Looking past the pandemic: Why Innovation is the way forward – Gulf News

Leaders from the free zone community and the business set-up sector share their views
Dr Khalid Omar Al Midfa, Chairman, Sharjah Media City — Shams

Entrepreneurs need to be aware of the changes that are driving businesses in a post-pandemic world. What are the key trends you believe will impact start-ups and SMEs the most in 2022 and beyond?
Consumption patterns are constantly changing. As a result of the pandemic, consumers are developing new interests and desires that frequently have short lifespans and which are quickly replaced by even newer preferences. In my opinion, the focus of starting a business should be on financing and spending wisely, whether establishing or expanding a business. It is important to plan carefully for all market variables, account for the possibility of loss, and devise alternative plans for financing and core activities. However, it should also be noted that there are numerous opportunities for those with innovative ideas. Fresh products and services have a lot of traction right now as consumers are on the look-out for new products, services and trends.
You have earlier stated that Shams aims to become the regional centre of media technology. How do you plan to achieve this?
One of Shams’ most important directions is to present its vision of a media sector based on innovation and creativity, which is in line with the position of the Emirate of Sharjah as a global centre for culture and civilisation. It strives to do this by qualifying human cadres that support the innovation system and establish new ways of working that can propel the media scene to greater heights. To train and nurture media talent, Shams holds regular workshops aimed at refining the skills of media professionals and entrepreneurs in the sector and providing them with the latest experiences and knowledge for an array of media disciplines. We believe in creative ideas and we have the capacity and enthusiasm to turn these into viable projects.
Shams creates talent and entrepreneurs by providing opportunities for their ideas to take flight. Every pioneering project start with an idea, and we take these concepts and shape them into tangible initiatives that can set new standards in the media sector. Our future is bright and I see Shams becoming established as a leader in the local and regional media sector within the next few years.
Eng. Ali Al Suwaidi, Director General, Ajman Free Zone

Could you share some details on Shams Business Centre? How is it set to strengthen Sharjah’s start-up ecosystem for media companies?
The Shams Business Centre is the core of the Shams business community and is our first step in further developing the free zone, which lies on a two million square metre space. This will progressively become established as an integrated base in the coming years by the efforts of Shams’ team to create opportunities and transform the innovative ideas of entrepreneurs into viable projects that can grow, thrive, and contribute to the development of the UAE’s media community.
Innovation is the way forward to stay relevant in the post-pandemic world. What does innovation mean to your free zone?
At Ajman Free Zone, innovation is the foundation of its success as one of the world’s leading business hubs. For us, innovation is fundamental to achieving knowledge-driven growth in today’s modern era.
We have established the AI and Robotics Hub to serve as a one-stop-shop for advanced tech companies of all sizes and strengthen their operations and expand their network. We have also been upgrading our digital capabilities and other value-added services to raise the standards and enhance the ease of doing business. Innovation will play an important role in our efforts to help shape the future of business, build an integrated ecosystem, and contribute to the UAE’s development strategy for the next 50 years and beyond.
Going forward, what are your plans to attract more investments to Ajman and the UAE?
Attracting more investments to Ajman and the UAE is a top priority for us. Having received the 5-star rating in the Service Centre category at the Global Star Rating System, and being ranked 7th in fDI Intelligence magazine’s list of the world’s best free zones, we are well positioned to drive significant investment inflows into the country. AFZ also received several major awards in the past few years.
We are going to capitalise on this positioning and our other competitive edge, which includes new technologies, flexible legislation, and increased focus on business community well-being, to highlight what makes investing in Ajman and the UAE a worthwhile and profitable venture. Furthermore, the free zone’s five-year strategy launched in 2021, coupled with continuous innovations and improvements in our solutions and infrastructure, will allow us to contribute to the national economy by bringing in more foreign investments.
Salim Omar Salim, Director, Sharjah Publishing City (SPC) Free Zone

