© Crown copyright 2018
This publication is licensed under the terms of the Open Government Licence v3.0 except where otherwise stated. To view this licence, visit nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3 or write to the Information Policy Team, The National Archives, Kew, London TW9 4DU, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where we have identified any third party copyright information you will need to obtain permission from the copyright holders concerned.
This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/exporting-to-the-united-arab-emirates/exporting-to-the-united-arab-emirates
1. UAE export overview
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the UK’s largest export market in the Middle East and the 13th biggest globally. The UK exported £9.8 billion of goods and services in 2016. This was a 37% increase since 2009. The UAE is the UK’s fourth largest export market outside the EU.
Contact a Department for International Trade (DIT) UAE export adviser for a free consultation if you’re interested in exporting to the UAE.
The UAE has made huge progress diversifying its economy away from oil. Non-oil sectors now contribute about 70% of the UAE’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts, as of March 2018, it’s expected to be the second largest Arab economy in 2017 after Saudi Arabia in terms of GDP (in current prices). The IMF expects UAE to be ranked 25th globally (in current price terms), with a GDP per capita of $37,346.
There are over 5,000 British companies operating in the UAE, including BP, Shell, Rolls Royce, BAE Systems, Mott McDonald, SERCO, Standard Chartered, HSBC and John Lewis / Waitrose. 779 commercial agencies and 4,762 British brands have invested in the UAE.
The majority of the UAE population is made up of expatriates, with around 120,000 UK residents. In In 2016 14.9 million people visited the UAE, of which 1.25 million were from the UK.
Incentives for UK businesses exporting to UAE include:
- a diverse economy which is continually growing and expanding
- it’s an entry route into other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries
- it’s an important market for re-export into other countries
- no taxation on personal income and capital gains
- it’s ranked 21st in the World Bank’s ease of doing business overall ranking, but first in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region
- the strong cultural and historical ties as many Emiratis have studied in the UK, have UK homes and visit regularly
- English is widely spoken and accepted as the language of business
Strengths of the UAE market include:
- its strategic geographical location; Dubai is regarded as a regional hub and commercial capital for the Middle East, north Africa and beyond
- large expatriate population
- a liberal trade regime which attracts capital from across the region
2. Challenges of doing business in the UAE
The UAE can be a demanding and sometimes frustrating market in which to do business. However it doesn’t present major challenges to UK companies wanting to develop trade. Competition for business is fierce from the high growth Asian economies as well as the more traditional competitors in Europe and north America.
Each emirate retains control of regulatory powers. This covers commercial activities such as issuing of trade licences and the incorporation of corporate entities, where the activity is not already regulated under federal legislation. The interaction of federal laws, individual emirate laws and free zone laws can be complex and confusing.
Other unique challenges include:
- restrictions on company ownership by non-GCC nationals; a national sponsor must retain 51% ownership
- Arabic will often be the first language and documentation will be in Arabic - although English is recognised as the language of business
3. Growth potential of the UAE market
3.1 Economic growth in the UAE
The UAE economy continues to grow and the overall economic outlook is positive. The UAE’s reserves of oil and natural gas both rank in the top 10 largest in the world. The UAE is the third fastest growing economy in the GCC.
The UAE has diversified its economy to help to make the country’s revenue sources more balanced and create a sustainable economy that can withstand long-term oil price volatility.
Hydrocarbons provide the largest single source of income for Abu Dhabi. Dubai’s hydrocarbon reserves are far more limited which has led to successful efforts to diversify their economy into the region’s business, logistics, media and leisure hub.
The award of EXPO 2020 to Dubai is forecast to boost the economy by USD 23 billion. This will result in about USD 8 billion worth of opportunities across many sectors particularly in hospitality and construction.
Other positive factors for growth include:
- well-established infrastructure
- a strong banking system
- a stable political system
- the number of free trade zones that can allow 100% foreign ownership and a nil taxation regime
- ongoing and new developments including Sadiyaat Island in Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Rashid City in Dubai, Dubai South, Al Maktoum Airport, Dubai and the Fujairah Master Plan
3.2 Gulf region
The Gulf region has enjoyed continued growth. This has been driven by rising public sector spending, especially on physical and social infrastructure, as well as buoyant private sector activity. The GCC has a combined GDP of $1.4 trillion, making it a larger economy than South Korea.
The UAE’s proximity to other Gulf markets acts as an entry route to other GCC countries.
3.3 UAE’s free trade agreements
The GCC currently only has a few free trade agreements in place, including those with the Greater Arab Free Trade Area (GAFTA), the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and Singapore.
