Abu Dhabi: Where Is The Market Going?
Updated: Sep 17
11th July 2019 (Updated 13th September 2023)
Businesses need to think ahead to succeed, so I thought it might be worthwhile to share my thoughts about where Abu Dhabi has come from and how I see the marketing going forward. Given that I help foreign companies to setup correctly and securely in Abu Dhabi, in order to protect their profits and have control of their businesses, this article will focus on my experiences and anticipations for this sector.
Abu Dhabi: 10 years ago
So where was Abu Dhabi 10 years ago? What was it like to setup a company and do business here 10 years ago?
Difficult to get correct information
It was difficult to obtain information. And, the information that was available was often out of date or could be inaccurate. This meant, that all information needed to be verified in person. Finding the right person to do that was a mission in itself at times.
Everything was much slower
Everything was paper-based. Each company formation would end up with folders full of paper work. Online submissions and approvals were non-existent. This in turn meant going to the various government departments in person with a folder of papers for each step in the process of setting up a company. There was also a lot of hanging around and waiting - pull a ticket and await your turn.
Approvals could also take time. I remember the Supreme Petroleum Council approval taking at least a week or two, but even at that point it was a huge improvement on the old days where it could have taken weeks or months. (Carry on reading to see how this has changed since and is now super speedy.)
Company formation in Abu Dhabi - essential to engage a specialist
I used to regularly meet people who had tried to setup their businesses themselves, but were struggling with the systems and processes. They ended up wasting a lot of time (and money) going around in circles. They often ended up engaging a specialist to help them to get their trade license issued.
Few corporate sponsors
Corporate local sponsors were pretty rare. In most instances it was the larger multinationals which could afford such services.
Prices were higher
The cost of setting up a business was much higher 10 years ago. Whether you were an individual entrepreneur or an international company, you paid the same fees for your trade license as options were fewer. Commercial rents were so high too.
Abu Dhabi: 5 years ago
This is just before the oil price crash. It had felt like Abu Dhabi was on the up after the global economic down turn and there was expectancy in the air.
Information was getting easier to obtain
Information was far more readily available and far more reliable at this time. Indeed that is roughly when I started Gateway's blog to share information about setting up companies in Abu Dhabi. Prior to this time, I had personally felt that government liaison officers (commonly known as PROs here) kept their knowledge as close to their chests as possible, just sharing it amongst themselves, because knowledge was king and had a value.
I also remember my first visit to the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development (ADDED). It was a little daunting. I don't remember seeing any other women (although there may well have been), but I vividly remember it being full of PROs, busy, loud and lots of hustle and bustle. It was a hive of activity.
Online systems were starting
Some applications started to be submitted through online portals, but hard copies of all the paper work were still required to be submitted too. As with many emerging technologies, there were teething problems along the way, with systems being down, but on the whole we could all see that it was moving in the right direction. However, still lots of processes relating to trade licenses and visas were still not automated.
Abu Dhabi Free Zones
The free zones in Abu Dhabi were: TWOFOUR54, Masdar City, Abu Dhabi Airport Free Zone, ICAD and KIZAD (now Kezad). ADGM had been only been announced.
Abu Dhabi: 1 year ago
More business setup options
There were lots more business setup options in the Abu Dhabi market which ultimately provided more consumer choice and drove down prices.
Quicker and more efficient online systems
Processes for submitting applications in government departments had transformed dramatically. Most services are online at this point, but not all departments were linked up. The huge improvements to the online systems meant approvals were happening much quicker. I mentioned above the length of time it would take to obtain approvals for the Supreme Petroleum Council years back, but at this point, a year ago, approvals were generally turned around in less than 24 hours, making it much quicker for oil and gas companies to get the necessary approvals to work directly with ADNOC.
Different types of businesses in the market
Traditionally, Abu Dhabi tended to attract large multinational companies to work on the federal contracts or in the oil and gas sector. However, since the oil price crash, smaller more innovative companies have been coming into the market because they could provide cheaper and quicker solutions.
Announcement about regulatory changes
Various announcements were made to encourage foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Emirate. These largely consisted of opening up the market to up to 100% foreign ownership in some sectors, and five-10 year residence visas for expats.
Abu Dhabi Market: NOW
In just the last year, the Abu Dhabi market has changed even more. Regulatory changes have made it far more attractive for foreign investment:
Cost of licenses is significantly reduced
Local government fees have been waived on new licenses. Just federal fees apply.