How can free zones continue to remain competitive hubs for investors in the current environment?
There are currently over 40 free zones across the UAE, which are helping create a supportive ecosystem for new, upcoming businesses and offering a myriad of benefits such as 100 per cent foreign ownership, tax and duty exemptions, non-compulsory physical premises as well as economical licensing costs to attract more investments.
With the new law allowing investors from all nationalities to establish companies anywhere in the country, what benefits do free zones provide over mainland businesses?
Major advantages of free zone business set-up include the low cost factor, a fast set-up timeline, as well as no entry barriers, independent laws and business-friendly policies which offer ease, simplicity, and accessibility. Free zone businesses also benefit from 100 per cent repatriation of capital and profits, no currency restrictions, zero corporate and income tax, and exemption from import/export duties.
What is SPC Free Zone doing to attract business from international players?
We provide unrivalled services with an incredibly swift and straightforward process. Entrepreneurs are offered over 1,500 business activities to choose from, and a shared ownership with up to seven shareholders. Our visa packages encourage investors to relocate to the UAE and benefit from the business-friendly environment. We can set up a business within two hours, issue visas within six working days, and provide outstanding concierge services to add value to a new business set-up. Our convenient location, minutes away from two main airports and a seaport, also offers unprecedented ease in trade.
Meydan Free Zone
In this uncertain economic climate, how do you constantly innovate to stay ahead of other free zones?
Meydan Free Zone makes doing business as easy and cost-effective as possible. As the only 24/7 fully digital free zone, it’s a truly paperless environment, with all trade licences and payments made through a secure customer portal. Our flexible services also help entrepreneurs make considerable savings. Where other free zones offer fixed visa and licence packages, at Meydan Free Zone you only pay for what you need. And through partnerships with leading banks, we offer simple and affordable payment plans to reduce upfront costs and aid cashflow.
What is Meydan doing to attract business from international players, especially in the post-Covid world?
Meydan Free Zone is designed to help international entrepreneurs set up, settle in and start trading straight away. The free zone is surrounded by the wider Meydan community which includes schools, clinics, restaurants, parks, houses, apartments, and plenty more to help those relocating feel at home. We also offer a range of business benefits from full repatriation of profits and financial assets to Meydan Pay, an instant IBAN which enables businesses to send and receive payments in the UAE without a corporate bank account.
(The interview was conducted with a spokesperson of Meydan Free Zone)
George Hojeige, CEO, Virtuzone

What is Virtuzone doing differently to maintain an edge in this market as well attract global entrepreneurial talent as countries gradually emerge from the effects of the pandemic?
This year, we have intensified our efforts to veer away from simply doing business set-up for our clients. Enabling our clients to have a great and seamless experience setting up their company will always be a core part of our business, but we want to put greater focus on the things that happen after the business has been established. That includes their accounting, VAT registration, bank account opening, insurance, compliance, office space, and more. We aim to continue building a holistic entrepreneurial and business environment where we have a dedicated solution for each client’s needs, so they can turn their attention on growing and scaling their business.
What are the challenges you see SMEs facing in a post-Covid world and how can Virtuzone help them navigate the same with ease?
One crucial lesson that Covid-19 has taught us is that all businesses must have the means to ensure business continuity, regardless of the circumstances. By digitalising most of our operations, we can assist our clients, especially those who have availed our corporate services, to have a system in place that will continue to operate even in the face of unexpected challenges.
We have always championed the implementation of a borderless business model, and through our partnerships around the world, we can guide our clients in exploring and tapping new international markets, so they can have a resilient global business strategy and reduce their vulnerability to local market fluctuations.
Lorenzo Jooris, CEO, Creative Zone

The small and medium business sector is seeing a significant shift in operations since the outbreak of the pandemic. How do you assess the market in the next couple of years?
After facing unprecedented changes in the wake of the pandemic, the UAE SME sector has already hit the normalisation and growth phase, as social restrictions have almost completely gone and consumer confidence has returned with full force.
In the next couple of years, we see more SMEs taking the digital route and leveraging innovative new technologies to significantly reduce costs, improve operations and performance, and most importantly, solve problems.
SME digitalisation is high on the government’s radar, as they have been the focus of all major strategies and plans.
SMEs play a crucial role in the UAE’s economy, as there are more than 400,000 SMEs contributing over 60 per cent of the country’s non-oil economy and providing 86 per cent of the private workforce. The future of the global economy will have everything to do with digitalisation, and SMEs will have the most crucial role to play in driving the regional economic growth and building an inclusive and sustainable economy.
What initiatives have you taken to mentor early-stage start-ups as well as advance the UAE’s entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Creative Zone’s accelerator and incubator programmes have become quite popular in the last couple of years. We concluded the first cohort of She Leads in 2021, wherein 100 women entrepreneurs were selected for a 12-week programme of training and mentorship.
Furthermore, this year we launched She Leads 2.0 together with Startup X, whose winners were awarded a combined total of Dh200,000 worth of business support services.
Hatem El Safty, CEO, Business Link