A GCC free trade agreement with Lebanon has been ratified, but not implemented. Negotiations are underway with Australia, New Zealand and China, and provisional talks taking place for a further 4 countries/blocs including Australia, China and the EU.
4. Top goods and services imports into the UAE
UN Comtrade ranked the UAE’s top imports of goods from the rest of the world during 2016 as:
- commodities not specified according to kind
- pearls, precious stones, metals, coins
- boilers and machinery
- electrical and electronic equipment
- vehicles (not rail or tramway vehicles)
- aircraft and aircraft parts
- iron or steel products
- plastics and plastic products
- distillation products including mineral fuels and oils
- iron and steel
UN Comtrade ranked the UAE’s top imports of services from the rest of the world during 2015 as:
- government services
4.1 UK and UAE trade
The UAE is the UK’s 13th largest export market.
Over 5,000 UK companies are doing business in the UAE. The UAE is an important entry port for a £150 billion regional market with a significant percentage of UK exports to the UAE being re-exported, particularly to Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The UK exported £6.75 billion in goods and £3.09 billion in services in 2016.
Top UK exports to the UAE (2017):
- machinery and mechanical appliances
- electrical machinery and equipment
- precious stones and metals
- motor vehicles
- optical, photographic, cinematographic and medical equipment
5. Opportunities for UK businesses in UAE
Department for International Trade (DIT) provides free international export sales leads from its worldwide network. Search for export opportunities.
5.1 Education and training sector in the UAE
Education is one of the UAE government’s top priorities. It’s keen to build a knowledge based economy and position itself as the academic hub in Gulf region.
The Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) regulates education institutions in Dubai. The Abu Dhabi government has set up the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) to develop the sector in Abu Dhabi. The Ministry of Education oversees public schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.
British curriculum schools are in demand. DIT UAE is working with KHDA and ADEC to bring new and quality British schools to the UAE. Eleven UK universities are represented in the UAE. UK universities in Dubai have the highest proportion of postgraduate students.
The UK has been working with UAE authorities for UAE-wide recognition of UK Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) qualifications. Progress has been made with mutual recognition of FE and professional qualifications. New licensing authorities have been established in the UAE for technical and vocational education and training (TVET) providers. They include:
- Qualifications and Awards in Dubai (QAD) for Dubai
- Abu Dhabi Centre for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (ACTVET) for Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates
Mapping of UK and UAE qualifications will open up opportunities for UK TVET institutions to do business in the UAE and the rest of the GCC.
Other opportunities include collaboration in developing:
- new British schools and universities in the UAE
- curriculum setting and capacity building
- qualified and skilled teachers and teacher training, particularly in Arabic
- assessment centres
- innovative educational resources and ideas to enhance UAE education
Contact Trade and Investment Adviser email@example.com for more information on opportunities in the UAE’s education and training sector.
5.2 Energy sector in the UAE
Oil and gas sector in the UAE
The UAE has the world’s seventh largest reserves of gas and eighth largest for oil. Production is currently around 3 million barrels per day (bpd), with targets of 3.5 million bpd. This makes enhanced oil recovery (EOR) techniques and technology important to the UAE.
The UAE has both onshore and offshore oil reserves, which are operated under concessions. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and its subsidiaries manage the oil and gas supply chain.
Current projects include:
- expansion of the Upper Zakum offshore oil field
- investment in refinery projects to improve efficiency
The Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference (ADIPEC) is one of the world’s largest oil and gas exhibitions. It offers UK companies the chance to develop new business opportunities as the UAE government and international oil companies will be present.
Nuclear sector in the UAE
The first of 4 nuclear reactors is due to commence operations in 2018. Three others are scheduled to come online by 2020. The reactors are being built by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO).
This is the first nuclear power in the UAE. Local stakeholders include:
- the Federal Authority for Nuclear Regulation (FANR) who oversee regulation
- the Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) who will own the plants
- Khalifa University who are training nuclear engineers
- the Nawah Energy Company who will operate and maintain the nuclear reactors
Opportunities for the UK supply chain include:
- research and development (R&D)
- waste management
- education and training
Experience of working with APR 1400 models or similar reactors would be an advantage. The UAE is looking to develop its own manufacturing sector so companies who are willing to invest and enter into joint ventures will be welcomed.
You must have a UK licence to export dual use goods, services or technology.
Contact FANR’s safeguards department for more information on UAE licensing requirements.
