Special economic zone, export processing zone, free-trade zone, free port or just plain old free zone. An area that offers businesses incentives, tax relief, grants and support to encourage them to invest in their location. Free zones are becoming ever more competitive and further widespread, offering increasingly modern and attractive options for tenants. But how do free zones compare across the world? fDi has run its inaugural Global Free Zones of the Year Awards for 2014, and here is what we uncovered.

Winners – Global

Winner – Large Tenants – Jebel Ali Free Zone, UAE

Jebel Ali Free Zone (Jafza) stood out as fDi’s Global Free Zone of the Year 2014 for Large Tenants, coming off the back of being crowned fDi’s Middle East and North Africa Free Zone of the Year 2014 for Large Tenants in June. The zone is home to more than 7200 companies, with over 27.87 million square metres of occupied space. In operation for more than 29 years, the zone has proved a popular choice for big-name investors, and has 100 Fortune 500 companies listed as tenants. In the past 12 months, Jafza has invested a total of Dh140m ($38.1m) in improvements to its infrastructure and facilities, including a major Dh108m development to its Gate 4 project, which will introduce a 16-lane entryway to facilitate smooth entry and exit for tenants and their clients. Aiming to build on the zone’s strong performance in 2013, which saw an increase in occupied space of 18%, Jafza has established a further two business centres and two incubation centres, which typically allow investors to explore business possibilities in the area, with office space and facilities available to experience doing business in that location before committing to a facility.

Winner – SME – Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), UAE

Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC) took the crown for fDi’s Global Free Zone of the Year in the SME category. Home to a vast array of multinational companies, DMCC continues to add 200 companies a month to its already sizeable tenant register of 7927. The zone has experienced a 39% increase in occupancy since 2012 and the vast majority of these tenants were new to Dubai. DMCC operates as the world’s leading physical gold market, with 40% of the world’s trade in the metal passing through the emirate. As a commodity trading hub, the zone claimed a 60% share of the tea re-exporting market, as well as seeing a $35bn increase in the trade of diamonds since 2003. However, the zone is not solely about commodities trading – it is also home to more than 80,000 people who have moved to work and live there since its opening in 2002. On its entry survey, DMCC stated: “Being the number one destination for companies of all sizes representing every corner of the world in turn encourages business opportunities among the member companies based within the free zone, as well as encouraging international growth and access to new markets.”

Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive chairman of DMCC, said: “DMCC receiving the fDi Global Free Zone of the Year for SMEs is a strong indication of Dubai’s leading role as the global destination for SMEs.

“We attribute this landmark achievement to the vision and leadership of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice-president, prime minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai to develop a vibrant SME sector and to take a leading position in empowering entrepreneurs. His Highness’ influential leadership constantly inspires DMCC to innovate and grow with one objective – to offer an inclusive marketplace where businesses can trade with confidence while ensuring Dubai continuously excels as the global hub for commodities trade and enterprise.”

Highly Commended – Large Tenants and SME – Dubai Airport Free Zone, UAE

Dubai Airport Free Zone (Dafza) has been given the runner-up awards for both SME and Large Tenants categories. The zone has a track record of attracting SME tenants, with 96.3% of its clients falling into this category. Dafza is home to more than 1500 companies, and witnessed a 14% increase in tenant numbers in the period between 2012 and 2013. However, the judging panel also felt that the zone had an impressive line-up of multinational companies among its tenants, including Airbus, Audi, Boeing, Panasonic, Red Bull and Sumitomo. With a comprehensive marketing strategy in place, including a media plan to cover international markets, international events and roadshows, Dafza sets its sights on international companies of any size. The zone also puts a focus on post-investment care, ensuring the investor is well supported once established. On the survey supplied to fDi, Dafza stated that it is “investing in its intangible assets mainly comprising of new software, system implementations, customisations, upgrading, etc, thus ensuring that all our technology is up to date and supporting business requirements on an ongoing basis.”

Highly Commended – SME – Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone, UAE

Boasting 7500 tenants in 2013, Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone (RAK FTZ) has been awarded joint-runner-up in the SME category of fDi’s Global Free Zones of the Year awards. The zone witnessed a 24% increase in occupied space from 2012 to 2013, with an additional 2900 companies entering the zone in 2013. RAK FTZ offers convenient registration and cost-effective packages with the aim of attracting more SMEs and becoming a hub for these companies. In addition, the zone offers four separate parks, each with a specialised focus for companies: a business park for office clients; a technology park for light manufacturing and trading; an industrial park for heavy manufacturing; and an academic zone for educational institutions. The company’s international strategy is also noteworthy, with roadshows throughout Europe and Asia to reach out to potential investors, as well as global offices to provide support and spark interest.   

