Free zone guru bringing a world of trade to Dubai

Getting the WFZO to Dubai has been, more or less, Mohammed Al Zarooni's full-time preoccupation for the past three years, with many air miles clocked up in travel to meet potential members and concerned multinational organisations.
Mohammed Al Zarooni has been running one of Dubai’s most successful free zones, the Dubai Airport Free Zone, where he is the director general. Antonie Robertson / The National
Mohammed Al Zarooni has been running one of Dubai’s most successful free zones, the Dubai Airport Free Zone, where he is the director general. Antonie Robertson / The National

If anybody can claim to be Mr Free Zones in Dubai, it is Mohammed Al Zarooni.

While the vision for making free zones such a force in the emirate’s economy came from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, with several other members of his senior entourage backing up that vision, Mr Al Zarooni has been, for more than 20 years, Dubai’s “go to” expert on the subject.

“It was suggested to me I should focus on free zones, so in 1989 I went to Durham University [in the UK] and did a PhD on the subject ‘The Place of Free Zones in Economic Development’. That was the start of it for me,” he says.

Since then, he has been running one of the most successful of the zones, the Dubai Airport Free Zone (Dafza), of which he is director general, as well as the Dubai Silicon Oasis free zone and heading up the emirate’s council of free zones.

Mr Al Zarooni, an affable and communicative man, is speaking just after the lights have faded on one of Dubai’s bigger set piece announcements of recent times. He has just been named the chairman on the newly created World Free Zones Organisation (WFZO), which will have its headquarters in the UAE. It is, he says, “a big achievement”.

Getting the WFZO to Dubai has been, more or less, his full-time preoccupation for the past three years, with many air miles clocked up in travel to meet potential members and concerned multinational organisations, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation.

In the sea of empty chairs in the Godolphin Ballroom at Jumeirah Emirates Towers, where Sheikh Mohammed and virtually all the emirate’s top policymakers had earlier marked the WFZO’s creation, Mr Al Zarooni admits to a little nervousness.

“I was awake at 4.30 this morning, with the words of the speeches going through my head,” he says.

If there was a little stage fright, it did not show in his performance. In a 15-minute speech in front of the ruler, and in an earlier 45-minute press conference, he explained, carefully and precisely, exactly what the job of the WFZO will be and the significance of its location for Dubai.

“It’s the first time a multinational organisation has grown out of the UAE, and that is a big thing,” he says. With the World Expo 2020 looming large, the WFZO is another international feather in Dubai’s cap.

“The idea is to make free zones more active, and to change the perception of them. They were created not just as rent-making machines, though of course that is welcome, but as an essential tool for foreign direct investment and to contribute positively to the economy,” he explains.

Certainly free zones have grown to huge significance in Dubai, especially over the past 10 years. Mr Al Zarooni spells out their place in Dubai’s money-making machine: they contribute about 25 per cent of the emirate’s GDP and account for approximately 75 per cent of exports; some 225,000 employees work within free zone boundaries in Dubai, for about 19,000 companies.

“We now have many of the world’s most talented people working in free zones in Dubai, which is a great industrial and intellectual strength. That’s why it makes sense for the WFZO to be here, and only a minute away from the world’s busiest airport,” he says. The new organisation will have its headquarters initially at the DFZA premises near Dubai International Airport, although a move to the new Dubai World Central site is not ruled out some time in the future.

But exactly what kind of organisation will the WFZO be? Mr Al Zarooni’s aides made the comparison with the United Nations, and it will have some of the elements of that New York-based body: a general assembly of all members meeting annually, a permanent 14-person board of international executives (a “security council” equivalent) and a permanent management and secretariat under a chief executive, Samir Hamrouni, an adviser to Mr Al Zarooni.

It is “too early”, he says, to talk of how many members the organisation will ultimately include, but he hopes to sign up a fair number of the world’s estimated 3,500 free zones as members over the next year.

Members, including associates and observers, will fund the non-profit organisation, registered in Geneva, out of their own resources. Membership is open to all UN countries, which includes Israel, although Mr Al Zarooni does not specify this contentious point. “All UN members,” he insists.

The WFZO’s aims are to provide networking and exchange of viewpoints by members and provide them with essential services for this dialogue; to help develop the economic advantages of free zones around the world; to assist in training, guidance and education for free-zone workforces. This last is a critical issue in an industry that has sometimes been branded a conduit for cheap labour.

Beyond that, Mr Al Zarooni wants to focus on policy issues. “The guiding principle of the organisation is to abide by accepted norms of business, with high-quality members and international best practice and governance.

“We will not just accept any organisations. If there are bad ones out there we will encourage them to change their ways before we accept them. Ethics is all-important for us,” he adds.

So which are the “bad ones out there”?

“You put down that pen and come and have a coffee with me sometime, and I will tell you,” he says, laughing. That sounds like an irresistible invitation.

fkane@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter @Ind_Insights

Published: May 20, 2014 04:00 AM

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