UAE seeks to lure tech firms in Asia, Europe with long-term residency, financing

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The United Arab Emirates is trying to lure advanced technology companies away from hubs in Asia and Europe by fast-tracking business licenses and offering long-term residency for employees.

The Gulf country is targeting more than 300 digital firms under a program launched in July and about 40 companies are in the process of moving, Minister of State for Foreign Trade, Thani Al Zeyoudi, said in an interview.

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The UAE’s nimble handling of the pandemic and liberal visa policies have already made it an attractive destination for bankers and hedge fund managers to commodity traders. Authorities now want to attract firms in sectors including food technology, robotics and blockchain, and encourage them to set up global or regional headquarters in the Middle Eastern business hub.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi already host the Mideast headquarters of an array of global financial firms. Still, there is competition from global hubs and from Saudi Arabia, which is trying to get firms to move their regional headquarters there by 2024.

“The timing was very crucial because what we noticed from the beginning of the year was that many companies would like to move because of inflation, the tighter regulatory environment in many parts of the world, including Asia -- especially Singapore and Hong Kong,” Al Zeyoudi said.

Under the scheme, digital companies get faster business licensing and easier access to banking and financing. Employees can be offered 10-year UAE residency “golden visas” and in some cases the program -- which unifies government bodies, freezones and institutions -- helps find accommodation and admissions to schools.

The so-called “golden visa” allows foreigners to work, live and study without needing a UAE work sponsor in a country where expatriate residents make up nearly 90 percent of the population.

As the UAE seeks to further diversify away from oil income, the aim is to create more high-skilled jobs in futuristic industries, Al Zeyoudi said.

“We want to make sure we are harnessing the fourth industrial revolution -- so the latest technology, whether it’s the Internet of things, blockchain, AI,” he said. “We are redefining the way FDI is usually done.”

The program groups together freezones in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah. Lenders connecting with businesses under the scheme include Emirates NBD, Sharjah Investment Bank, and Wio -- a digital bank backed by Abu Dhabi wealth fund ADQ.

Two privately-held US companies are among those already in the process of moving -- Change Foods, a food-tech group that is working on technology to produce natural milk in a lab and Gecko Robotics, a firm that designs, builds, and operates robots, Al Zeyoudi said.

European software development company Softserve is relocating technical staff, coders, consultants, and executives to the UAE while two fintech firms, Currency.com and Capital.com, are setting up a regional headquarters under the program.

Separately, cryptocurrency exchanges have flocked to Dubai this year as the emirate steps up efforts to attract companies in that industry. Exchange Bybit announced plans to move its headquarters to Dubai from Singapore in March, joining rivals like Binance Holdings Ltd. and FTX in expanding in the UAE. More bankers have also headed to the city with the gradual demise of Hong Kong as Asia’s top finance hub.

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