Renewables sector in the UAE
The renewables market in the UAE is growing rapidly with:
- extensions of existing projects, such as the Dubai Solar Power park
- sustainability becoming an important element of all new projects and infrastructure
Dubai South is a new residential and commercial development around the Al Maktoum airport expansion which will:
- feature solar panels and facades on most buildings
- feed excess power back into the grid
- include up to date energy saving features in warehousing and water use
Sustainability sector in the UAE
Environmental sustainability is highlighted as one of 4 priority areas in the UAE’s published targets and also in Abu Dhabi’s 2030 Economic Vision.
This offers opportunities for UK companies with products which can reduce energy usage.
Power sector in the UAE
The UAE’s currently mostly used gas power stations to service power demand. Waste to power technology is under consideration to deal with high waste per person rates.
Sharjah is building a waste to energy plant. It will be the largest gasification waste to energy plant in the world. The project received UKEF funding.
Contact Trade and Investment adviser firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on opportunities in the UAE’s energy sector.
5.3 Financial and professional services sector in the UAE
Dubai has the largest and most sophisticated financial services industry in the region. The Sukuk and Takaful markets are growing sectors. Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai are host to companies from the UK’s financial services industry.
There are effectively 2 financial services markets in the UAE – onshore and offshore. UK companies are active in both markets.
In Dubai there is the offshore freezone of the Dubai International Financial Centre(DIFC). This is regulated by the Dubai Financial Services Authority (DFSA) on Anglo-Saxon lines and with access to English common law in the form of the DIFC Courts. It focuses on banking, capital markets, asset management and fund registration; insurance and reinsurance; Islamic finance and professional service providers.
The market outside the DFSA is regulated by federal authorities.
The Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) on Al Maryah Island is the emirate’s fifth financial freezone. It concentrates on private banking, wealth management and asset management.
Contact Financial Services co-ordinator, email@example.com for more information on opportunities in the UAE’s financial and professional services sector.
5.4 Healthcare sector in the UAE
The UAE’s healthcare sector is developing due to:
- steady population growth
- high per capita income
- increased health awareness
- rising prevalence in lifestyle diseases
The UK already holds a prominent position in the market with world class UK NHS brands such as Imperial College, Moorfields, Kings College and The Maudsley delivering high quality clinical services.
The increase in new-build hospitals and medical centres offers opportunities for:
- filling gaps in provision such as oncology, paediatrics, mental health, primary care, trauma, emergency services and long term rehabilitation
- high quality equipment supply
- healthcare facilities management
- infrastructure construction
- digital health solutions
- delivering high quality training and education programmes for medical staff
Contact Trade and Investment adviser firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on opportunities in the UAE’s healthcare sector.
5.5 Infrastructure and construction sector in the UAE
The UAE’s infrastructure plans are huge, underpinned by the UAE’s Vision 2021. Government-related entities, and the large merchant families that dominate the private sector are maintaining spending on infrastructure especially in tourism and social infrastructure.
Opportunities exists across all infrastructure projects for both services and products, such as
- general construction and specialist sub-contracting services
- specialist consulting
- building materials
- green building and sustainable infrastructure solutions
- water saving devices
- building automation systems
- air-conditioning systems
- security and swimming pool equipment
Major projects planned or underway over the next 5 years include:
- Dubai Creek Harbour
- Dubai South
- Yas Island development Abu Dhabi
- Saadiyat Island Development Abu Dhabi
- Dubai Theme Parks
- Bluewaters Island Dubai Arena, Museum of the Future projects
- Dubai One Central
- Al Maryah Island, Masdar City Abu Dhabi
Contact Trade and Investment adviser email@example.com for more information on opportunities in the UAE’s infrastructure and construction sector.
5.6 Defence and security in the UAE
The UAE has a large defence and security budget. Defence procurement is led by the Emirates Defence Industries Council (EDIC) who favour working with international primes for large contracts. Contract negotiations can be lengthy and complicated, with an offset threshold of USD 10 million. Opportunities for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can be found within these bigger supply chains.
Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030 to diversify the UAE economy has led to an increase in activity in the aerospace, (defence) manufacturing and space sectors. These all offer opportunities for UK defence companies.
DIT UAE provides ongoing support to SMEs working in the security sector in the form of liaison with local law enforcement agencies and access to large contract opportunities.
Cyber Security is an area of concern to both local industry and government departments, and so offers opportunities for UK businesses.
The Export Control Organisation (ECO) issues licences for the export of strategic goods. You must check your goods you are meeting legal requirements for export.
Contact First Secretary of Defence and Security firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on opportunities in the UAE’s defence and security sector.
5.7 Airports and aerospace sector in the UAE
The Middle East is a thriving market for aviation and airport developments. The UAE offers opportunities for UK companies with innovative and cutting edge products and services.
