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  • With a New VAT, is the UAE Still the "Place to Be"?

    Commensurate with its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) obligations, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will fully-implement the Federal-level imposition of a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 5% on most goods and services, and associated registration and reporting requirements, along with Excise Taxes on certain goods (50% on "fizzy drinks" & 100% on energy drinks and tobacco products), effective January 1, 2018.

    Some industries are exempt from responsibility for VAT by statute, such as certain transportation services and basic healthcare providers.  Real estate transactions within the first three years (thus far) of the law's enforcement are also exempt from VAT in the UAE.

    Companies doing business in any of the Emirates who are not in an exempted industry and whose turnover exceeds the statutory threshold (AED 375,000 over a period of 12 months) were required to register for VAT by December 4, 2017, or face a penalty.  In future, companies whose turnover does not yet exceed the statutory threshold will have to become compliant within one month of achieveing such turnover during a 12 month period.  Companies who are not yet required to register and report for VAT may apply to do so voluntarily, provided their 12 month turnover exceeds AED 175,500.  If a company anticipates exceeding the mandatory threshold in the future, then voluntary registration may be advisable so that a future 30 day deadline will not present potential difficulties.

    Initial estimates are that approximately 350,000 companies will have registered for VAT in the UAE by the statutorily stipulated date.  An exact figure is not yet available.

    Reporting/ filing of returns will be performed on a quarterly basis.  This may precipitate retaining Registered Tax Agents (and, JHI recommends that reporting companies retain such professional services). 

    Naturally, being a new law, regulations, clarifications and other factors affecting implementation of and compliance with the new laws (UAE Federal Laws 7, 8 & 13 of 2017) remain subject to change at this stage.  The UAE Ministry of Finance provides this page to provide basic information, timely updates and a starting point for researching and tracking the new tax regime:

    https://www.mof.gov.ae/En/budget/Pages/VATQuestions.aspx 

    One issue that begs for near-term clarification is the question of taxability of Free Zone entities. At the time of this writing, the responsibility for actual payment of VAT by entities established in Free Zones, including "Financial Free Zones" (such as the Dubai International Financial Centre, or DIFC; or, the Abu Dhabi Global Market, or ADGM), remains somewhat unclear.  For example, following current guidance from the Federal Tax Authority (FTA), the agency with primary responsibility for the enforcement of VAT, such entities should be registered for VAT if their turnover exceeds the mandatory threshold. On the other hand, by Emiri decree (issued under a recent Constitutional provision), a 50 Year Tax Holiday has been established for the ADGM (measured from the effective date of the underlying law).

    The UAE Cabinet has not yet issued its decision identifying any "Designated Zone" (wherein established entities may receive at least some partial or limited form of exemption from VAT) as the law empowers it to do, and the issue of responsibility for payment by companies in Financial Free Zones involves something of a Constitutional question. However, as stated above, it is hoped that additional clarifications may be issued by the relevant authorities in the near future.  It is also worth noting that the FTA's determinations/ decisions can be challenged through the courts, provided there is a credible legal basis for such a challenge.

    Being a brand new area of law, such gray areas are to be expected.  The drafters of the new laws concerning VAT certainly seem to have expected this, as certain mechanisms - such as the ability to challenge FTA policy decisions in court - are built into the new tax regime to ensure transparency and fairness (important factors in any healthy business environment) as and when important issues are sorted.

    Thinking more globally, one wonders what this may do to the famously business-friendly reputation the UAE has enjoyed for decades.  After all, "the (tax-free) UAE is the Place to Be" in the Gulf region.  JHI believes that the imposition of the VAT, in and of itself, will not severly impact the UAE's positive business environment. 

    The imposition of VAT is a GCC-wide program, agreed upon by the member states.  The level of tax will be 5% across the board, and goods and services exempt from the tax will be similar almost to the point of being mirrored from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.  Compliance steps and associated costs should be roughly equal in each of the member states.  And, the timing of full VAT implementation in the member states should coincide (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for example, is also introducing its new VAT in January of 2018).  So, this should not significantly reduce the attractiveness of the UAE for investors, nor does it seem likely to impact the UAE's role as a gateway into the other GCC economies (such as Saudi Arabia - the largest economy in the GCC).

    As a GCC member state, the UAE has agreed, and is obligated, to impose VAT. With recent fluctuations in the price of oil and the recent military build-up, in addition to the maintenance of basic services, additional revenues are needed to keep the national debt at a sustainable level.

    The broadening of the UAE's economy in recent years has provided an opportune situation wherein the imposition of VAT (as opposed to other taxes and/ or fees) makes sense.  On paper, it seems the best available method of helping to keep the UAE's fiscal ship steady.  Although it will contribute an additional layer of expense onto the costs of living and doing business in the UAE, the UAE enforces no other tax and the compliance costs associated with the UAE's regulatory environment are among the least burdensome in the world.  As to the pre-VAT cost of living and doing business in the UAE (such as real estate, some services and many goods), much of this is due to high demand brought about by a decades-long strong international interest in participating in the UAE market.

