Winners Global

Winner: Global

DMCC, United Arab Emirates

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The reign of the Dubai-based DMCC as the world’s top free zone continues. The DMCC has come on top of fDi’s Global Free Zones of the Year for the sixth consecutive year in 2020. A favourite of the judges, the zone has once again managed to impress with its combination of operational results and cutting-edge governance and marketing strategy, with some key improvements pushed through in 2019 to refine its overall business proposition. 

 

Download a PDF of these rankings here: 

The managing company highlights that 39 system upgrades were implemented to enhance customer experience and improve operational efficiency in 2019, thus achieving nearly 100% digital services, whose value skyrocketed as the Covid-19 pandemic brought digital onboarding and aftercare services to the fore. Additionally, the DMCC partnered with Etisalat Digital to transform Jumeirah Lakes Towers into an innovative smart and sustainable district, powered by a 5G network. It also collaborated with Dubai-based logistics powerhouse DP World to provide DMCC members with solutions for warehousing located in the Jebel Ali Free Zone and Port, thus providing additional value for customers who previously could not access warehousing solutions within the free zone. 

At the same time, it launched a coffee trade centre and renovated its diamond hub to strengthen its role as a key commodity trading nexus in the Middle East. This strategy won the DMCC new tentants of the calibre of Renault Middle East and a flurry of Chinese companies of the likes of China National Chemical Engineering, CITIC Construction and Shandong Hi-Speed Group, testament also to its marketing efforts in east Asia. With its 68 commercial and residential towers, the DMCC hosts more than 17,500 companies (about 2000 new companies registered in 2019 alone) which employ 60,000 people. 

Top 10 free zones

Highly commended 

Tanger Med Zones, Morocco

Tanger Med Zones has been highly commended in fDi’s 2020 Global Free Zones of the Year, rising to second place from fifth in the 2019 ranking. This is the first time an African zone ranks that high in the ranking, which is testament to the tremendous rise of the network of zones developed by operator Tanger Med around the Tanger Med port on the Gibraltar Strait, one of Africa’s busiest. 

Tanger Med Zones is made up of four main ventures that form an integrated business proposition spanning automotive and manufacturing, logistics, and offshore services: the Tanger Free Zone, the Tanger Automotive City, the Tetouanshore and Tetouan Park. The whole complex generated Ä8.8bn worth of exports in 2019, up 10.9% from a year earlier, according to company figures. Overall, the zones hosted about 1000 export-oriented firms employing some 90,000 people at the end of 2019. 

Operator Tanger Med Group strengthened the automotive cluster in 2019, which features top original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as Renault (Ford also has a purchasing department within the zone), by adding a 24,000-sq-metre automotive logistics platform and carrying out a first 120ha expansion of the Tanger Automotive City. Italian automotive supplier Magneti Marelli stood out among the companies that pushed through big expansion of local operations in 2019. 

Winners Regional

Winner: Africa 

Tanger Med Zones, Morocco

Tanger Med Zones topped the African ranking as Morocco consolidates its role as a manufacturing and trading hub strategically located between Europe, Africa and the Atlantic basin. Its network of zones has proven fertile soil for the development of an ever-growing automotive cluster. Other major clusters such as aeronautics are also being developed. The addition of logistics platforms and services centres integrates Tanger Med Zones’ offering and puts tenants in a position to make the most of the proximity with the Tanger Med Port, a powerhouse in its own right with its nine million containers annual capacity and connection to another 186 ports around the globe. 

Highly commended: Africa 

Mauritius Freeport , Mauritius

The Mauritius Freeport has been highly commended among African zones. Better known as a tourist paradise, the country has been developing a major logistics hub next to the port of capital Port Louis within the territory of the Mauritius Freeport.

“The strategic location of Mauritius has attracted major shipping lines, express courier services and freight-forwarding companies to the Freeport logistics platform,” the company says. “Through these players, Mauritius has developed competitive logistics at the seaport and airport.” 

Freeport activities have been boosted by the ongoing upgrade of the adjacent seaport, including a $300m investment to construct a breakwater to reduce downtime at the port during bad weather conditions, as well as by the expansion of the Freeport area. The national Economic Development Board has declared two additional freeport zones. 

Winner: Asia-Pacific 

Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone, China

Shanghai’s Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone has been named the top free zone in the Asia-Pacific region, and also clinched a fourth place in the global ranking. Established in 1990, the zone is China’s largest. It has a diversified mix of industries, with the most recent focus being life sciences, data centres, smart manufacturing, and electronic information, creating cluster effects. Some 117 multinational corporations set up their Asia-Pacific and Chinese headquarters in Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone as of the end of May 2020, more than anywhere else in the Chinese mainland, zone officials highlight. 

