Foreign companies setting up around Abu Dhabi's airports will soon be able to exercise 100 per cent ownership and repatriate all of their profits under a decree from the emirate's Executive Council.
Under the order issued in January, properties of Abu Dhabi Airports Company (Adac) were granted free-zone status to encourage foreign investment and further the emirate's economic diversification.
Adac manages Abu Dhabi International, Al Bateen Executive and Al Ain International airports.
"There is a keen interest by companies in setting up operations in free zones at the airport," said James Bennett, the chief executive of Adac. "It is very exciting, and we are looking forward to hopefully getting some of our first people signed up in the not-too-distant future."
The company is expected to develop separate plans for the three airports. While Abu Dhabi International is the capital's primary airport for commercial airlines, Al Bateen Executive will focus on business jets. At Al Ain International, Adac and Mubadala Development are planning a cluster for aerospace manufacturing, training, maintenance and engineering.
Mubadala Development is a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government.
A company setting up outside the UAE's free zones is required to enlist a local partner that has 51 per cent ownership in the company. As a result, the seven emirates have sought to use free zones to stimulate foreign investment. The effort includes putting companies with similar activities in clusters.
Nationwide, foreign investment in free zones has reached Dh268 billion (US$73bn), the second highest in the Arab world, data from the UN show.
While Dubai has dozens of free zones, Abu Dhabi has been more cautious in its approach, and Adac is only the third entity in the capital to win free-zone approval.
HSBC said in November that offering 100 per cent foreign ownership in Abu Dhabi would attract foreign investment, bringing in industries beyond energy, transport and logistics.
The other free-zone entities in the capital include twofour54, a media hub that was set up in 2008 with partners such as the BBC, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Thomson Foundation, CNN, HarperCollins and the Financial Times.
The Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (Kizad) in Taweelah is the third free zone. It was granted its special status last year and is marketing itself on that basis.
Kizad is seeking to distinguish itself with a focus on zones dedicated to single industries such as aluminium, glass, paper, petrochemicals, metals and food.
However, Abu Dhabi Ports Company, which is developing Kizad, said it would operate the zone with a dual structure, offering ownership to foreign companies only in cases where proposed projects benefited Abu Dhabi's strategic economic objectives. Masdar City, which is being planned as a zero-carbon commercial and residential development, is also expected to become an Abu Dhabi free zone.
Adac is conducting the regulatory, legal and other preparation to develop its free zones, Mr Bennett said. "In the meantime, we are developing a marketing plan and having conversations with companies interested in relocating to our airports."
While food catering and fuelling are two large industries that support airlines, a number of industries also benefit from the airline industry, including cargo and logistics, and some light manufacturing.