What are the challenges you see SMEs facing in a post-Covid world and how can Business Link help them manage the same?
There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted businesses all over the world, regardless of the scale of operation, location, and funding. Successful firms have adopted certain strategies that are geared towards the market as well as their entrepreneurship goals. In the post-Covid world, SMEs may face issues related to the shift in regulations for business activities. The customer behaviour has also undergone a drastic change. One of the biggest trends to emerge during the Covid-19 pandemic was the growing use of online channels. Small businesses started operating online and created various opportunities to resolve many of their challenges using digital technologies. As a consultant, Business Link guides its clients, helping them to grow and stay resilient in the post-pandemic world.
What is Business Link doing differently to help entrepreneurs looking to set up a base in the UAE?
The pandemic has brought about some irreversible changes in the way businesses operate, with technology leading the way. Everything seems to be moving online or to cloud-based systems. While the pandemic has taken a toll on life and health, in general, it has also opened up many once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for businesses.
With Business Link playing an important part in boosting the start-up’s ecosystem in the region, we’ve had first-hand experience in transforming opportunities into business reality for our clients.
Syam Panayickal Prabhu, Founder and Managing Director, Aurion

Why do entrepreneurs need to hire the services of a business set-up consultant? What common set-up mistakes can a consultant help investors avoid?
The decision to invest in a business is one of the most important milestones in an entrepreneur’s life. Every step in building the foundation of a business shall be carefully executed. UAE has a huge number of licensing authorities under various jurisdictions such as free zones, onshore mainland and offshore. Entrepreneurs often get attracted to the cheapest licence packages available in the market. There are several hidden disadvantages and limitations associated with cheap packages. A seasoned business consultant will be able to advice the best package and licensing authority after carefully examining the business requirements. Moreover, a consultant will be able to advice on the laws affecting the business and ways to abide by such laws for a smooth operation.
How have all the recent changes in company formation helped businesses get off the ground? What’s had the most impact in your view?
As the pandemic ends, the UAE is well-prepared to attract investors from around the globe with its newly introduced changes in the commercial company law. The 100 per cent foreign ownership of mainland companies is a game changer in the UAE’s business ecosystem. By making the incorporation process easy, the UAE tops the chart in the region for ease of doing business.
Farina Ahmed, CEO and Partner, Make My Firm

Now that the Emirati ownership law has been abolished, are you seeing an increasing demand for mainland company formation? What kind of businesses are more suitable for mainland registration?
Around 122 economic activities across 13 sectors are currently specified to be eligible for 100 per cent ownership, which has enhanced investor confidence.
Investors can now open general trading companies, real estate buying and selling enterprises, companies specialising in trading activity for various products, and investment company.
What are the key jurisdictions where you can help entrepreneurs start their businesses and how do you maintain an edge over other business set-up consultants in the UAE?
We specialise in mainland company formation and sourcing approvals from various authorities in Dubai, Ajman and Umm Al Quwain, as per the requirement of the licence activity in the mainland. We streamline the entire company formation process for our customers with our expertise and market know-how. Our customer is an asset for our company and we deliver what we promise to them, maintaining transparency every step of the way.
Mahima Sharma, Managing Partner, Smart Zone