Opportunities exist around airport developments at Al Maktoum International (AMIA) and Abu Dhabi International (Phase 2).
Contact Trade and Investment adviser email@example.com for more information on opportunities in the UAE’s airports and aerospace sector.
5.8 Environment and water sector in the UAE
Sustainable environment is an important element of the UAE’s 2021 Vision. There are stringent targets for improving air quality, treatment of all waste generated and conservation of water.
Almost all emirates are expanding their drainage network by increasing capacity at existing plants and by installing new plants to meet requirements of expanding neighbourhoods. Dubai is moving forward with its first phase of a waste to energy (WtE) plant that will be capable of incinerating 2,000 tonnes of waste per day leading to power generation of about 50MW per day.
Contact Trade and Investment adviser firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on opportunities in the UAE’s environment and water sectors.
5.9 Creative industries sector in the UAE
The UAE is the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) hub for the creative industries. Many of the world’s leading creative design, architecture, media and advertising firms having a presence here.
The UAE is investing heavily in leisure and entertainment to cement its position as a leading tourism destination. A series of projects, ranging from cultural and artistic, to theme parks and retail are being delivered which continue to transform the UAE. This ambition is underpinned by Dubai Tourism vision 2020 and Abu Dhabi vision 2030 and backed by support infrastructure such as integrated transport links and hotels.
The strategy aims to lengthen the stay of visitors and entice them to shop, dine and experience UAE. While government linked developers are the largest players, there are also a significant number of private developers engaged in delivering similar projects.
This approach makes UAE one of the larger markets for architecture and interior design among the GCC countries.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi development as a tourism and business destination is also creating a buoyant market advertising and media.
Contact Trade and Investment Adviser, email@example.com for more information on opportunities in the UAE’s creative industries sector.
6. Start-up considerations in the UAE
Under federal legislation, the main options available for conducting business in the UAE are:
- participation in a local company or other commercial organisation
- establishment of a branch office
- appointment of a commercial agent or distributor
- establishment of a branch or subsidiary in one of the free zones of the UAE
Contact the British Centres for Business (BCB) for help with market entry into the UAE.
6.1 Company ownership in the UAE
When establishing a local company or other commercial entity, foreign ownership is generally limited to 49%, with the remaining 51% to be held by UAE nationals. Under the Commercial Companies Law (CCL) there are 5 forms of recognised commercial entity. They include:
- general partnership
- limited partnership
- public joint stock company
- limited liability company (LLC)
- private joint stock company
6.2 Branch offices in the UAE
The CCL allows foreign companies to establish a branch office in the UAE. The scope of activities permitted varies from emirate to emirate, although generally a broad range of commercial activities can be undertaken.
If you’re establishing a branch office, you need to:
- get consent from the Ministry of Economy
- deposit a bank guarantee of AED 50,000
- have a sponsor who is either a UAE national or a locally registered company entirely owned by UAE nationals
- have a formal national agency agreement in place if the national agent sponsors and assists you in return for a fee
In certain businesses, you need to get the permission of a particular authority; the Central Bank regulates finance; the Municipality in Dubai regulates engineering and construction.
6.3 Commercial agents in the UAE
If you just intend to export goods or services to the UAE, you may want to appoint an agent, distributor or franchisee, which must be either a UAE national or a company entirely owned by UAE nationals.
6.4 UAE free zones
The free zones offer a wide variety of benefits to businesses and a degree of flexibility including:
- 100% foreign ownership through branches, single or multiple shareholder companies - known as Free Zone Enterprises (FZEs), Free Zone Companies (FZCOs) or Free Zone Limited Liability Companies (FZ-LLC)
- no national agent required for branch offices of foreign companies
- no customs duties on imports and re-exports (except re-exports into onshore UAE)
- special assistance in getting work permits for staff
- guaranteed exemptions from corporate taxes
Contact the DIT team in the UAE to help find tax and legal advisers before entering into agreements.
7. Legal considerations in the UAE
You need to comply with the federal laws governing business activity including the:
- Commercial Companies Law (CCL)
- Commercial Register Law
- Commercial Agencies Law
- Civil and Commercial Codes
If you intend to trade or invest in the UAE, you need the correct authorisations and licences. Each emirate may also have additional requirements.
Contact the DIT team in the UAE for a list of English speaking lawyers who can help you with commercial disputes and tax and legal advisers.
7.1 Standards and technical regulations in the UAE
The UAE prohibits and restricts the import of some products. Dubai Trade provides examples of UAE prohibited items.
