Why the UAE is turning to expats to boost growth

Everything you need to know about the UAE's new foreign investment and visa rules announced on Sunday
By Bloomberg
Mon 21 May 2018 05:27 PM

The United Arab Emirates is easing rules on the foreign ownership of companies as the country seeks to attract investment and boost an economy battered by lower oil prices.

Under the new rules, non-Emiratis will be able to control a company outright, and specialists in medical, scientific, research and technical fields as well as top students will be able to get a residency of up to 10 years.

Officials hope that the moves will attract new businesses to the country, driving future growth, and giving a much-needed boost to its real-estate market. Still, many questions remain about how exactly the new laws will work and the benefits they will bring. Here we try to answer some:

1. What’s changing?

Currently, expatriates who want to set up a business outside of a free zone have to partner with an Emirati or local entity. UAE citizens must own 51 percent of the joint venture and receive an annual fee or share of the profit. The changes will help start-ups and entrepreneurs set up businesses by cutting costs, according to Khaldoon Tabaza, founder of technology investment firm iMENA. The moves will boost growth by attracting more foreign direct investment, mainly into non-oil sectors, said Ehsan Khoman, head of Middle East and North African research at Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group.

2. Why now?

A plunge in oil prices in 2014 squeezed Gulf countries’ budgets and spurred efforts to reform economies and become less dependent on crude. While prices have recovered and are now close to $80/bbl, nations are planning for a post-oil era. “The region as a whole has been grappling with this issue for many years, but when oil was at $100 a barrel for several years, there wasn’t that much need to attract foreign investment,” said Khatija Haque, head of MENA research at Emirates NBD. “Clearly, that has changed now.”

3. Are other Gulf countries making similar moves?

The UAE amendments follow similar changes in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Qatar in August said it plans to introduce permanent residency to attract investors and some skilled workers amid a regional boycott. Saudi Arabia announced a plan for a green card-like program in 2016 to be implemented over five years and Oman is studying proposals for expatriates to set up a business without a local partner.

4. How will this impact property prices?

The moves are “very positive” for real estate, according to Ali Adou, head of asset management at Daman Investments. A downturn in the property market is lasting longer than expected. S&P Global Ratings said in February that it doesn’t expect a recovery before 2020, when Dubai hosts the World Expo. The new visa changes “will certainly mean a turnaround is on the cards, perhaps sooner than we first envisaged,” said Faisal Durrani, global head of research at Cluttons.

5. Is this the first step towards more taxes?

Many expatriates are drawn to the UAE - not only for its year-round sunshine - but also for tax-free salaries and low corporate tax. But things are changing. In January, the country introduced a 5 percent valued-added tax. “After years of austerity and economic slowdown, the emphasis in on supporting growth and providing a boost to the next phase of development,” said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank. “At this stage, it seems about supporting the economy.”

6. What’s been the initial reaction?

The changes could be a long-awaited trigger for investors looking at stocks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with the real-estate sector benefiting the most, according to investors and analysts. Real-estate and financial stocks represent almost 70 percent of Dubai’s main index, and about 65 percent of the gauge in Abu Dhabi. Emaar Properties and Damac Properties Dubai contributed the most to the increase of Dubai’s benchmark on Monday.

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Last Updated: Mon 21 May 2018 05:45 PM GST

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