    Further, the UAE, with a low-cost regulatory environment and a mere 5% VAT, seems poised to remain the gateway to one of the fastest growing regional economies in the world.  JHI believes that for businesses who view the GCC as an attractive area for investment, the UAE will continue to flourish as a "starting-off" or set-up point for such investment, and at a time when the economies of the GCC may be poised for potentially explosive growth during a revolutionary time of profound reforms throughout the region, particularly in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

    JHI will continue to monitor the situation, and track legal developments concerning the implementation of the VAT, in the UAE and throughout the GCC.

    Jason Huf, Principal, JHI, Law Firm, NYC, KSA, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, UAE, VAT, Excise, Tax, Finance, International, Middle East, Law, Legal   (Mr. Huf gratefully acknowledges the contributions to this brief note by his good friend Sreekumar Radikrishnan of Goodwins Law Corporation's Abu Dhabi office. Mr. Huf calls Prof. Radhakrishnan his "top Go-To guy" in the UAE - especially on new tax matters:  http://www.goodwinslaw.ae/about-us/our-team/sreekumar-radhakrishnan

    This website and its contents - taken in whole or in part - are a law firm advertisement.  As with all other entries in the blog section of JHI's website, this article is intended to contribute to public discussion and is published for and distributed to a rather general audience.  This article is not legal advice and should not be mistaken for such.

    In the event legal advice is needed on the subject of VAT in the UAE, Mr. Huf & JHI will be happy to introduce and refer any such client to Prof. Radhakrishnan & Goodwins for his personal attention.

    Finally, Mr. Huf also wishes to make clear that any opinions expressed herein are solely those of Jason Huf & JHI.)

  • A "21st Century" Saudi Arabia

    21st Century Saudi Arabia

    Near the close of 2016, while the West was focused on the High Holidays, a new American President and the NFL Post-Season that would culminate in a historic Super Bowl LI, the government of Saudi Arabia (KSA) leapt into the 21st Century - literally.

    Under the direction of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with the full support of his father King Salman, the Saudi Government officially abandoned the Hijri Calendar (the Islamic, lunar calendar which begins with the Prophet Mohammed's trek from Mecca to Medina and the establishment of the first-ever Islamic state), and has adpoted the "Gregorian" calendar (named after Pope Gregory XIII, the solar calendar predominantly used as the civil calendar in the West and elsewhere, which begins one week following the Roman church's, and the day of the Eastern Orthodox churches', traditionally espoused birth of Jesus Christ; the civil calendar used in the West arbitrarily measures months as being either 28/29, 30 or 31 days in length).

    Initially functioning as a budget cutting measure, with government employees receiving the same monthly salaries while working an additional eleven (11) days of the year, its the eternal questions of "what next?" that holds the world's attention as those with commercial ties to the KSA wait the other shoe(s) to drop.  What are the other consequences, both intended and unintended, of the Saudi government's adherence to this new calendar?  How, if at all, will this impact governance and/ or commerce in the Kingdom?

    Saudi Arabia is, and was founded to be, an Islamic state.  Its Constitution is the Quran.  The change from a calendar that is dear to their faith and which honors the pilgrimage of their holiest and most revered prophet, to a calendar created by a Roman military dictator and revised by a Catholic Pontiff is, in and of itself, revolutionary.

    For now, its impact is seen strictly as a government austerity measure. Nonetheless, and predictably, the more conservative elements of Saudi society, including the clerics with whom the King shares and exercises power, are resisting this particular change.  They presently appear to center their resistance around their concern that the masses will not adhere as faithfully as they have in the past to the holy month of Ramadan (which, like all months in the Hijri calendar, is measured by the lunar cycle).
     
    JHI is confident that good muslims will adhere to Ramadan, just as good christians adhere to Easter, the date of which is determined by the advent of the Jewish observance of the Passover holiday (the Jewish calendar measures months by lunar cycles, occasionally adding a month to make up the discrepancy in days between 12 lunar months and one solar year; thus, while Passover - and the subsequent Christian Easter - are celebrated on the same days of year, every year, on the Jewish calendar, they are celebrated at different times of the year on the civil, or "Gregorian", calendar).

    Neverless, acquiescence to the Saudi government's new calendar will not occur overnight.  As conservative elements tend to dominate the judiciary, and are well-ensconced in the various levels of the bureaucracy in the KSA, JHI feels that for the time being it remains prudent to continue to use language referencing the "Gregorian" calendar as controlling in the boilerplate of contracts and other documents pertaining to business in the Kindgdom of Saudi Arabia - including and especially those documents related to participation in government projects, whether as a contractor or sub-contractor.

    JHI will continue to follow the evolution of this particular change, and other developments related to the Vision 2030 reforms, as the Deputy Crown Prince pulls his country into the 21st Century - both metaphorically and literally.