Sourabh Chandrakar

Navigating the Business Landscape in the UAE: Requirements and Partial Foreign Ownership

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has long been a magnet for entrepreneurs and investors from around the globe, thanks to its strategic location, robust economy, and business-friendly environment. The country’s commitment to fostering a supportive ecosystem for businesses is evident in its regulatory frameworks, which are designed to encourage investment and growth. However, navigating the requirements to run a business in the UAE, especially concerning partial foreign ownership, can be complex. This article aims to shed light on the key requirements and recent changes in the laws governing foreign ownership in the UAE.

Understanding the Basics

To start and run a business in the UAE, entrepreneurs must first acquaint themselves with the basic requirements, which include:

  • Business Registration and Licensing: All businesses in the UAE must obtain a license to operate. The type of license required—commercial, professional, industrial, or tourism—depends on the nature of the business activities.
  • Choosing the Right Jurisdiction: The UAE offers two main types of business jurisdictions—Mainland and Free Zone. Each has its own set of rules, benefits, and limitations, particularly concerning ownership and taxation.
  • Local Sponsorship: Historically, foreign entrepreneurs looking to establish a business in the UAE Mainland needed a local sponsor (a UAE national) who would own at least 51% of the business. However, recent reforms have significantly altered this requirement, which we will delve into shortly.
  • Office Space and Physical Presence: Businesses often need to prove they have a physical presence in the UAE, which typically means renting office space.
  • Compliance with Legal Requirements: Companies must comply with all local laws, which can include obtaining additional approvals, undergoing regular audits, and adhering to employment laws.

The Game-Changing Foreign Ownership Laws

A landmark change in the UAE’s approach to foreign business ownership came in 2020 when the government announced a new Commercial Companies Law. This law allows 100% foreign ownership of businesses in the Mainland under certain conditions, a significant shift from the earlier requirement of having a majority Emirati ownership. Here are the key points regarding this change:

  • Sector-Specific Applications: The allowance for 100% foreign ownership is not blanket across all sectors. It applies to specific sectors and activities identified by the UAE government, aimed at boosting the economy’s strategic sectors.
  • Approval Process: Foreign investors seeking 100% ownership must obtain approvals from relevant authorities, and the process can vary depending on the business activity and location.
  • Impact on Local Sponsorship: This shift reduces the dependency on local sponsors for foreign entrepreneurs. However, engaging with a local service agent or partner can still provide valuable insights and facilitate business operations.

Navigating Partial Foreign Ownership

Despite the new law allowing 100% foreign ownership, many businesses may still opt for partial foreign ownership for various reasons, including strategic partnerships with UAE nationals, access to local networks, and insights into the regional market. Here are some considerations for businesses operating under partial foreign ownership:

  • Legal Structure and Agreements: It’s crucial to have clear legal agreements detailing the roles, responsibilities, and profit-sharing arrangements between foreign and local partners. Transparent and fair agreements can prevent conflicts and ensure long-term success.
  • Understanding Cultural Nuances: For foreign investors, understanding the local business culture is vital. UAE nationals bring a wealth of knowledge about local customs, business practices, and regulatory landscapes, which can be invaluable for navigating the market successfully.
  • Strategic Benefits: Partial foreign ownership can also offer strategic benefits, such as easier access to certain licenses, government projects, and local markets.

Looking Ahead

The UAE’s move towards allowing increased foreign ownership reflects its ambition to strengthen its position as a leading global business hub. For entrepreneurs and investors, these changes open up new opportunities but also come with the need for careful planning and understanding of the legal landscape.

Entrepreneurs interested in the UAE market should consider the following steps:

  • Conduct Thorough Research: Understand the specific requirements and opportunities in your sector, including the implications of the new foreign ownership laws.
  • Seek Expert Advice: Navigating legal and regulatory frameworks can be complex. Engaging with legal advisors and consultants who specialize in UAE business law can provide clarity and strategic direction.
  • Consider Long-Term Goals: Decide on the ownership structure that best aligns with your business goals, whether that’s leveraging the benefits of 100% foreign ownership or entering into partnerships with UAE nationals for strategic advantages.


The UAE’s evolving business landscape presents both opportunities and challenges for domestic and foreign entrepreneurs. The recent changes allowing for increased foreign ownership mark a significant shift in the country’s economic policy, aimed at attracting more foreign investment and diversifying the economy. As the UAE continues to update its laws and regulations, staying informed and adaptable will be key for businesses looking to thrive in this dynamic market. Whether opting for full foreign ownership or exploring partnerships with UAE nationals, the potential for growth and success in the UAE is immense for those who are willing to navigate the complexities of the market with diligence, strategic planning, and a keen understanding of local regulations and cultural nuances. 

The UAE’s dynamic economy, bolstered by its diverse sectors and ambitious development projects, provides a fertile ground for businesses across a wide range of industries. By leveraging the unique advantages offered by the UAE’s business environment—such as its strategic location, world-class infrastructure, and government incentives—investors and entrepreneurs can unlock unprecedented opportunities. Engaging with the right local expertise and adopting a flexible, forward-thinking approach will be key to not only entering the market but thriving in it. The UAE continues to evolve, and with it, the opportunities for growth and innovation in the realm of business and investment expand, making it a compelling destination for those looking to make a mark on the global stage.


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