Winners – Americas

Winner – Large Tenants – Americas – FTZ No 74 Baltimore, US

Foreign Trade Zone No 74 in Baltimore, Maryland, is home to 153 companies, all of which occupy a total space of 4.9 million square metres, an increase of 12% from 2012. Most tenants in the zone occupy more than 450 square metres, and employ between 15 and 25 staff on site. The zone’s focus is manufacturing in a range of sectors, from automotive and construction equipment to farming equipment and light duty trucks. The zone enjoys access to the Port of Baltimore, which recently added four new cranes and dredged a further 50 feet to service new and larger post-Panamax ships. These ships will be able to travel through the Panama Canal, and Baltimore is only one of two east coast US ports that can accommodate these larger vessels. FTZ No 74 is also the western-most port on the east coast of the US, and can access 75% of the US market overnight, making it an attractive option for companies who rely on exporting their goods.

Winner – SME – Americas – Zonamerica, Uruguay

Despite 86% of its tenants falling into the SME category, Zonamerica is home to some large multinational companies. Citi, Deloitte, KPMG, PwC, Tata Consultancy Services and Saxo Bank are all tenants in the zone, which has a total space of more than 93,000 square metres. Offering good connectivity to its clients, the zone is situated only 10 minutes from Montevideo International airport and 30 minutes from the Port of Montevideo. Zonamerica provides its tenants with a solid IT infrastructure, with its own cloud computing solution, Zonamerica Cloud, providing an alternative for tenants to manage their IT operations and infrastructure. The zone also offers its clients HR support, with labour law consultants and induction programmes.

Honourable Mention – Americas

FTZ No 68, El Paso, US

The mix of large tenants and SMEs in FTZ No 68 originate from a range of industries and sectors. Companies involved in distribution, transportation and consumer electronics manufacturing call this zone home. FTZ No 68 recently held an event trade show – El Paso to the World: Export Forum 2014 – which featured business-to-business meetings designed to pair potential trade partners and to promote potential increased tenant activity. The zone also offers fee waivers as an incentive to attract start-up companies.

Bespoke Awards – Americas

Commended for the highest growth in occupied space – FTZ No 5, Seattle, US

In the period from 2012 to 2013, occupied space at FTZ No 5 increased by 72%, from 33,180 square metres to 57,238 square metres. This increase was due to the addition of one company’s warehouse to the zone, which measured more than 24,000 square metres. All five current zone tenants occupy more than 450 square metres of space. The zone targets a variety of sectors, including aerospace, pharmaceuticals, logistics, consumer retail, medical devices and auto and truck manufacturing. The service area of the free zone lies in close proximity to both the Port of Seattle's seaport and the city's airport.    

Winners – Asia

Winner – Large Tenants – Sri City, India

Sri City in India has won fDi’s Global Free Zone of the Year 2014 award for the Large Tenants in the Asia category. Companies occupy nearly 1.2 million square metres in the zone, with large tenants from 25 countries across the world. The zone was home to 30 tenants in 2013, such as US-based West Pharma and Thailand-based Rockworth. Sri City's infrastructure network, with its abundant water and consistent power impressed the judging panel, as did its residential houses, schools, hospitals, business centre, recreation activities and leisure facilities. The zone also offers its tenants food courts, an 18-hole golf course and multiplex cinemas to encourage a good work-life balance. Well connected for trade, Sri City has four sea ports and two international airports within a radius of 100 kilometres.

Winner – SME – Asia – Daegu Gyeongbuk, South Korea

Daegu Gyeongbuk (DG), which attracts automotive, machinery, IT and healthcare sectors, experienced a 23% annual increase in tenant numbers in 2013. The zone boasted 181 companies in 2013, which occupied 2.23 million square metres. DG has focused on two main stages of operation. The first has been to focus on attracting more core competency companies in sectors such as manufacturing. The second stage of development is now under way at the zone, paving the way for more office-based companies to take up residency. These companies will build on the manufacturing foundation laid by the zone, and will focus on IT, software, electronics and healthcare. By the end of 2014, a new $4.5bn medical complex will be created, which will house IT and healthcare companies. In an effort to attract more research and development SMEs, the zone offers what it describes as “greatly discounted rent and use of cutting-edge equipment, not [currently] available to SMEs”. These companies will also benefit from the expertise of highly skilled researchers, in return for a percentage of royalties upon the commercialisation of a product.

