For a great many years, global businesses have viewed the United Arab Emirates as an attractive global investment market. With a strong presence of high-net-worth consumers and a geographically strategic location from which to distribute throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the UAE is rife with opportunity.
Yet, many international corporations could not own companies outright in the UAE and were restricted to a maximum ownership of 49%. Ownership laws, however, are now being revisited to diversify the country’s economy beyond the energy sector, which has been the source of UAE wealth for decades. But precisely the degree to which economic liberalization is taking place is very much based on one’s perspective.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), a federation of seven Emirates (member states), has served as a global centre for trade for centuries. However, most global businesses had often expressed discomfort with the country’s investment laws which, despite allowing 100 percent foreign ownership of businesses in the country’s Free Trade Zones (FTZs), stipulated that at least 51 percent of a company established within the UAE, and outside a Free Trade Zone, must be owned by UAE citizens, or companies wholly owned by UAE citizens.
In addition, agency and distributor laws require that only a local commercial agent could sell products in the UAE market; and only UAE citizens or companies wholly owned by UAE citizens could register with the Ministry of Economy as commercial agents. Regulations also prevent the termination, or non-renewal, of a commercial agency contract unless the principal has a material reason to justify the termination or non-renewal; and the principal must often approach a court to terminate a contract.
Legislating Economic Diversification
The most recent Trade Policy Statement issued by the UAE through the World Trade Organization’s Trade Policy Review mechanism in 2016 stated the country aims to drive towards economic diversification by being less reliant on the oil sector and to increase its attractiveness to foreign investment.
The UAE enacted Federal Law No. 19, the Foreign Direct Investment Law (FDI Law) in November 2018. To promote and develop the investment environment and attract foreign direct investment in line with the developmental policies of the country, the Law established a framework for the country’s Cabinet to mandate which sectors and activities of the economy would be eligible for 100 percent foreign ownership. However, a list of eligible economic sectors and activities was not published by the UAE Cabinet until July 2019.
The list comprised of 122 economic activities across 13 sectors that would be eligible for up to 100 percent foreign ownership. The decision simultaneously conveyed that each emirate (member state of the UAE) could determine the percentage of foreign ownership under each activity suggesting that foreign ownership levels could vary from emirate to emirate. It was also clarified that oil & gas production and exploration sectors, air transport, and security and military sectors would be excluded from the purview of the FDI Law.
A Method of Recourse
It is also of interest that news reports indicate that for activities that are not included in the list of activities/sectors eligible for 100 percent foreign ownership, companies could approach the government for permission for a higher level of ownership; and that approvals may be granted on a case-by-case basis. The sectors that would allow 100 percent foreign ownership include:
-Road Transport & Storage
-Hospitality and Food Services
-Information and Communication Services
-Professional, Scientific and Technical activities
-Administration and Support Services
-Art & Entertainment; and
For those businesses that do qualify under the FDI law, their products will be treated as being of UAE origin and therefore, eligible for such treatment under international agreements to which the UAE is a party. This is a privilege that is not available to goods manufactured by foreign-owned companies based in UAE Free Trade Zones. In addition, they can transfer abroad operating profits and proceeds from sale of investment or other assets.
The Emirate of Dubai has reported that it has attracted US $12.7 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the first half of 2019 thereby ranking the emirate third globally in FDI capital flows into Greenfield Projects. Also, in October 2019, Dubai assumed the presidency of the World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies (WAIPA), a global entity that works for the smooth flow of cross-border investments.
Although it is still too early to gauge the impact of the FDI Law and other developments, the consensus is that the UAE has taken steps to accelerate foreign direct investment into the country. It remains to be seen whether further steps such as changes to the agency and distributor laws, and changes to regulations related to the termination of agency contracts will be implemented to enhance the attractiveness of the UAE to foreign investors.