Two year licenses
The initial trade license for new companies in Abu Dhabi is valid for two years. When considered with the above remarks about the reduced costs of licenses, this makes Abu Dhabi trade licenses very attractive and actually cheaper than free zone licenses.
(Updated 13th September 2023)
The initiative where new trade licenses were issued for two years was temporary and has now reverted back to one year. However, Abu Dhabi's trade license fees remain considerably cheaper than Dubai's.
Incubator licenses for entrepreneurs
The Tajer Abu Dhabi license was opened up to expats. This is initially issued for two years and doesn't require the entrepreneur to lease office space thus helping them with cashflow whilst they get their business off the ground.
(Updated 13th September 2023)
The Tajer Abu Dhabi license has subsequently been renamed the Abu Dhabi Trader License. Currently, an initiative is in place extending the initial lease-free period from two years to three years.
(Updated 13th September 2023)
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Dual licenses for free zone companies
Dual licenses enable free zone companies to apply for an onshore license providing they meet certain criteria. Previously lots of free zone companies were operating on the mainland, flouting the regulations. This development enables free zone company to legally carry out their business on the mainland in the same emirates where their free zone license has been issued. It clears up what many people claimed was a 'grey area' as to whether/how free zone companies could do business on the mainland.
Visa guarantees have been removed
Larger companies with lots of staff had lots of money tied up in visa guarantees. For each sponsored visa a company had to deposit AED3,000. This has been replaced with an annual insurance scheme at a couple of hundred Dirhams per person. This is far more attractive to new companies entering the Abu Dhabi market and needing to apply for visas.
Up to 100% foreign ownership
At the time of writing over 100 activities in 13 sectors have been identified to be opened up to increased foreign ownership. Abu Dhabi government is still to announce the levels for each activity and the requirements. Many foreign entrepreneurs and micro businesses have been holding off setting up their business in Abu Dhabi in the hope that their business will fall under one of the activities to enable them 100% ownership.
(Updated 13th September 2023)
100% foreign ownership is now allowed with 1,000 business activities in Abu Dhabi, representing about 25% of the business activities available in the emirate.
Commercial rents are down
The prices for office space have reduced further. Five years ago the cost per square metre would have been approx. AED1,200-1,600. Now office leases, for modern buildings are as low as AED600/square metre.
So many changes are currently happening to residence visas for expats, which are attractive and offer increased stability, including 10 year visas, five year visas, golden visas, family visas, and the ability to sponsor an 18-year old son. Furthermore, for employees changing jobs, the visa process is now slightly quicker and cheaper as the new employer is not required to apply for a quota.
Instant licenses and quick online systems
Where ADDED was once full of hustle and bustle, all of their services are now provided online. Increasingly the government departments are linking. Abu Dhabi has just launched instant licenses making business setup much quicker for certain-types of companies to get started. However, instant licenses are only available for a very restricted number of activities.
Where is the Abu Dhabi market going?
You can see the massive strides that Abu Dhabi has taken over the last 10 years. If those changes and improvements are anything to go by, we can surely expect continued improvements in the future and for setting up a new businesses here to become easier and (hopefully) even cheaper. In general, the various initiatives of the Abu Dhabi government, particularly Ghadan 21 and the Economic Vision 2030 are aimed at creating a strong, diversified economy which is easy to do business in and a healthy, safe and happy living environment for its residents.
Attractive sectors in Abu Dhabi
Whilst we are still awaiting the requirements for the activities identified for up to 100% foreign ownership, once implemented, if successful in attracting FDI, then I anticipate the foreign ownership levels in the specific activities increasing and more activities being opened up for increased foreign ownership.
Abu Dhabi has been positioning itself as a culture & tourism destination. With recent announcements of an indoor snow centre on Reem Island and the much anticipated Guggenheim Museum, I am sure that other attractions will be developed and come online to make Abu Dhabi an even more attractive market to both residents and visitors. Other sectors which look key moving forward are AI, technology, space, aviation, health care and green energy.
(Updated 13th September 2023)
Abu Dhabi has successfully positioned itself a cultural and tourism location. Sadiyaat Island's Cultural District has welcomed the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Abrahamic Family House. The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is due to open in 2025, the Zayed National Museum doesn't yet have a confirmed opening date, and the Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi is due to open in 2025. Other tourist attractions which have opened in Abu Dhabi include Sea World Abu Dhabi, the National Aquarium, Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi indoor theme park, Snow Abu Dhabi, and YAS Bay Waterfront and the Etihad Arena.
