Doing Business in the United Arab Emirates

Are you interested in establishing a company in the United Arab Emirates or reorganising an existing business structure? We gladly support you in the following areas:

  • Developing and revising market entry strategies
  • Advising on the formation, restructuring and dissolution of companies located in the mainland or in free zones of the United Arab Emirates
  • Drafting memoranda and articles of association, resolutions and powers of attorney
  • Assisting with the preparation and holding of general assemblies

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Overview of Company Formation

The United Arab Emirates ("UAE") provides an attractive business environment for investors. Some of the numerous incentives offered are a liberal economic policy, political stability, the exemption from personal income tax and corporate tax for most fields of business, the existence of diversified free zones and offshore jurisdictions, unrestricted repatriation of capital and profit, the tying of the UAE Dirham ("AED") to the US Dollar and the existence of treaties for the avoidance of double taxation with various countries.

Business in the UAE can successfully be done by exporting products to the UAE, by taking advantage of appointing a commercial agent or distributor or by establishing a company in one of the seven Emirates.

When considering a company set-up, three areas have to be distinguished: (a) the UAE mainland, (b) the free zones and (c) the offshore jurisdictions. Each location is governed by its own laws and regulations and offers various opportunities to the investor.

The mainland of the UAE is defined as the area of each individual Emirate with the exception of its free zones. A representation can be established in each of the seven Emirates.

The Commercial Companies Law governs commercial legal entities established in the UAE mainland. The most common legal form amongst foreign investors is the limited liability company.

Major changes to the Commercial Companies Law were introduced by way of Federal Decree-Law No. 26 of 2020. One of the most important reforms concerns the abolition of the previously applicable principle that at least 51% of the shares had to be held by a UAE citizen or a company wholly owned by Emirati nationals. Instead, foreigners are now generally able to hold 100% of the shares in a limited liability company as well. The possibility to put the new rules into practice vary in each Emirate and are set out in implementing regulations issued by the respective licensing authority. Exemptions apply to companies carrying out activities with a strategic impact for the UAE. In such cases, a local participation is still required.

The shareholders of a limited liability company are generally free to determine its share capital provided the amount is adequate to achieve the purpose of the company's incorporation.

On the condition that no trading activities will be conducted, another option is establishing a branch, which is a dependent subsidiary of a foreign mother company. A branch does not have to meet any capital requirements. However, a bank guarantee amounting to AED 50,000 needs to be submitted to the competent authority.

Setting up a business in one of the free zones continues to be an attractive alternative to establishing a representation in the UAE mainland.

Dubai, for example, offers a wide range of specialised free zones, which provide the investor with a tailor-made business environment. Some of the most prominent free zones are the Jebel Ali Free Zone, the Dubai Airport Freezone, the Dubai International Financial Centre, the Dubai Internet City, the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre, the Dubai Healthcare City as well as the Dubai Design District.

Free zones are geographically defined areas in the UAE in which the laws of the UAE only partially apply. Until recently, one of the main incentives for foreign investors to set up a company in a free zone has been the fact that free zone regulations – in contrast to the laws prevailing outside free zones – allow complete foreign ownership of a limited liability company. In future, due to revised provisions of the Commercial Companies Law, foreign participation of up to 100% will generally also be possible outside the free zones, i.e. in the UAE mainland.

Should goods be brought into a free zone for temporary storage or permanent use, no import duty has to be paid. Upon import into the UAE of goods stored or produced in a free zone, an import duty of generally 5% will be imposed. In such cases, the free zone company is considered a foreign entity.

The formation of an offshore company is one of the most cost-effective alternatives in the UAE because no office rent has to be paid. However, offshore companies are generally not allowed to conduct business with contractual partners located in the UAE.

Location and legal form of a new company are influenced by a number of factors, such as the kind of activity to be conducted, the location of important business partners and the available budget.

In order to make best use of the various advantages in each of the different locations, a thorough analysis that takes both economic and legal implications into account should be made before deciding on one of the alternatives.

In any case, however, it must be ensured that the future company will meet the requirements of the so-called Economic Substance Regulations.

Further Information

Published on 25.05.2021

Published on 11.02.2021

Published on 26.01.2021

Published on 25.11.2020

Published on 08.10.2020

Published on 28.09.2020

AHK Legal Newsletter September 2020

Published on 21.05.2020

Published on 23.03.2020

AHK Legal Newsletter December 2019

AHK Legal Newsletter September 2019

AHK Legal Newsletter March 2019

AHK Legal Newsletter May 2017

Published on 14.05.2017

Published on 01.08.2016

Published on 11.04.2016

AHK Newsletter Law and Taxes, January 2016, p. 5 f.

AHK Newsletter Law and Taxes, August 2015, p. 3 - 5

AHK Newsletter Law and Taxes, April 2014, p. 12 f.

Modifications to Requirements for Minimum Share Capital of Free Zone Companies

AHK Newsletter Law and Taxes, December 2013, p. 5 f.