Bespoke Awards – Asia

Commended for reduction in red tape – Clark Freeport Zone, Philippines

There was a shift in Clark Freeport Zone from a ‘regulatory’ to a ‘business enhancement’ mindset in 2013, which led to a reduction in regulatory processes of between 30% and 50% of the levels seen in 2012. The zone also adapted its electronic business registration, allowing businesses to complete their transactions online. To save existing tenants the trouble of renewing their permits every year, the zone's development body, Clark Development Corporation (CDC), introduced a three-year certificate of registration and tax exemption. "We are continually seeking ways to improve service to our locators," the CDC wrote in its entry form. "One major thrust is to provide more reliable utility services (water, power, solid waste) at competitive rates. We have gained a good lead on this and soon our locators will benefit from these initiatives."

Winners – Europe

Joint Winner – Large Tenants – Europe – Technological Industrial Development Zone, Skopje, Macedonia

Technological Industrial Development Zone (TIDZ) of Skopje has been declared joint winner of the European Large Tenants category. Total occupied space at the zone increased 39% in the period between 2012 and 2013, increasing to 480,000 square metres, which averages 53,211 square metres per tenant. Companies hail from various heavy industries such as automotive manufacturing, hydraulic components manufacturing and the manufacture of electric and medical equipment. The zone has continued to develop its targeted marketing strategy to attract companies to the zone, which has contributed to its sizeable increase in occupied space. The zone takes part in business conferences and other international, sector-specific events, while also promoting Macedonia’s investment incentives and economic development story in international print and broadcast media. 

On its entry survey, the zone stated: “Our commitment to excellence is evidenced by the announcement in 2013 by current British tenant Johnson Matthey to reinvest in Macedonia and double their capacity. Italian company TeknoHose also decided to reinvest, tripling their capacity. These two organisations were not alone in their decision – the US’s Johnson Controls and Russia’s Prodis have also reinvested.”

Joint Winner – Large Tenants – Europe – Special Economic Zone Lipetsk, Russia

SEZ Lipetsk has also been declared the joint winner of the European Large Tenants category. The zone was home to 29 tenants in 2013, seven higher than in 2012. These tenants occupy more than 2.14 million square metres of space in the zone, with the smallest tenant operating in 930 square metres. The zone has attracted an international industrial client base, with Japan-based tyre manufacturer Yokohama, Germany-based plastics and rubber company Lanxess and US-based chemicals company PPG Industries among its tenants. The zone is also actively involved in employment searches, with collaboration agreements existing with local leading recruitment companies. With good connectivity, offering links to two of Russia’s biggest highways – M4 and M6 – SEZ Lipetsk markets itself under the slogan 'Ahead of Time', and with an official planning application submitted for the extension of the zone, it is certainly looking towards growing further in the future.

Winner – SME – Europe – Lodz Special Economic Zone, Poland

Lodz Special Economic Zone (Lodz SEZ) has been crowned the winner of the European SME category. The zone increased its tenancy numbers by 9% in 2013, and currently has 237 tenants which occupy a total of 7.7 million square metres. Lodz SEZ focuses on attracting and supporting SMEs, and has in place a dedicated SME strategy. SMEs in the zone receive a level of state aid higher than for larger companies, as well as receiving the expertise of a dedicated project manager, whose job it is to guide the company through the entire investment process and provide post-investment care, including contacting local authorities and business partners as well as free training and conferences. Lodz SEZ also takes its clients’ workers into consideration, an example of which is the building of the British International School of the University of Lodz. The school, located in the zone, enrols the children of investors and prepares them for all the major UK exams. The zone prides itself on adapting its approach to investors, stating on its entry survey: “To encompass all major sectors in the zone, we examine their role in the Polish and worldwide economy, their expectations and demands, and we adjust our offer to them.”

Honourable mentions – Europe

Aegean Free Zone Industrial Park, Turkey

The Aegean Free Zone Industrial Park has attracted a large portion of inward FDI in Turkey’s manufacturing sector since its opening in 1990. The aim of the zone is to provide investors with the same standard of facilities and services they would expect to receive in their own home countries. The zone features a mix of larger tenants and SMEs, with 88 large tenants and 102 SMEs operating in the zone.