Highly commended: Asia-Pacific 

Mahindra World City Chennai 

A joint venture between Mahindra Group and Tamil Nadu Industrial Corporation, the Mahindra World City Chennai was highly commended among Asia-Pacific zones. The zone offers plug and play infrastructure for tenants willing to set up within its territory, as well as co-located residential space with social infrastructure, making it an integrated urban area managed by one of India’s largest conglomerates. Some 68 renowned multinational companies are active within its premises, the zone says. They feature names of the likes of BMW, BASF, Lincoln Electric, DormaKaba and Parker. The zone is also developing one of the largest urban forest projects in India using the Miyawaki method developed by Japanese botanist and Blue Planet Prize winner Akira Miyawaki. 

Winner: Europe

Łódź Special Economic Zone, Poland

The Lódź Special Economic Zone in Poland stands out as the top zone for Europe in fDi’s Global Free Zones of the Year 2020. The zone also featured third in the global overall ranking. The zone has made progress in its efforts to become a centre of Industry 4.0 at the heart of central and eastern Europe. Foreign investors committed to new investment project worth Ä530m in 2019, the zone says. 

Advanced manufacturing and research and development activities featured highly among the new business permits issued in 2019 given that the Polish economic zone legislation has been updated to boost investment with higher-added-value content. The Lódź Special Economic Zone has also been evolving its offer with a broad range of services aimed at tech start-ups and small and medium enterprises, with a particular focus, among others, on the development of 5G industrial use cases. 

Highly commended: Europe

Freeport of Ventspils, Latvia 

The Freeport of Ventspils boasts a diversified base of manufacturers, tenants belonging to the logistics and services sectors, including powerhouse names like US consultancy firm Accenture. The zone has spent efforts in developing its infrastructure and marketing activities to strengthen its brand. It has also been working with local stakeholders such as vocational education institutions to develop local talent in high-added-value sectors like IT, telecommunications, electronics, astronomy, engineering and mechanical engineering.

Winner: Americas

Cayman Enterprise City, Cayman Islands 

Since launching in 2011, Cayman Enterprise City has become an offshore beacon of companies active at the forefront of innovation and new technologies. Some 258 international companies were active in the zone at the end of 2019, company figures show, with almost half of them (46.2%) belonging to the so-called Cayman Tech City. The zone is midway through a $67m expansion plan aimed at developing a purpose-built hub for digital businesses. The long-term vision entails the development of one million square feet of world-class office space, residential areas, restaurants, and amenities to further diversify Cayman’s economy. Total investments are estimated in the order of $500m. 

Highly commended: Americas

Coyol Free Zone, Costa Rica

The Coyol Free Zone (CFZ), located in the outskirts of Costa Rica’s capital San José, hosts seven international medical devices companies and stands at the heart of the country’s prowess in the sector: Costa Rica is Latin America’s second largest exporter of medical devices after Mexico. Several of them carried out major expansion projects in the 2019, including landmark investor Medtronics. The CFZ also stands out of the recruiting and training services it provides for its tenants.  

Winner: Middle East 

DMCC, UAE 

(see global awards)

Highly commended:  Middle East 

Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone, UAE

The Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (Rakez) encompasses a network of five zones scattered across the emirate. It hosts about 15,000 companies, most of them small and medium-sized enterprises, active in 50 industries. Rakez stood out for the variety of incentive packages it introduced in recent months, which include a support package for female entrepreneurs, new incentives for both manufacturers and start-ups, as well as a 50m dirham ($13.6m) Covid-19 relief fund to support tenants through current market uncertainties. The pandemic has also accelerated the digitisation of Rakez’s services. Today, onboarding of new tenants can happen in full digital mode, also thanks to an expanding range of e-payment services. 

Winners - SMEs

Winner: Global 

Łódź Special Economic Zone, Poland

The Lódź Special Economic Zone has been developing a compelling proposition of innovative start-ups and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as it strives to become a benchmark for Industry 4.0 in the region. The zone set up Spark 2.0, an accelerator programme developed with 11 industrial partners to support Industry 4.0 innovation, which also worked to find solutions across the board to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is also running the 5G Technology Accelerator, which brings together start-ups and businesses to develop 5G industrial use cases and create smart factories. 

“We find the 5G accelerator special, because it not only offers soft-landing, mentorship and equity-free funding but also a customer-in-waiting – all bundled into one programme,” says Balaji Renukumar, managing director of Sensfix, a US-based start-up that decided to open its European chapter within the Lódź Special Economic Zone. Overall, the zone issued 104 new business permits for SMEs in 2019, up 37% from a year earlier, company’s figures show. 

