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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.)

  • New Jersey Senate Passes International Arbitration Bill

    The New Jersey (NJ) Senate, by unanimous vote, has passed Senate Bill 602, the "New Jersey International Arbitration, Mediation and Conciliation Act", sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean, Jr.

    A step in the right direction, if this bill becomes law as presently written, it would empower public research universities in the state to establish centers for arbitration and mediation, with such centers providing their own procedural rules.

    Parties having a qualifying dispute would chose their own substantive law (with NJ law serving as the “gap filler”) and would be able opt into such a center’s procedural rules or any other set of procedural rules the parties agree to choose.

    A qualifying dispute would be one in which one or more of the parties is a non-US resident (individual or corporate) as defined by the bill, or when the property or other asset(s) in controversy are located outside of the United States, or when the underlying business relationship significantly concerns some foreign jurisdiction.  Domestic commercial disputes may also be arbitrated or mediated at such a center, provided the parties expressly agree to avail themselves of such a facility in the dispute resolution clause of the underlying contract.

    Parties who elect to have their dispute heard before a panel or tribunal housed by an arbitration center in NJ would have to fully fund a bond equal to the amount of their exposure in the controversy.  Additionally, the parties would be deemed to have voluntarily submitted themselves to the (in personam) jurisdiction of the courts of New Jersey upon the execution of their agreement to arbitrate in the state, but only to the extent required by the arbitration and enforcement its resulting decision.

    Having been passed by the NJ Senate, the bill now moves to the relevant committee of the NJ General Assembly.

    JHI will continue to track this legislation.
  • Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 & "Riyadh Day" at the UN

    You are about to see a rapid-fire (for this space, anyway) succession of as yet unpublished updates covering a period from Spring 2016 to present.  We will start with an initial discussion of Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030”, touted as the most sweeping series of reforms in the Kingdom’s history.
     
    In a nutshell, Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is a collection of planned economic and social reforms designed to construct a “Post-Oil” Saudi Arabia, in line with globally-held concepts of Sustainable Development. King Salman has invested his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with broad, sweeping powers to enable him, his advisors and other subordinates to design and execute these reforms between now and the target date of 2030.
     
    Within the stated goals of weaning the Kingdom (KSA) off of being an Oil-based economy and becoming an industrialized state, with greater Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), full employment for working-aged males, improved access to high-quality education, greater rights for women and a more liberal social structure generally, two items are immediately obvious:  we are seeing Riyadh’s intent to finalize the end the era wherein OPEC, the powerful cartel of oil-producing states, has been the world’s definitive maker of oil policy; and, a rapid and intense military build-up intended to strengthen a block of states that includes the KSA, Egypt and the smaller Gulf States determined to withstand growing Iranian and Russian influence in the Gulf region following continued declining US influence and interest there and in the greater Middle East.
     
    While JHI is not a policy think tank, we feel it is important to know the backdrop and overall purpose of any upcoming reforms.
     
    Our principle concern is FDI, and the impact any reforms may have on the attractiveness of FDI in the KSA. This program is still young, so specific laws and regulations impacting FDI are not yet in effect. For the time being, there is nothing set in concrete that a law firm can dissect for the benefit of its clients.
     
    Therefore, in our typical less-than-modest fashion, JHI offers some suggestions on how to make FDI in the KSA more attractive to potential investors:
     
    1.  The Corporate Income Tax should continue to be (gradually) lowered, and personal income tax should remain zero.  Although declining oil revenues and their impact on the national government’s budget needs to be addressed, increasing the number of companies investing in the KSA, rather than increasing the tax existing companies pay, seems the best way to address the current budget shortfalls giving rise to the KSA’s national debt.
     