Katowice Special Economic Zone, Poland

Katowice Special Economic Zone houses only large tenants, with 63% of those from the automotive industry. The zone has had a big impact on the economic prosperity of the region, accounting for the creation of 53,000 jobs. A further 150,000 jobs have been created locally due to companies co-operating with those enterprises operational in the zone.

Klaipeda Free Economic Zone, Lithuania

Klaipeda Free Economic Zone attracts larger tenants and is home to heavy industries such as polyethylene terephthalate production (including resins, films and foams) as well as automotive and electronics. The smallest facility in the zone measures 1950 square metres, putting it comfortably in fDi’s Large Tenants category. The zone experienced a growth of 6% between 2012 and 2013 in terms of total investments, reaching €522m in 2013.

Special Economic Zone Alabuga, Russia

Special Economic Zone Alabuga (SEZ Alabuga) saw a 34% increase in occupied space between 2012 and 2013. The zone attracts mainly larger tenants, with 98% of the zone’s clients falling into this category. As the largest industrial special economic zone in Russia, SEZ Alabuga counts automotive giants such as Ford, as well as US-based technology company 3M and France-based chemical giant Air Liquide among its clients. To date, investments in completed projects in the zone have amounted to $3bn. In addition to the industrial parks at the zone, SEZ Alabuga will soon be home to the Tri Medvedya complex, which will contain an International Baccalaureate school for children of the tenants, as well as a cottage settlement for managers in the zone, an apartment complex for specialists, and a sports complex. This will make the zone a popular destination in which to live and work.

Bespoke Awards – Europe

Commended for improvements in infrastructure – Free Zone of Thessaloniki, Greece

Free Zone of Thessaloniki has invested extensively in its rail network, undertaking major maintenance on the lines to increase the quality of infrastructure it can offer to its tenants. The zone can now offer two new train routes, which have been launched in co-operation with the national state-owned rail company, Trainose. Both lines will concentrate on the movement of bulk cargo and containers, making the zone more accessible and attractive to companies wishing to export their goods.

Commended for soft landing services – Wałbrzych Special Economic Zone, Poland

Wałbrzych Special Economic Zone supports investors at all stages of the investment process. The zone aims to simplify the procedure of applying for permits to conduct business and will also provide post-investment assistance. Wałbrzych SEZ also co-operates with local vocational schools and government authorities to find skilled employees and to improve relations with investors. It also provides assistance with administration and utilities providers.

Commended for the CSR practices – Pomeranian Special Economic Zone, Poland

A strong emphasis is put on corporate social responsibility in Pomeranian Special Economic Zone. There are many programmes in place to help integrate and support the workforce in the zone, among them a female labour market re-entry programme, special conditions for pregnant and young mothers, scholarships for young scientists, and support for local communities. A vocational education programme was also introduced in the zone, which aims to provide a qualified workforce to potential investors, who are trained to the specific requirements of the investing company.

Commended for the entrepreneur support – Cadiz Free Trade Zone, Spain

Companies located in Cadiz Free Trade Zone are well supported in their operations. The zone “aims to facilitate entrepreneurs across the province access to all of its assets to implement new activities,” it stated in its entry. This measure includes the deferral of one year’s rent, which the client can pay back interest free over two years. The zone also offers a discount on rent and lease purchases, amounting to 20% in the first year and 10% in the second.

Commended for incentives – Free Zone Zrenjanin, Serbia

Investors setting up shop in Free Zone Zrenjanin have a choice of incentives to support their investment decision. The zone’s facilities are rented or sold fully equipped with electricity, gas and water supply, sewerage systems, roads and telecommunications infrastructure in place. The zone also offers a full reduction in land prices if the investor employs 1% of the total number of those employed in the economy sector in the city. It offers an exemption of customs duties on the import of raw goods, equipment and raw materials that will be used in the export of infrastructure and construction material, as well as zero indirect taxes on goods provided for performing business activities.

Commended for reinvestment – Free Zone Pirot, Serbia

The main tenant in Free Zone Pirot is automotive tyre manufacturer Tigar Tyres, part of France-based automotive company Michelin. The company is planning to expand production at the zone to 8 million tyres per year by 2016, and again to 20 million tyres by 2020. The total value of the expansion is €215m and will result in the creation of 8550 square metres of extra space in the zone.