Highly commended: Global 

Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone, UAE

SMEs are one of the main pillars of the Covid-response package designed by the Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone (Rakez) in the past months. The zone approved an 50m dirham ($13.bm) relief fund which, among other things, offer SMEs a 15% discount on renewals, a 25% discount on new dependent visas, and 100% waivers for cheque postponement fees, package downgrade fees, activity change fees and security deposit for new visa requests. Besides, the zone offers up to 25% off on set-up packages with guaranteed lifetime renewal rates for newcomer start-ups. 

Winner: Africa

Tanger Med Zone, Morocco 

Tanger Med Zone set up a €35m Covid-19 stabilisation and recovery fund to support and assist SMEs and start-ups. 

Highly commended: Africa

Alaro City FZC in the Lekki Free Zone, Nigeria 

Located within the Lekki Free Zone in Lagos, the Alaro City is an integrated city with commercial and residential offerings that is now developing an SME enclave where a ‘shared facilities strategy’ will be adopted in optimising the operations of companies within the enclave, the company says. The enclave will focus on developing smaller industrial and logistics plots, typically between 1000 and 5000 square metres.

Winner: Asia-Pacific 

Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone, China

Shanghai’s Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone has made efforts to design a compelling business proposition for SMEs. Among the most recent initiatives in this direction are the Shanghai Free Trade No.1 Life Science and Technology Industrial Park, a service-oriented biomedical professional platform integrating headquartes, exhibition space, scientific research, pilot testing and production that was built to incubate promising SMEs and start-ups in life science. 

The park benchmarks world-leading life science clusters by initiating what the zone calls a “CRO+CDMO+ CSO+CAPITAL” one-stop service platform that focuses on development and production of biological innovative drugs, medical devices and life science technology services, fostering an innovation ecosystem of technological industries.

Highly commended: Asia-Pacific 

Mahindra World City Chennai 

As a joint venture between Mahindra Group and Tamil Nadu Industrial Corporation, Mahindra World City Chennai offers companies fast approval and other support from the local government, which can generate particular benefits for SMEs with limited resources available for things like compliance and bureaucracy. Its ‘plug-and-play’ infrastructure makes available necessary amenities such as power, water, roads and waste management. In-house operations and maintenance ensure shorter turnaround time for companies to start their operations. 

Winner: Europe 

Łódź Special Economic Zone, Poland

(see global SME awards)

Highly commended: Europe 

West of England Enterprise Zone, UK 

The West of England Enterprise Zone set up several major initiatives to cater to the needs of SMEs: Workforce of the Future, Investment Activator Programme (IAP) and Trading Better Online. Workforce for the Future is an £8m programme that will work with SMEs to help them develop their future workforce, meeting their current and future needs. The IAP and Trading Better Online are new initiatives to support existing companies and incentive potential investors. As companies look to recover from Covid-19, both initiatives in turn support businesses looking for investment and seeking to adopt new technologies and practices to better their online presence to rebound and increase revenue, thus accelerating a return to growth. 

Winner: Americas 

Cayman Enterprise City, Cayman Islands 

Cayman Enterprise City launched a series of public discussion in July 2019 to engage with its tech community. A few weeks later, it launched the Cayman Code Academy to ‘provide engaging learning opportunities for Caymanians to become work-ready programmers and software engineers’, the company said. The zone also began to look more closely at its processes and procedures through the exercise of complying with the Data Privacy Laws that were passed in September 2019. Overall, 258 SMEs were active in the zone at the end of 2019, up by 10.7% a year earlier, the company says. 

Highly commended: Americas 

Zona Franca Santander, Colombia 

The zone was highly commended for its SMEs strategy among zones in the Americas region. It has been active in developing local talent through agreements with education institutions, as well as the organisation of business meetings to leverage and strengthen local companies on the issues of, among others, internationalisation and business development.

Winner: Middle East 

Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone, UAE

(see SME global awards)

Highly commended: Middle East  

KIZAD (Khalifa Industrial Zone, Abu Dhabi), UAE

Khalifa Industrial Zone has been highly commended for its SME strategy among zones in the Middle East. Kizad announced a special incentives package for SMEs, making more than 75 of its 100 free zone services free of charge.

Winners - Large tenants

Winner: Global

Tanger Med Zones, Morocco 

Tanger Med Zones has strengthened its role as a major destination for large tenants in industries such as automotive and aerospace. Operator Tanger Med Group developed a new 24,000-square-metre automotive logistic platform and expanded the Tanger Automotive City to streamline the operations of the original equipment manufacturers active in the zone. Some marquee automotive tenants of the likes of Magneti Marelli, Furukawa and GMD pushed through major expansions in 2019. 

Highly commended: Global 

Oil & Gas Free Zone, Onne, Nigeria

The Oil & Gas Free Zone in Onne, Nigeria has been strengthening its offering for major oil and gas producers and services companies though a comprehensive set of incentives, as well as major infrastructure developments such as the newly commissioned harbour mobile cranes and a 600-hectare land reclamation project that is planning to break ground in the near future. 

