How to set up a successful business in Dubai

As well as being one of the most visited cities in the world—thanks to its world-class shopping and record-setting architecture—Dubai is also the business hub of the Middle East. Entrepreneurs from around the world are attracted to the luxury, modernity, and glamour of the truly global city.

In addition to harbouring a convenient geo-location—close to Eastern Europe, Africa, West Asia and the Commonwealth of Independent States—Dubai offers some of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world, and a smaller cost of living compared to other developed cities. What’s more, there are plenty of business opportunities in the emirate, spanning sectors like tourism, finance, media, real estate, and technology.

If its immense appeal has piqued your interest in establishing a business in Dubai, read on to learn everything you need to know about setting up a company in the city.

What to know beforehand

You’ll need to establish your “business activity” before applying for a license, as this determines which government body you’ll need to contact. For instance, “road transport activities” require approval from the Road and Transport Authority within the UAE’s Commercial Activities Department. Meanwhile, “architectural and engineering activities” must be approved from the Dubai Municipality in the Building Department. The Dubai Economic Department (DED) website lists over 2,100 approved business activities, so contact them directly if yours is not featured. Some, like the jewellery and magazine trades, require approval from external bodies.

You’ll also need to choose the economic zone in which you’d like your business to operate. There are around 30 Free Zones in Dubai, which are areas across the UAE that have been specifically set up to boost international business. These give total ownership of your company, allowing you to benefit from financial incentives like tax exemption on personal or corporate income and gains, and complete repatriation of capital and profits. On the other hand, you may prefer to conduct business on Dubai’s mainland, which allows you to do business in any part of the UAE, providing more options for business activity.

If you’re starting a mainland business that is under a DED licence, you’ll need to find a local sponsor, agent, or partner. While this isn’t mandatory for companies in Free Zones, it could still prove beneficial to have a local contact in your sector.

Finally, you may need to obtain UAE document attestation for any paperwork required for the business registration process. This confirms that all documentation has been verified by the UAE embassy and will, therefore, be legally recognized by the country’s government officials. Attestation is necessary for critical commercial documents including VAT certificates, annual returns, and contracts.

How to register your company in Dubai

  • Select the business category
    First, you’ll need to figure out the category your business falls in and find the right legal form with the DED. Contrary to the name, this isn’t a form or legal document that needs to be filled in, rather explains the makeup of your firm depending on the Free Zone and the category. You will need to describe the kind of business you’re starting, as well as the number of owners, nationalities, and ownership options.

  • Choose a trade name
    You’ll need to register your chosen trade name by visiting the DED head office or online. Be aware that certain naming rules apply, such as not including words which are impossible to translate into Arabic. The registration must be paid for within 72 hours upon receiving the payment voucher.

  • Apply for an Initial Approvement Certificate
    This proves that the DED supports your new business. You can apply online, through the official Business in Dubai app, via law firms and service centres, or the Happiness Lounge, which is located on the first floor of the Business Village. You may also be required to sign a Memorandum of Association (MOA) or Local Service Agent (LSA).
  • Find a business address
    All businesses in Dubai must have an address, so you need to find an office or physical location to base your enterprise.
  • Obtain your business license
    After approvals have been made for your business, you can submit your documentation and fees to obtain your license. You will need to pay for your trade licence within 30 days of receiving a payment voucher. This process takes around 10 days, and after approval, you can start trading.

Things to consider for a successful business

Network as much as possible

Networking is essential for any new company but especially important when establishing yourself in a foreign country. Attend conferences and industry events to meet like-minded entrepreneurs and build your own brand awareness. Establishing your own professional network gives you connections to useful contacts who may be able to support your business going forward, helping it grow.

Hire the best talent

Dubai is home to a workforce with diverse skillsets, and six out of ten employees hold a secondary education certificate, while 34% have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Make the most of this talent during the hiring process, and surround yourself with a distinct and driven group of employees, who can help create and shape a shared vision for your business’ future.

Focus on digital marketing

You will need to promote your new business effectively in order to attract customers, and digital marketing could be the most effective way to do it. A huge 99.4% of Dubai’s population is active on social media, so sharing informative content across channels like blogs, social media profiles, and press releases can directly target your key audience.