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  • Writer's pictureJenny Hunt

How To Setup A Business In Abu Dhabi, UAE

30th May 2018

Setting up a business in Abu Dhabi or Dubai doesn't need to be difficult. However, there is still confusion about where to setup, e.g. a free zone or onshore. It is important that you understand the legal requirements. You will need to know the start up costs, as well as the ongoing costs. Choosing the right business professionals and consultants to help you will be key. What is right for one business isn't necessarily right for another. It's best to get a bespoke consultant for your particular situation. Gateway Group in Abu Dhabi and Dubai can assist you.

We regularly hear about company formations where the total cost wasn't made clear at the start. By the time the full costs are starting to emerge, the foreign company is already into the setup process. We also hear about business setups which took a long time because the appointed professional wasn't up to speed with the requirements and processes.

Gateway is a company formation specialist based in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. We are on the ground in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. We are familiar with the document requirements and processes. In this article we outline how to setup a business in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.

Step-by-step guide for setting up a business in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, UAE

1) Free zone or onshore?

Free zones are ideal for companies wanting to work with other companies in a particular free zone. Free zones are often set up by sector, e.g. Abu Dhabi Global Market free zone is a financial free zone. Free zone companies can also work with overseas-based companies. Foreign companies can own a free zone entity 100%. However, free zone companies are not permitted to work onshore.

Onshore companies provide the most flexibility. They are licensed by the Department of Economic Development (DED) in the respective Emirate. Onshore companies can work directly with the government. Onshore Oil & Gas companies in Abu Dhabi can apply for Supreme Petroleum Council approval to work directly with ADNOC. If your intended clients are onshore or government entities, an onshore license is required, CLICK HERE for more information.

2) LLC, Foreign Branch or Representation Office

Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) are the most common legal structure in the UAE. To sell any type of products an LLC is mandatory. LLCs are currently required to engage a local sponsor to hold 51% of the shares. These structures can be setup to mitigate the risks in order to protect the control and profits of the business. Gateway can assist you with this via our nominee corporate sponsorship service. It has been announced that some sectors will be opened up to 100% foreign ownership by the end of 2018, CLICK HERE for more information.

Foreign Branches are ideal for companies providing services. Foreign companies own the foreign branch 100%. This structure is attractive to the risk averse. It is not possible to sell products under this structure. Tax will be applicable in the parent company's home jurisdiction.

Representation Offices, also called Rep Offices, are purely for the purpose of marketing the services of the overseas parent company. They can't transact or provide services. They are ideal for companies wanting a commercial presence in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. They are restricted to a maximum of five employees.

3) Local Sponsor or Service Agent

Onshore companies are required to have a local Emirati partner in some form. LLCs require a local sponsor to hold a minimum of 51% of the shares, CLICK HERE for more information about how to choose a local partner. Foreign Branches and Rep Offices are required to have a service agent to facilitate their registration, CLICK HERE for more information about service agents.

4) Trade License Activities

All companies are issued a trade license, which is renewable annually. The trade license lists the activities the companies is licensed for. Free zones have lists of activities to choose from. The DED has an extensive activities list too. It is necessary to select the activities which will cover your intended scope of business. It is possible to have multiple activities on one license, but they must complement each other. Specialist activities may require special approvals from various government departments, e.g. restaurants will require an additional license from the Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) which confirms the restaurant meets it requirements.

5) Trade Name

There are strict rules relating to trade names. They should reference the main activity of the company. Foreign branches take the name of the parent company. CLICK HERE for more information about choosing a Trade Name.

6) Document Preparation

Foreign companies should prepare their corporate documents in their home jurisdiction prior to starting the business setup in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. As a minimum, their Certificate of Incorporation and Memorandum & Articles of Association will need to be notarized, legalized at the UAE Embassy and also stamped at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA, or its equivalent). A Board Resolution to set up the company and Powers of Attorney (POAs) issued by the foreign company will need to go through this process too.

7) Legal translations & Notarizations in the UAE

All corporate documents need to be translated into Arabic. Once foreign documents are received in the UAE they need to be stamped at MOFA and then legally translated into Arabic by a licensed translator. Documents requiring notarization will need to go through Abu Dhabi's pre-approval system. Once approved the signatory can take the documents to the Notary Public for signing. In Dubai the documents are taken directly to the Notary Public at the time of signing and will be reviewed and approved at that point. Documents requiring notarization in Abu Dhabi and Dubai will be either the Memorandum of Association or Service Agent Agreement, depending upon the structure of the entity being setup. Any POAs being issued by the Abu Dhabi or Dubai company will also need to be notarized, following its incorporation.

8) Tawtheeq & Ejari Contracts

All businesses are required to have a commercial premise. The type of premise is determined by the activity on the license. When the tenancy agreement is signed with the landlord, a Tawtheeq contract will be applied for from Abu Dhabi Municipality and an Ejari contract will be arranged in Dubai. This means that the tenancy contract is registered with the Municipality. This is mandatory for the trade license to be issued.

9) Trade License Issue

Once all of the above is arranged the trade license can be applied for. Congratulations upon reaching this point. Obtaining the trade license means the new company in Abu Dhabi or Dubai is officially setup and fully registered. After the Trade License is issued we often hear that new companies haven't been given any information about what to do once their company is set up. Following are some key points that we think you should be aware of:

Number of New Abu Dhabi Trade Licenses is increasing

Abu Dhabi's DED registered a total of 2,935 licenses during Q1 2018. This represents a 26% increase on the same period in 2017.

According to The National, the UAE has attracted an average $10 billion of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) annually so far this decade. The UAE has also been recognised in the Top 10 countries globally for attracting FDI in 2017.

Taking the first step to set up your Abu Dhabi or Dubai business

Gateway Group will assess your current position and future plans to guide you to the most appropriate location and legal structure for your new business. We provide a selection of nominee local sponsor and service agent packages designed to protect your business and your profits. We also manage the whole commercial registration from start to finish so you don't have to worry about navigating government departments and processes or sourcing local service providers and instead you can focus on developing your business. Our on the ground experience and expertise means we can get your business registered quickly and smoothly so that you can mobilize your team to meet your contractual obligations. To get started with your Abu Dhabi or Dubai company set up email us

Written by Jenny Hunt, Founding Partner & CEO
Gateway Group of Companies, Abu Dhabi & Dubai UAE

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