Home » UAE Free Zone vs. Mainland: Which One is Right for Your Business? 

UAE Free Zone vs. Mainland: Which One is Right for Your Business? 

UAE Free Zone vs. Mainland: Which One is Right for Your Business? 

UAE Free Zone vs. Mainland: Which One is Right for Your Business?


In the vibrant landscape of the United Arab Emirates, aspiring entrepreneurs often find themselves at a crossroads, pondering which of the UAE Free Zone or mainland areas holds the key to their business’s success. The decision-making process involves evaluating various factors, each with its implications for a business’s trajectory.  


As the UAE continues to thrive as a global business hub, the importance of a well-informed decision cannot be overstated. In this article, we delve into the critical considerations that guide this decision, emphasizing the significance of aligning the choice with a business’s unique needs and aspirations. Explore how Al Sharqi, one of Best logistics companies  for setup a business in UAE free zone and around the UAE helps. 

Understanding UAE Free Zones

Definition and Characteristics of UAE Free Zones

UAE Free Zones are designated areas within the United Arab Emirates offering numerous incentives and benefits to encourage foreign investment, trade, and economic growth. The intention is to attract foreign companies and investors by providing a favorable business environment and reduced regulatory burdens. 

Characteristics of UAE Free Zones

Characteristics of UAE Free Zones include:


  • 100% company ownership by foreign investors without needing a local partner/sponsor. 
  • Customs duty exemptions for imports and exports. 
  • No personal income tax for individuals working within Free Zones. 
  • Full repatriation of company profits and capital without any restrictions. 
  • Simplified procedures for business registration, licensing, and permits. 
  • Modern office spaces, warehouses, communication facilities, and transportation networks. 
  • Strategic positioning near major ports and airports. 

Benefits of Operating a Business in a Free Zone

Operating a business in a UAE Free Zone offers numerous advantages: 


  • Companies often enjoy zero or low corporate and income taxes, providing significant cost savings. 
  • Foreign investors can fully own their businesses, granting them complete control and decision-making power. 
  • Free Zones promote international trade by facilitating easy import and export procedures. 
  • Many Free Zones offer incentives like reduced land lease rates, access to financing, and grants for certain industries. 
  • World-class facilities, utilities, and transportation systems in Free Zones improve operational efficiency. 
  • Duty-free imports and re-exports within the zone enable businesses to manage inventory and distribution more effectively. 
  • Free Zones often host numerous businesses, fostering networking and collaboration opportunities. 
  • Companies in Free Zones can easily access local and international markets. 

Limitations and Restrictions Associated with Free Zones

Despite the benefits, there are certain drawbacks to consider: 


  • Businesses in Free Zones only perform specific activities designated by the Free Zone authority, restricting diversification. 
  • Companies may face restrictions on selling goods or services directly in the local market outside the Free Zone. 
  • High initial setup costs in terms of fees, licenses, and infrastructure. 
  • Free Zones often require annual renewal fees, which increases operational expenses. 
  • Businesses may need to rely heavily on imported goods due to limited local manufacturing capabilities. 
  • Exiting a Free Zone can involve complications and adhering to certain procedures. 

Mainland Business Setup in the UAE

Overview of Mainland Business Setup

Setting up a mainland business in the UAE involves establishing a company outside of the designated free zones. Unlike free zone companies, mainland businesses have certain regulatory and ownership requirements that guide operations, such as local sponsorship. Mainland businesses operate under the jurisdiction of the UAE government and are subject to the provisions of the UAE Commercial Companies Law. 

Advantages and Drawbacks of Establishing a Mainland Business

The advantages of setting up and owning a mainland UAE business are: 


  • Mainland businesses can exist anywhere within the UAE and trade freely, offering access to a larger consumer base unlike in free zones. 
  • Mainland businesses can engage in varying business activities without the restrictions imposed by specific free zone activities. 
  • Mainland companies are more likely to access government contracts and projects due to their local presence and legal status. 
  • On the other hand, possible limitations of mainland businesses include: 
  • Mainland businesses are required to have a local sponsor, who holds a 51% ownership share. 
  • The process of setting up a mainland business can be more complex and time-consuming compared to free zones, involving various approvals and documentation. 
  • Disputes with local sponsors or partners can arise, potentially affecting the business operations and relationships. 
  • Mainland businesses may have higher setup costs due to local sponsorship fees, office rental expenses, and licensing fees. 
  • While mainland businesses benefit from certain tax advantages, they are subject to corporate tax and other fees, unlike free zone companies. 

Ownership Structure and Local Sponsorship Requirements

To establish a mainland business and secure storage facility in Sharjah, foreign investors must have a local sponsor, who is a UAE national or a company wholly owned by UAE nationals. That’s why the most common business structure is the LLC, where the foreign investor(s) hold a maximum of 49% ownership and the local sponsor holds the remaining 51%. 


However, foreign investors can fully own certain professional activities, such as consultancy or services. Still, you’ll need a local service agent. Companies wishing to establish a mainland business can appoint a corporate shareholder (a UAE company) to hold the 51% local share. This approach allows for more control and transparency in the arrangement. 

Comparing Free Zones and Mainland

Ownership and Control: Free Zones vs. Mainland

In terms of ownership and control, there are significant differences between Free Zones and the mainland business setup in the UAE.


