Free zones

DIFC welcomes record number of companies

The Dubai International Financial Center

The Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC/X)

Dubai welcomed a record number of companies to its financial center in 2023 as competition heats up in the Gulf to attract businesses.

The Dubai International Financial Center, better known as DIFC, saw a 34% increase in new registrants last year, now with 41,597 workers and 5,533 companies, according to new figures released Thursday.

“Our aspirations are just beginning,” Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed, First Deputy Ruler of Dubai and Deputy Prime Minister for Finance and Economic Affairs, wrote on X on Thursday. “In the coming years, there will be plans for expansion and development of policies and legislation.”

The DIFC’s development aligns with the master plan for Dubai’s economic growth known as D33 that was introduced last year. D33 aims to double the size of Dubai’s economy, with a target of reaching 32 trillion dirhams ($8.7 trillion) by 2033 that would put it among the top global cities.

Dubai is leading regionally, with the DIFC a model for financial free zones in the Gulf, which are gaining in popularity amid economic diversification efforts that aim to boost foreign investment and trade. Opened in 2004 — the same year construction began on the Burj Khalifa next door — DIFC has poured money into developing an independent regulatory framework, a financial exchange and attractive places to do business to bring in financial firms and cut down on the cost of doing business in the region.

Saudi Arabia is taking a more direct approach: The kingdom now requires international companies vying for big contracts with Saudi Arabia to relocate their corporate headquarters to the kingdom. The move is a square-off with the UAE, which has long held the majority of regional headquarters and attracted the lion’s share of corporate spending. 

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