The Middle East is home to 160 free zones – 7.3% of the global share – making it the fourth largest host region in the world, according to the World Free Zones Organization (WFZO). Dubai alone hosts 17.5% of the region’s zones.

In terms of number of free zones, the UAE boasts 47, home to more than 20,000 companies, followed by Jordan with 40 zones, Iran with 21, and Turkey with 20. Within the UAE, Dubai hosts 28 free zones, Abu Dhabi eight, Ras Al Khaimah four and Sharjah three, according to the WFZO.

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Dubai’s crown jewel is the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), which boasted 14,805 companies at the start of 2018, and was named fDi’s Global Free Zone of the Year for 2018 for the fourth year running.  

Free zones comprise nearly 30% of all global trade, and in 2014, they accounted for approximately 33% of the UAE’s non-oil trade and 37% of Dubai’s non-oil trade, found the WFZO.

Dubai has long been a destination of choice for those wanting low tax rates and quick access to international markets. However, in recent years, the UAE has ramped up its focus on increasing inward investment incentives

For example, the government legalised 100% foreign ownership and set up an additional free zone area in Abu Dhabi. Moreover, the Abu Dhabi Airports Free Zone recently reduced business set-up costs by more than 65%.

Neighbouring Qatar is also pursuing a free zone FDI push, opening two special economic zones in 2019: Umm Al Houl and Ras Bu Fontas.