Why do entrepreneurs need to hire the services of business set-up consultants? How could you help start-ups navigate the business set-up process with ease?
With the number of business jurisdictions, rules and regulations, procedures and paperwork involved in starting a company, it’s fairly common for investors to get overwhelmed. Mistakes in choosing the wrong trade license activity for the type of business, failing to secure the right paperwork, setting up an incorrect company structure and poor financial planning are common mistakes among first–time investors and new entrepreneurs. With the plethora of information out there, it’s advisable to hire a business set-up company that has demonstrable expertise in helping companies start and run successfully. At Smart Zone, we have incorporated over 20,000 companies with clients from over 150 countries in a span of 12 years.
With nations slowly emerging from the effects of the pandemic, what is Smart Zone doing differently to help entrepreneurs looking to set up a base in the UAE?
We have created multiple value-added packages that are loaded with special perks to encourage post-pandemic commerce. These include benefits such as free UAE residency visa for life, bank account opening assistance, free VAT consultation, meeting room access and mail management as well as a dedicated account manager who will guide you along at every step of the way.
Pramod Kumar, Managing Director, Axiom Mark

How could Axiom Mark help entrepreneurs looking to launch businesses in the UAE?
Our exceptional client records for more than a decade gives us an edge in the market. We provide customised and cost-effective A-Z solutions of company set-up packages. Our experienced and professional consultants are very approachable and give clients the ease to discuss their dreams of setting up their businesses. Our solutions are transparent with no hidden charges. Our marketing team constantly scans the internal and external business environment and they are well versed with the recent rules and regulations of the UAE. This enables them to provide the right company set-up solutions and deliver exceptional value to clients, driven by our core values of excellence, integrity and collaboration.
What kind of post set-up support do you offer to start-ups?
Our post set-up support includes free website designing, business cards, letterheads along with web hosting services. Additionally, PRO services, visa assistance, legal translations, brand/logo registration, office packages and accounting services are also included in our post set-up services. Moreover, our team adopts a robust follow up mechanism by providing timely reminders for licence and visa renewals. In all, we give 360 degree one-stop business set-up solutions to our clients.
Mariben Christine Eustaquio, Founder and Managing Director, EZone

SMB market in the UAE has undergone a complete transformation in the past two years. In this situation how could you help entrepreneurs get their businesses off the ground?
Amidst the pandemic, new opportunities have emerged for innovative entrepreneurs across the region. Ezone provides entrepreneurs the exact guidance and support to establish and operate their ventures in the UAE.
Through our bespoke packages and personalised approach, we take advantage of this momentum and offer entrepreneurs options in which they are given clear insights on business set-up in the region.
With in-depth consultations, easy payment plans, and cost-effective solutions from Ezone, SMBs can establish their presence and participate in the transformed global environment that can accelerate their enterprise.
What are the key factors an entrepreneur must consider before deciding on a free zone to set up shops?
The key factors that entrepreneurs need to consider are the kind of business they want to pursue as well as their immediate plans for the company. The type of amenities offered at the free zone, affordability, flexibility options and its location are also important, along with the expertise of the business set-up company as they will ensure a hassle-free journey for the entrepreneur.
At times, the most economical free zone to start with is not the most practical option to operate your business in the long run. It is imperative that the business consultant incorporating your company is aligned with your company’s vision and plans. Being their integrated partner, Ezone supports entrepreneurs, their endeavours and provides them with the right advice and assistance that can help them achieve their goals.
Mamta Joshi, Managing Director, FlyingColour Group

What are some of the key factors entrepreneurs must consider before deciding on a free zone? How does FlyingColour help start-ups choose the right jurisdiction for their operation?
The choice of the free zone depends on the business activity that one wants to carry out. Several free zones are specialised to cater to certain core activities, for which the zones have developed relevant facilities, infrastructure, and everything else that may be needed to support businesses in that sector. The importance of choosing the right free zone for your business can seem intimidating at first, but this decision can have a huge impact on the growth and success of your business.
FlyingColour has been in the industry for two decades and has developed the expertise and knowledge bank to guide entrepreneurs to the right jurisdiction for their business and hit the right growth trajectory.
What businesses will grow in 2022? What other trends should start-ups be aware of to stay sustainable in the long run?
The general needs of people and the economy keep changing as time progresses. Any business sector, be it manufacturing, commercial, trade, agriculture, service or e-commerce, can grow and flourish as long as the business adapts to changing circumstances, and caters to pressing problems and provides solutions for the same.
The sustainability of any business depends on its ability to change with time and match the current and future needs, as well as implement the latest and relevant technology. Sustainability also depends on staying compliant with all regulations. We, at FlyingColour, help our clients to stay aware of the latest compliance needs and meet regulatory requirements.

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