Winners – Middle East and Africa

Winner – Large Tenants – Middle East and Africa – Jebel Ali Free Zone, UAE

(see global winners)

Winner – SME – Middle East and Africa – DMCC, UAE

(see global winners)

Honourable Mentions – Middle East and Africa

Ras Al Khaimah Free Trade Zone, UAE

(see global winners)

Hamriyah Free Zone, UAE

Hamriyah Free Zone (HFZ) has a focus on SME investors, with 4663 of its 5500 tenants in 2013 occupying space below 450 square metres. The free zone offers investors sub-zones, which are designed to attract and support cluster industries. These include an oil and gas zone, petrochemical zone, Steel City, Construction World, Timber Land, Maritime City and Perfume World. Recently, the zone expanded to offer Hamriyah Food and Plastic Packaging Park. HFZ also seeks to support the community around the zone, with worker accommodation facilities and a health clinic, as well as banks, shopping complexes and cafeterias to encourage a good work-life balance.

Sohar Port and Free Zone, Oman

Sohar Port and Free Zone supported 37 tenants in 2013, up from 30 in 2012. The zone attracts companies from a range of industries, including petrochemicals, metals and automotive. Sohar is preparing to spread its wings, with plans for an agricultural cluster in place and 23 logistics projects currently committed to the zone. More than 8800 direct jobs have been created at the port, which in turn has led to the creation of approximately 250,000 indirect jobs in related industries, both inside and outside of the zone.

Bespoke awards – Middle East and Africa

Commended for best facility upgrades – Middle East and Africa

Twofour54, UAE

Twofour54 in northern Abu Dhabi has recently improved its retail offerings, with the addition of the city’s largest gym and National Bank of Abu Dhabi branch and the construction of more restaurants. Twofour54 has also created 'The Space', which is a 500-square-metre community project dedicated to tenants for networking, meetings and events, with a cinema and coffee shop. To complement this, 'The Lab' has been launched and features an innovation space with free production facilities for community use. Eager to streamline red tape for its workers, an official government immigration office has been set up in the zone.

Dubai Silicon Oasis, UAE

Dubai Silicon Oasis has added Silicon Park, at a cost of nearly $300m. This smart city project will span 150,000 square metres upon its completion in 2017, and will combine office, residential and commercial space. The zone is also investing $27m in an entrepreneurial centre, which is set to be the largest in the region, as well as developing its IT infrastructure, with data centres one and two receiving 'Tier III' design certification and the rolling out of its zone-wide free Wi-Fi programme.

Tanger Free Zone, Morocco

Tanger Free Zone has developed its Tanger Automotive City area, which is designed to encourage the growth of an automotive cluster in the zone spanning over 3 million square metres. The zone also worked to establish the 200,000-square-metre Tetouan Park development, which is an area dedicated to light manufacturing and processing SMEs.

Djibouti Free Zone, Djibouti

In response to planned expansions of its local ports and airport, Djibouti Free Zone is working on the establishment of a second zone – Jabanas Free Zone. This zone is being constructed to complement Djibouti Free Zone, and forms part of a $6bn investment in the country’s airports, maritime and free zone sectors by 2017.

Salalah Free Zone, Oman

With SMEs accounting for only 8% of the total companies domiciled at Salalah Free Zone (SFZ), its focus has shifted to attracting future investment from smaller enterprises. SFZ is developing a dedicated SME centre in the zone which will focus on attracting foreign investments in this category, allowing them to capitalise on the opportunities on offer.

To download the full results, please click below:


fDi’s Global Free Zones of the Year Awards 2014, which replace fDi’s previous biannual Global Free Zones of the Future rankings, acknowledge the most promising free zones across the world at this time. For this year’s awards, fDi invited free zones, government entities and investment promotion bodies to complete a short survey detailing their zone’s attractiveness, facilities and incentives offered to investors. In total, 45 entries were received from free zones across the world, including 17 from fDi’s Middle East and North Africa Free Zones of the Year 2014 awards. A panel of judges from fDi was appointed and studied each location. Free zones were then ranked within their region, and each region was presented with ‘Best Zone for Large Tenants’ and ‘Best Zone for SMEs’ awards. In addition, some locations which were particularly outstanding but which did not win overall awards have been acknowledged with honourable mentions and bespoke awards. Winners were selected based on their performance compared to others in their region over the past year. Elements such as percentage increase in tenants, growth of the zone in the past year and implementation of new incentives which have given the zone a competitive edge were all key criteria. After all, growth is a reflection of the zones' success and verification of the zones' value propositions for companies.