Abu Dhabi's economic and development programmes are focused on three key areas: industry, sustainability and clean energy, and tech:
Abu Dhabi's AED10 billion industrial strategy aims to double the size of the manufacturing sector to AED172 billion by 2031; creating 13,600 skilled jobs, and increasing Abu Dhabi’s non-oil exports by 143% to AED178.8 billion. In its first year since launch, the Abu Dhabi Industrial Strategy strengthened the emirate’s position as the region’s most competitive industrial hub with a 16.6% increase in new industrial licences issued and a massive 85.7% increase in the total investment by factories moving to production phase, valued at AED15.3 billion.
Abu Dhabi's climate change strategy aims to reduce the emirate's carbon emissions by 22% by 2027 to support the UAE Net Zero by 2050 strategic initiative, whilst making Abu Dhabi one of the most climate resilient places in the region. At the time of writing, three of the numerous achievements thus far, include:
Emirates Water and Electricity Company (EWEC) meets 80% of its total power demand (7.7GW) through renewable and clean energy (solar and nuclear), March 2023.
Unit 3 of Barakah Nuclear Power Plant commenced operations. When all four units are operational, it will provide 25% of the UAE's electricity needs, February 2023.
Aldar invests AED23 million in community retrofit projects to offset 19,000 tonnes of carbon emissions, annually, October 2022.
Abu Dhabi is the top finech hub in the region. Three of it's tech initiatives are:
Hub71 is a tech hub for startups in Abu Dhabi, which offers funding opportunities, access to mentors and industry experts, incentives and state-of-the-art facilities to develop collaboration, innovation, and knowledge sharing between the startups and established brands. Last year, Hub71's community grew 102% with 200 startups joining, including 51 early-stage companies relocating to Abu Dhabi to scale their businesses rapidly.
ADGM's RegLab provides a controlled environment for fintech companies to develop and test innovative fintech solutions. It is the world's second most active fintech sandbox after London.
Launched in 2020, the Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI) is a graduate research university dedicated to advancing AI, developing top talent, fostering an innovation ecosystem, and acting as a strategic think tank for the public and private sectors. At the time of writing, it ranks 20th globally in AI, computer vision (CV), machine learning (ML), and natural language processing (NLP) as per CSRankings.
Real Estate in Abu Dhabi
For businesses, we are already starting to see a relaxing of requirements to have an office space with the new Tajer Abu Dhabi (now Trader license) and instant licenses. These two licenses allow for the first two years and first year of operations to be carried out from home, respectively, whilst the newer freelancer license doesn't require any office space, ever. Given the way the world is changing, very few people work in offices 9am-5pm nowadays - this tends to be administrative roles. Increasingly we are out and about, travelling and therefore working remotely with mobile communications. Increasingly offices are becoming redundant and for new companies coming into the market, sometimes without permanent staff, there isn't a need for offices. I see the relaxing of this requirement and it would free up cashflow, negate the need for leases where offices sit empty across the city and make market entry even more cost effective.
A few areas have been designated for expats to buy property in Abu Dhabi. I think this will continue to open up moving forward. Certain nationalities prefer to buy than to rent and increasingly we are seeing rent-to-purchase options on new builds. For those that opt for a mortgage, monthly mortgage payments will ease the burden of 6 monthly or annual advance rent cheques. Combined with the new longer term visas, this will enable expats to really put down their roots here rather than consider it as a short term stay.
This is going to be the area of greatest development. ADNOC is investing US$45bn in developing the world's largest petrochemicals complex. This will require supporting infrastructure to be added to make the area a more attractive place to live and work. So there will be opportunities across multiple sectors.
(Updated 13th September 2023)
For more information about Ruwais, check out our video: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ruwais (Al Dhannah). Gateway Group's founder, Jenny Hunt, takes you on a visit to investigate what Ruwais has to offer, what business opportunities there are and an insight into what it might be like to live there.
Technology and online services
Just this week it was announced that 56 federal and seven local government entities have completed their e-linking process. This will increase efficiency whilst reducing costs. The government is in the process of making all of its services available via mobile platforms. The leadership and government of Abu Dhabi are forward thinking and I think they will be quick to adopt innovative technological advances which will make systems and processes quicker, cheaper and safer.
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Written by Jenny Hunt
Founder, Gateway Group, Abu Dhabi & Dubai, United Arab Emirates