Winner: Africa 

Tanger Med Zones, Morocco 

(see large tenants, global awards)

Highly commended: Africa 

Oil & Gas Free Zone, Onne, Nigeria

(see large tenants, global awards)

Winner: Asia-Pacific 

Special Economic Zone ‘Pavlodar’, Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s Special Economic Zone ‘Pavlodar’ came up with the strategy ‘Plug in your business’ to allow every new entrepreneur to start a business within a short time (becoming a resident of SEZ ‘Pavlodar’ takes only a week) in the field of chemistry, petrochemistry and metallurgy. The zone also ran an analysis for investors and tenants to identify business potential not only in the territory of Pavlodar region but also in the territory of Kazakhstan, Russia and Central Asia. The zone also joined the World Free Zones Organisation with the aim of recognition and information support. 

Highly commended: Asia-Pacific 

Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone, China

The Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone has established an investment management system built on pre-establishment national treatment and an ever-shortening negative list to improve openness and transparency; a trade supervision system based on trade facilitation to cut down red tape and paperwork for business registration and operation; a financial innovation system aimed at capital account convertibility and opening up in the financial service sector to attract foreign capital and help domestic companies go global; and a regulatory system focused on transforming government functions to provide a stable regulatory environment. In addition, temporary adjustments have been made on both national and local levels to laws and regulations, in order to provide legal guarantees for the zone.

Winner: Europe

Freeport of Ventspils, Latvia

The Freeport of Ventspils is in the process of developing new rental production spaces that will generate an increase of 25% in the freeport authority’s supply of rental industrial real estate. The project was half-completed in 2019, and the remaining work is planned for 2020. With regards to the availability of a skilled workforce, the freeport tenants can benefit from well-developed vocational education in required fields and skilled labour. Ventspils has one of the best bases for higher education in the Baltics, the company says. 

Highly commended: Europe

Free Zone Pirot, Serbia

Free Zone Pirot worked with the local customs to develop a software platform called “Team Sharing” for digitisation, integration and automation of export/import processes in the zone. While expanding in area by 14.8% in 2019, the zone is now developing a logistics centre that will enable hauliers to shift transit goods from road to railway. At the same time, a new project to expand the zone by 200 hectares (522 hectares in the long run) is at the stage of local planning documents, the zone says. 

Winner: Americas

Coyol Free Zone, Costa Rica

Coyol Free Zone hosts the operations of 29 companies, seven of them ranked among the top 30 medical device companies in the world. These are Medtronic, Abbott Medical, Philips, Cardinal Health, MicroVention-Terumo, Smith & Nephew and Hologic. Constant government support for multinational companies located in Costa Rica have been provided to ensure operational continuity with the least possible impact during unprecedented times. Providing constant communication and guidance to multinationals on new regulations, business facilitation and policies, as well as rigorous infrastructure, have allowed companies to work from home maintaining quality standards.

Highly commended: Americas

Panamá Pacífico, Panama

Panamá Pacífico already hosts several large tenants of the likes of Japan’s Hino Motors and South Korea’s Samsung, among others, and is now planning to upgrade its offer through the construction of additional warehousing and office space. Besides, the zone is set to benefit from a range of major infrastructure projects being developed by the national government to leverage the logistic potential of the isthmus, including a new logistics corridor to better connect the north of the country and a fourth bridge on the Panama Canal. 

Winner: Middle East

KIZAD (Khalifa Industrial Zone, Abu Dhabi), UAE

For large tenants, KIZAD launched a Polymers Park in partnership with major industry players such as ADNOC and Borouge in 2019. With volume rebates on raw materials, shorter transits and lower batch sizes, access to training, research and product development, polymer packaging plant and mega distribution centre for polymer raw materials, the park aims to produce between 300 and 400 kilotonnes of plastic products a year, creating up to 7000 jobs and contributing $2.5bn to GDP by 2025. A food cluster was also launched as the hub for food processing, storage and distribution, serving the major markets in the region, as well as a metal cluster for regional and global upstream, midstream and downstream metals industry. 

Highly commended – Middle East:

Ajman Free Zone, UAE

The Ajman Free Zone is carrying out a sustainable warehouse project to facilitate the expansion of existing tenants within its premises. It consists of 82 new warehouses all applying a sustainability rule to reduce electricity consumption. Also, the zone is in the final stages of opening a logistics corridor to serve the industrial zone and Ajman Port to ease the transformation of goods between the two locations for import and exports. 

Follow the link for a video presentation of the awards. 

fDi's Global Free Zones of the Year 2020 first appeared in the October - November print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.