The Business Year

Dr. Mohammed Al Zarooni

UAE, DUBAI - Economy

Industry developer

Director General, Dubai Airport Freezone Authority (DAFZA)


Dr. Mohammed Al Zarooni is the Director General of Dubai Airport Freezone (DAFZA), a role he has held since 2000. He is responsible for managing all strategic initiatives implemented by DAFZA management and to help position the organization in faster-growing functional and geographical areas. Prior to joining DAFZA, Al Zarooni worked at the Department of Civil Aviation as the Director of Administration & Research, where he was a key figure in establishing the free zone division. Al Zarooni received a PhD in economic geography from Durham University, UK. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from UAE University and an MBC in economic geography.

TBY talks to Dr. Mohammed Al Zarooni, Director General of the Dubai Airport Freezone Authority (DAFZA), on attracting partners, key roles of the free zone, and future objectives.

What are DAFZA’s competitive advantages over other FTZs?

DAFZA was envisioned as an entity that would help drive Dubai’s goal of becoming an investment-driven economy. Our complementary role in the Emirate’s broader development agenda has been, and always will be, the primary differentiating factor and competitive advantage for us. We push for the dynamic growth of investors and business partners, keeping in mind that the results significantly impact local and national economic strategies. Our strategic location, right next to one of the world’s busiest airports, and our close proximity to the major markets of Asia and Europe, are critical benefits. We also have numerous incentives, such as 100% exemptions on corporate, personal income, and import and export taxes, zero currency restrictions, dedicated logistics services and assistance, and state-of-the-art infrastructure to establish DAFZA as the Middle East’s premier free zone destination. We have worked hard to build a broad community of more than 20 industries to illustrate that we are a pulsing center for businesses of all types, sizes, and nationalities. We are also deploying various smart services and other state-of-the-art technologies to complement our leadership’s Dubai Smart City initiative. This has transformed us into one of the most innovative, connected, and advanced free zones in the world. We always emphasize to our hosted companies that we are partners rather than landlords. DAFZA’s uniqueness lies in anticipating, listening to the customer’s voice, understanding, and enriching customer experiences throughout their life cycle and across all touch points. Around 55% of our customers have maintained their presence within DAFZA for over five years. Our prestigious client directory includes several Fortune 100 companies and some of the most respected business names in the world.

How does DAFZA plan to attract potential partners?

To maximize our regional and international exposure, we participate in and sponsor major industry events. Last year we began a series of seminars that took us to key markets such as Singapore, Japan, Spain, Italy, and Germany, where we elicited strong investor and business interest by showcasing DAFZA’s diverse portfolio of services and incentives. We also focus on forging strategic partnership agreements that benefit the industry and improve bilateral trade relations for Dubai. Our desire to add value for our partners as well as their countries of origin has helped pique the interest of even more potential investors. In order to increase the value of our proposition and further differentiate ourselves, we have recently undergone a major communication restaging exercise by repositioning ourselves as “Dubai’s Premium Free Zone.” Our challenge was to convince the global business community that “premium” was a tangible benefit, rather than an optional business cost. The integrated campaign was launched in 14 relevant markets, targeting international corporate decision makers. The results were above expectations and our repositioning was well received by corporate and government entities.

What would you consider to be the most attractive sectors for investment?

From its birth, DAFZA has served as a catalyst for economic growth. Its total assets in 2015 rose 3% with revenue increase of 7% and it contributed AED109 billion to Dubai’s non-oil foreign trade in 2014. At present, there are more than 1,600 companies operating in the free zone. The top sectors operating at DAFZA are electronics and electrical, representing 16% of our corporate population, followed by consumer products at 11%, and engineering and building materials and aerospace, aviation, and related services tied at 9%. However, we place equal importance on all the sectors we serve, in keeping with our thrust toward diversified and dynamic development.

DAFZA has focused its efforts on creating and adopting “new-to-the-region” and “firsts” amongst free zones. What initiatives make DAFZA successful in developing innovation?

We shun complacency and stagnancy and instead pursue initiatives and mechanisms to increase efficiency and innovation. To sustain that momentum we launched an innovation strategy inspired by HH President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s declaration of 2015 as the “Year of Innovation,” as well as the National Innovation Strategy directed by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President and Prime Minister, and Ruler of Dubai as a primary means to achieve UAE Vision 2021’s goals. We unveiled the strategy during the inaugural UAE Innovation Week in November 2015. Its three goals are the delivery of value-added, best-in-class innovative solutions, the adoption of working styles that inspire creativity across the organization, and alignment with and active contribution to the UAE’s national agenda through innovation. It defines three key roles for DAFZA within the national innovation ecosystem: innovator, capital provider, and promoter. Under this strategy, DAFZA will focus on six key executable innovation enablers, namely process, technologies, governance, skills, capabilities, and culture. We have formed a dedicated DAFZA Innovation Unit (DIU) to constantly drive innovation throughout the organization. Moreover, DAFZA pays meticulous attention to sustainability. Projects such as the installation of a reverse osmosis (RO) system and auxiliary treated sewage effluent (TSE) units for our desalination plants, the retrofitting of our street lighting and installation of LED lamps reducing our energy needs by 66%, and our smart demand flow system for our central cooling plant, the first system of its kind to be used outside of North America, have enabled us to minimize our carbon footprint.

What is the significance of the recently launched International Innovative Platform for Islamic Economy Products (IIPIEP) for DAFZA and what impact will it have on Dubai’s Islamic economy?

The IIPIEP is a new forum organized by the International Centre of Islamic Economy in partnership with DAFZA, to encourage innovation and creativity in the development of products for the international Islamic economy. We introduced concepts such as: the Innovation Oasis in DAFZA, the first global oasis dedicated to incubating creative ideas and entrepreneurial projects that support the international Islamic economy; an endowment bank for financial institutions operating in accordance with sharia law; and cash financing through telecoms services. Such ideas will lead to the establishment of an integrated economic system that can adapt to rapid changes in the regional and international Islamic economic landscapes. IIPIEP also provides a platform for discussing and addressing key industry issues, strengthening relationships between the public and private sectors, and enhancing communications among decision-makers, experts, and innovators. For Dubai, IIPIEP is an important vehicle for bringing the Emirate closer to its goal of emerging as the capital of the global Islamic economy within the next few years.

How is DAFZA helping to develop the halal industry?

We recently entered into a cooperative agreement with Malaysia’s Halal Industry Development Corp. to pursue mutually beneficial ventures. This will improve Dubai’s halal compliance infrastructure and at the same time energize business between Dubai and Malaysia. A Joint Working Committee will be formed to ensure that the objectives of the agreement are met. Another related development is the setting up of a dedicated area for the halal industry among the light industrial units we are constructing in Qusais. The units are scheduled for completion by December 2016 and will include provisions for cold storage, parking, and utilities, plus they will all be leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED)-certified.

What are DAFZA’s prospects for the year ahead?

We plan to further raise the number of our hosted companies We will also work on the expansion and diversification targets we have set for the year, which focus on the opportunities arising from Dubai’s hosting of the 2020 World Expo. In addition, we will continue visiting key and new markets to reinforce existing partnerships and forge new ones. And of course, we will proceed full-steam ahead with all major ongoing projects.



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