British business booming in UAE as more entrepreneurs head for the sun

Special relationship set to strengthen as companies look beyond Brexit and the pandemic

Helen Barrett, left, partner at CBD Corporate Services, and Chris Leighton, AirZones' co-founder, at the RAW Coffee Company in Al Quoz, in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
Powered by automated translation

The UAE’s special relationship with the UK continues to strengthen as more British entrepreneurs look to start new businesses in the Emirates.

According to the UK's Department for International Trade, more than 6,000 British companies are already registered in the UAE, with bilateral trade set to reach £25 billion (Dh127.1bn).

Economists predict the number of British-backed start-ups will grow as businesses explore new trading opportunities post-Brexit and the world continues to reopen quarantine-free travel routes.

One of the businesses to dive into a new UAE market is AirZones, a British air monitoring company set up by Chris Leighton who moved to Dubai with his young family from Cambridge in November 2020.

So many progressive changes in the last two years will naturally lead to a sense of belonging in a large expat community. The relationship is only strengthening with huge potential yet to be achieved
John Martin St. Valery, British Business Group, Dubai and the Northern Emirates

“It was quite a rush as we were trying to beat the UK lockdown and head to the UAE,” he said.

“Setting up here was not as complex as the UK, but there was more administration to complete.

“We were running around looking at all options with different free zones and sponsors, but it was very straightforward in the end.”

Using special monitoring systems, AirZones analyses the quality of air in a workplace, hospitality venue or home.

Based on the outcome of analysing more than two million data points gathered over a month, it tells the consumer exactly what the air quality is and recommends what improvements can be made.

“Like most people here, we are not in the UAE forever and we know that,” said Mr Leighton, whose UK firm used nanotechnology in a breakthrough paint that purifies the air.

“When we couldn’t go home because of travel restrictions it was frustrating, but we know we need the relationship between the UK and UAE to remain strong as it is good for business.

“We want to employ more people locally, but also bring in expertise from the UK here to work with us as we expand. Keeping strong ties is really important.”

Changes to foreign ownership rules and innovations surrounding long-stay visas have contributed to growing UK investment in the UAE.

Commercial companies law in the UAE previously required 51 per cent of share capital of onshore companies to be Emirati-owned.

That has now changed, allowing 100 per cent foreign business ownership.

AirZones was offered support launching in the UAE by CBD Corporate Services, a British-run company that helps start-ups navigate regulations to get established and provides corporate nominee services for local partners.

“The UAE is very much open for business,” said Helen Barrett, a partner in CBD and board member of the British Business Group in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.

“While it was quiet for a six-month period during the pandemic, British businesses have continued to export services and products to the UAE.

“The ties between the two countries are long-standing, so that makes it an attractive investment proposition.

“It is a safe option for many families and it is much easier to set up a business here than 20 years ago.”

A new “green” visa aimed at business owners, investors and entrepreneurs in the UAE will offer expanded benefits for sponsoring family members and is expected to offer a further boost to British investment.

The visa will cater to people who have their own businesses and are not working for, or sponsored by, an employer.

It is expected to attract a high level of talented entrepreneurs and investors and is just one of many initiatives that focuses on human capital to strengthen the UAE economy.

New visa opportunities are seen as integral to support national aspirations for growth, particularly for sectors such as artificial intelligence, healthcare, sustainability and cyber security.

Flexi-desk workspace to reduce office overheads for start-ups and government incentives to cut annual fees have also encouraged businesses to prosper and withstand the pressures of the pandemic.

In March, a long-term investment agreement was signed between the Department for International Trade and Abu Dhabi's Mubadala Investment Company.

The UAE-UK Sovereign Investment Partnership (SIP) will serve as a co-ordinated investment framework to grow a future-focused relationship between the two nations, driving economic recovery, jobs and growth.

An initial £800 million commitment from Mubadala to invest in UK life sciences over five years was the initial focus for SIP, and is expected to develop stronger links in life sciences research, education and closer ties between the UAE and UK.

The British Business Group Dubai and the Northern Emirates is based near the British Embassy at Dubai Creek and supports new start-ups with networking events, workshops and advice for newly-arrived expatriates.

The non-profit group is open to companies or people from the UK with business interests in the region, and hosts around 60 events every year.

“The UAE is one of the UK’s most important trading partners in the region and we really feel that energy and activity within our membership,” said group chairman John Martin St. Valery.

“So many progressive changes in the last two years will naturally lead to a sense of belonging in a large expat community.

“The relationship is only strengthening with huge potential yet to be achieved.”

Photographs at Etihad Museum documents UK-UAE ties — in pictures

Updated: September 17, 2021, 6:45 AM