Against the backdrop of a global economy still emerging from recession, representives of free zones from around the world gathered at Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven states making up the United Arab Emirates, for the 10th World Free Zone Convention, during which they sounded a call for special economic zones, free-trade zones, industrial, business and logistics parks, and other types of free zones to remain central to national economic growth strategies.

Speaking on behalf of the convention's host country – one of the most successful case studies for free-zone development – the UAE's minister for foreign trade, Sheikha Lubna Khalid Al Qasimi, said the country's 36 zones have been the "catalyst" for economic diversification and growth and the key to the country's strong position as a regional hub.

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She gave a nod to Ras Al Khaimah's active development of its zones, pointing to the emirate's representation in fDi Magazine's Global Free Zones of the Future 2010/11 rankings.

RAK Free Trade Zone chairman Oussama El Omari said the global economic downturn was a "rallying point" for free zones, causing them to reassess their strategies and become more innovative. "We are back on the growth track, and are stronger, leaner and more efficient than before," he said.

Participants stressed how zones must diversify their offerings beyond just tax advantages in order to stay competitive, and the successful, sustainable ones will be those that can evolve into more sophisticated business service centres.

Graham Mather, chairman of the convention, identified logistics as an increasingly important location determinant for investments into free zones. "As it becomes more difficult to reduce production costs, the area of logistics efficiencies is where the key value can be created and that is where free zones have an advantage," he said.