  1. Free Zones offer 100% foreign ownership, allowing investors to retain full control of their businesses without the need for a local sponsor or partner. Mainland business setup in the UAE requires a UAE national or a UAE-owned company to hold at least 51% ownership in most cases. 
  2. Full ownership control is one of the main attractions of Free Zones, as it provides greater decision-making authority to foreign investors. Conversely, while the local partner may impact the day-to-day operations of a mainland business, they still hold a majority stake and can influence certain matters. 

Taxation and Customs: Free Zones vs. Mainland

Taxation and Customsin uae Free Zones

Free Zones offer a favorable tax environment, often granting exemptions from corporate and personal income taxes, import and export duties, and customs duties. This tax advantage can significantly reduce the financial burden on companies operating within Free Zones. However, certain Free Zones may have specific regulations concerning the movement of goods outside the Free Zone, which could involve customs duties. 


On the other hand, UAE customs laws govern businesses operating in the UAE mainland. As a result, they pay import duties when bringing goods into the country. Even though mainland businesses access more of the UAE, they do not enjoy the same tax exemptions as Free Zone entities. 

Regulatory Requirements: Free Zones vs. Mainland

The regulatory requirements for Free Zones and the mainland differ in terms of setup procedures, business activities, and compliance. 


Free Zone setups generally have streamlined procedures, allowing for quicker registration and licensing. But each Free Zone may have specific activities and industries it caters to, limiting the range of business operations that are possible within the zone. Compliance requirements in each free zone depend on the particular industry it applies to. 



Meanwhile, mainland business setups involve more complex procedures and require compliance with federal and local regulations. However, these companies have access to more business activities compared to Free Zones. Also, the regulatory landscape for mainland businesses is more extensive, encompassing labor laws, commercial regulations, and other relevant legislation. 

Choosing the Right Option for Your Business

Evaluating Business Nature and Goals

When choosing between a Free Zone and a mainland setup for your business in the UAE, it’s essential to begin by evaluating your business’s nature, goals, and operational requirements. Consider the following factors: 


  • Determine whether your business activities align with the specialized focus of any Free Zone. If a particular Free Zone restricts your business, a mainland setup might be more suitable due to its broader range of permissible activities. 
  • If your business primarily targets the local UAE market, a mainland setup is advantageous as it provides direct access to the entire UAE consumer base. 
  • If your business focuses on international trade and does not require extensive local market access, a Free Zone setup might be more suitable due to its tax and customs benefits. 

Considering Legal and Financial Implications

Understanding the legal and financial implications of each option is crucial for making an informed decision. 


  • Evaluate how much control you want over your business. If maintaining 100% ownership is essential, Free Zones offer this advantage. If you’re open to sharing ownership with a local partner, a mainland setup is an option. 
  • Consider the setup costs, ongoing expenses, and potential tax implications of each option. Free Zones often have initial and annual fees, while mainland setups may involve additional compliance and operational costs. 
  • If repatriating profits abroad is a priority, Free Zones are beneficial as they allow 100% profit repatriation. Mainland setups have more restrictions in this regard. 

Determining the Ideal Business Environment

Your ideal business environment that aligns with your goals and preferences. Key considerations include: 


Networking Opportunities: Free Zones are often industry-specific, providing opportunities for collaboration and networking within your sector. Mainland setups involve a more diverse range of businesses and sectors. 


Local Partnership: A mainland setup facilitates the building of relationships with local partners. However, if you prefer independent decision-making, Free Zones might be more suitable. 


Local Presence: A mainland setup requires a physical presence within the UAE, which might align with businesses looking for deeper engagement with the local culture and market. 


Flexibility: Consider the flexibility you need for business activities, ownership structure, and future expansion. Free Zones have specific limitations, while the mainland offers broader possibilities. 

Al Sharqi’s Expertise in Business Setup

Introduction to Al Sharqi’s Business Setup Services

Al Sharqi is one of the  top logistics companies that can help setup in DAFZA and other UAE Free zones. Leveraging their extensive knowledge of the UAE business landscape, Al Sharqi assists companies in navigating the complexities of establishing a business in the UAE. With a proven track record in logistics, they bring valuable insights into the operational requirements and regulatory landscape, ensuring a seamless transition into the UAE market. 

Assisting in Making the Right Choice: Free Zone or Mainland

Al Sharqi’s business setup services begin with a thorough assessment of your company’s nature, goals, and operational requirements. Asides providing  storage service in Abu Dhabi, our experts work closely with you to understand your business activities, target market, and expansion plans. Based on this analysis, they provide tailored guidance on whether a Free Zone or mainland setup is more suitable for your business.  

Streamlining the Setup Process for Smooth Operations

Setting up a business in the UAE involves various regulatory procedures, documentation, and approvals. Al Sharqi excels in streamlining this setup process to ensure efficient and hassle-free operations. Our team guides you through the intricate steps of company registration, obtaining licenses, and fulfilling legal requirements. A deep understanding of the local business ecosystem allows us to expedite the process while ensuring compliance with all necessary regulations. 


In the dynamic realm of UAE business setup, the choice between Free Zones and the mainland hinges on critical considerations. Understanding the nature of your business, its expansion aspirations, and the regulatory framework it thrives within is paramount. Taxation implications, ownership structure, and market access play pivotal roles in this decision-making process.  


When deciding to set up a UAE Free Zone vs Mainland business, understand that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Entrepreneurs must craft their choices thoughtfully, aligning them with their business’s unique DNA and objectives. With the UAE offering diverse opportunities and help from Al Sharqi, a Dubai based logistics firm, the wisdom lies in embracing the choice that paves the way for your enterprise to flourish in the ever-evolving business landscape. 

Tags: Free Zone UAE

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