While the GCC’s Common Customs Law sets the framework for the GCC’s import regulations, each member state administers its own list of prohibited, restricted and exempted products. Exporters who want to re-export within the other GCC markets should take note of the individual member states lists as they are not harmonised, but independently administered.
A Certificate of Origin is needed for all exports to clear customs. Certificates of Origin must be provided by the original exporter and recognised by an authorised representative in UK.
The Gulf Standardization Organization (GSO) sets the framework for the UAE’s packaging and labelling requirements. GSO’s technical requirements for food exports state that all UAE food imports provide information in Arabic, either as part of the packaging or as an affixed label, detailing the:
- products and brand name
- lot identification
- production and expiry dates
- country of origin
- manufacturers name
- net content weight in metric units
- list of ingredients and additives in descending order of proportion
You should consider cultural norms and values when designing and developing product packaging.
The major government organisations involved in the regulations are:
- Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority
- Dubai Municipality for Dubai food imports
- Ministry of Health for medical devices and medicines regulation
- Telecommunications and Regulations Authority
7.2 Intellectual property in the UAE
While a framework of legislation for the main intellectual property (IP) rights in the UAE does exist, there are no specialist IP courts and a lack of specialist local advocates.
This can make civil litigation a challenge, so enforcement of IP rights is often achieved in other ways. This includes in the case of trade mark infringement by filing complaints about counterfeiters with the police or customs authorities.
8. Tax and customs considerations in the UAE
8.1 Income tax in the UAE
Income tax legislation is only applied in practice to foreign banks, oil and gas companies.
There is no direct personal taxation in the UAE. Most emirates levy various municipal taxes. Indirect taxation through official fees is commonplace.
There is no taxation on capital gains.
8.2 Value Added Tax (VAT) in the UAE
VAT was implemented in the UAE on the 1 January 2018 at 5%.
8.3 Customs in the UAE
The UAE generally levies customs duties on imported goods at the rate of 5%. Higher rates of duty apply to alcohol and tobacco. Some categories of goods are exempt, such as certain agricultural products, printed material and pharmaceuticals. Exemptions may also be granted for goods imported for industrial or manufacturing purposes.
Where goods are imported into a UAE free zone, customs duties are not payable.
Goods can only be imported into the UAE by a company that is registered in the UAE and the goods must be relevant to the licensed business activity of the business.
There are no duties or tariffs on exports.
Goods manufactured in Israel cannot be imported into the UAE.
Pornographic material, ivory/rhino horns, cannabis, alcoholic beverages, firearms, fireworks, narcotics and opium are strictly prohibited.
All printed matter, films and tapes must be cleared by the Ministry of Information.
You can find more about import tariffs in the Market Access Database.
8.4 Documentation in the UAE
The documents needed for the import and export of goods to and from the UAE are:
- invoices – initiated by supplier
- a certificate of origin
- bills of lading /airway bill
9. Business behaviour in the UAE
The UAE has a diverse and multi-cultural society with 80% of the UAE population expatriates. As a result the UAE is regarded as relatively liberal within the region and provides schools, cultural centres and restaurants catering for international cultures.
The national culture revolves around the religion of Islam. Other religions are respected and churches and temples can be found alongside mosques.
The Islamic dress code is not compulsory. Most UAE national (Emiratis) males wear a kandura, an ankle length white shirt and most Emirati women wear an abaya, a black flowing over garment covering most of the body.
English is widely spoken throughout the country. Although it’s common for written correspondence to be in English, Arabic is often preferred within some public sector organisations. It’s preferable to have one side of your business card printed in Arabic.
Face-to-face meetings are preferred because phone calls and emails are sometimes seen as impersonal.
The working week is Sunday to Thursday.
10. Entry requirements into the UAE
Visas are available for business and tourists visits, transit and residency. If you are a UK citizen you can get a 30 day visa on arrival. Business visitors can be sponsored by an employer with a business licence.
The UAE has started to introduce smart gates, currently in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which speed up the passport control process if you have a UK readable passport. It is expected that this system will eventually be introduced into all UAE airports.
If you’re employed in the UAE your employer will normally sponsor you and will get you a residency visa and labour card. You can’t work in the UAE without these.
If you establish your own business in the UAE you’ll be responsible for getting your residency visa. You can apply for your residency visa once you’ve got your trade licence.
10.1 Travel advice for the UAE
If you’re travelling to the UAE for business, check the travel advice first.
11. Contacts for the UAE
Contact a local DIT trade adviser in the UK if you are interested in finding out more about doing business in the UAE.
Contact the DIT team in the UAE for more information and advice on opportunities for doing business in the UAE.
Contact the British Centres for Business (BCB) for market entry support to help you get underway in the UAE.