanding the regulatory framework relating to corporate taxation. Additionally, we provide visa assistance, PRO services, legal, translation services, and many more. Subsequently, protecting business brands is one of our forte, and we provide the first-rate, cost-effective, and time-efficient services in acquisition, registration, protection, enforcement, and commercial exploitation of Intellectual Property (IP) rights related to trademarks, patents, industrial designs, and copyrights.

We are devoted to empowering start-ups, ensuring they embark on their entrepreneurial journey with the self-assurance to succeed and accomplish their goals in the UAE’s thriving and dynamic business environment.

“We provide all the required business advice and support services”

Syam P Prabhu, Founder & Managing, Director, Aurion

Syam P Prabhu

What are some of the common challenges businesses encounter during the set-up process, and how do you help them overcome the hurdles?

The UAE ranks 16th in the Ease of Doing Business Index as per the World Bank report. The incorporation process in the UAE is transparent and hassle-free. However, there are a few hurdles that entrepreneurs may have to take care of during the incorporation of their company.

Choose the right licensing authority depending on your type of business. The selection of the right office and warehouse premises for the proper functioning of your business is also critical.

Opening a corporate bank account for businesses is not easy as new businesses are treated as risky by the compliance authorities of the banks. Entrepreneurs must be aware of the commercial company laws, various business legislations, and executive decisions passed by the government for a smooth operation.

At Aurion, we provide the right guidance to entrepreneurs on the legislation requirements for running a business in the UAE.

How do you stay connected with the changes taking place in the UAE’s business incorporation landscape, how do you update your clients about the same and how can they benefit from your network?

Being a licensed corporate service provider, we get information through mails and messages directly from the respective ministries of the UAE. We are constantly updating our knowledge base by studying various websites, government legislation, and cabinet decisions.

When an investor approaches Aurion, the team will provide all the required business advice and support services after precisely analysing their business specifications. We also update clients by sending out regular emails and notifications through our mobile app.

“Our services are tailored to the needs of different businesses”

Robin Philip, Chairman and CEO, A&A Associate

Robin Philip

Could share details about the unique services you offer to businesses looking to set up their operations in the UAE?

A&A Associate has long been recognised as a pioneer in business set-up services in the UAE. Being one of the leading business formation companies in Dubai, A&A Associate houses chartered accountants, lawyers and consultants who provide a variety of legal advisory, auditing, accounting and management consulting services tailored to the needs of different businesses. We are unique in our services and clients are happy to have all their requirements fulfilled under one roof.

Our experienced and qualified staff can handle clients’ legal and administrative tasks, allowing them to focus on core aspects of their business.

Achieving the Superbrands award for business set-up services is more than a milestone, it is a pledge to maintain continued excellence.

What advice would you offer to aspiring entrepreneurs looking to launch a start-up in today’s competitive ecosystem?

Launching a start-up in today’s competitive business environment can be challenging, but with the right approach, you can increase your chances of success.

Start with a strong idea, create a solid business plan, build a great team, and network and build relationships. Effective marketing and branding and are also the critical components of growth.

“Our team is encouraged to explore creative solutions for our clients”

Varoon Sinha, Founder, Smart Zone

Varoon Sinha

Do you have partnerships or collaborations with local organisations, incubators, or accelerators that support start-ups and how do these partnerships benefit your clients?

At Smart Zone, we have fostered crucial relationships with local free zone authorities, expediting registration and incorporation processes. Thanks to this, our clients gain swift access to the UAE’s dynamic business environment.

Furthermore, we actively engage in networking events, offering our clients invaluable guidance and tutorials to navigate the UAE’s business landscape. Our support extends to facilitating UAE corporate tax registrations for full regulatory compliance.

We are also proud to be the official channel partner for Wio Bank, simplifying the account opening process for our clients, and streamlining financial operations.

How do you foster a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at Smart Zone to better serve the start-up community in the UAE?

At Smart Zone, our team is encouraged to explore creative solutions for our clients while providing value-added services that especially cater to start-ups. We also invest in continuous learning and development, ensuring our team stays updated with industry trends.

Additionally, we leverage cutting-edge technologies and digital solutions to offer efficient, streamlined services to our clients, from online registration to virtual consultations.