    2.  Saudization is seen, by and large, as a form of tax by potential foreign investors. The best way to address the employment crisis in the KSA is not by compelling investors to hire Saudi nationals, but by making the hiring of them more attractive.  Foreign investors ordinarily love to avail themselves of a local workforce – after all, importing staff and finding housing for them is pretty darned expensive!  Many such imported workers do not know the language or withstand the culture shock very well.  Unfortunately, fairly or unfairly, the idea of hiring Saudis is generally considered unattractive, thus the current Saudization requirements.  Rather than increase these requirements, education should be improved and made more accessible, and a sense of work ethic (rather than entitlement) needs to be instilled in the Kingdom’s youth.  And, the world needs to actually KNOW of the existence of such an educated, hard-working labor pool – numbering in the millions, and proud of real accomplishment at the workplace.  Do this, and Saudization will no longer be necessary at all.
     
    3.  Make the process of obtaining a business license less burdensome and more efficient.  Telling clients that it could take a minimum of six (6) months to obtain the necessary documentation before proceeding with business activity tends to be something of a turn-off for them.  Additional agencies designed to steer and otherwise regulate foreign investment eases nothing and are simply additional "layers” of bureaucracy.  Streamlining, rather than adding to, the process of licensing incoming businesses would be a productive step.
     
    4.  Women’s rights, and human rights generally, should be broadened – and, can be without offending the Kingdom’s religious sensibilities or its historical traditions.  It is much easier, on multiple levels, for a company to invest in a country whose culture is not the focus of controversial discussions centered around notions of equality and individual human dignity.  Additionally, it is essential that people throughout the Kingdom feel some sense of “ownership” in their country and their respective futures (see, 2. above).  They need to feel that their rights are being protected by their government, not denied.  This isn’t a call for the overnight imposition of Jeffersonian democracy.  Quite the contrary:  JHI asserts that the keys to unlocking a more liberal social structure (without rocking the stability of the KSA) lay within the old tribal and other cultural traditions of the modern Kingdom.
     
    5.  The labor market, and the regulation of such, should be loosened, and greater rights should be provided to foreign “unskilled” laborers and household staff.  As above (see, 4.), this is a matter of conscious for many potential investors, as well as foreign professional staff who visit the KSA.
     
    6.  Banking reform is a must.  The KSA is one of the most – if not the most – “underbanked” markets on the face of the earth.  While new banks and fresh capital and competition need to be allowed in, stronger regulation and monitoring needs to be in place, giving rise to stronger internal compliance programs.  While banking needs to be more readily available in the KSA, companies and governments around the world also need to have more confidence in the country’s banks.
     
    7.  For local and foreign companies alike, receivables can be something of a headache in the KSA.  Its no secret that debt, and the collection of debt, can be problematic there.  As the Kingdom undertakes judicial reform, it should continue to consider the importance of the confidence a company can have in the investment it makes in Saudi Arabia.
     
    8.  One of the most crucial assets in play when investing in any country is a company’s intellectual property. Intellectual property protections and anti-piracy measures need to be greatly strengthened, and quickly.  It is important for any company (say, you sell shampoo and find yourself competing with a counterfeit knock-off of your product – that’s not good), but when looking to attract high-tech industries, especially, it is absolutely fundamental that such companies have confidence that intellectual property worth hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of US dollars will not be stolen from them and effectively rendered next to worthless overnight.
     
    These are eight basic principle points upon which JHI would like to see the building of any reform package affecting FDI in the KSA.
     
    JHI will track any concrete steps within this subject, and Mr. Huf hopes to learn more when “Riyadh Day” (its actually a week of symposiums, workshops and other such meetings), sponsored by the KSA’s High Commission for the Development of Riyadh, is held at the United Nations in New York at the end of September.
  • Tracking Marcellus Shale Legislation

    On March 17, 2014, HB 1684 passed out of the Pennsylvania House of Representative's Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and now awaits the consideration of the whole House.  The bill seeks to define the term "post production costs" and mandates that deductions by gas producers/ lessees of natural gas rights cannot deduct for post production costs to the extent that the net royalty paid on extracted gas is reduced to below 12.5%.

    In its current form, the bill would provide that royalties for unconventional wells would be calculated when the gas enters the commercial marketplace, as ownership of the gas passes on to an unrelated entity (an entity "at arms length").  In the event such receiving/ purchasing entity does not meet the definition of "unrelated", the lessee/ producer has the burden of proof in showing that the royalty generated is at fair market value.

    HB 1684 also provides for a 12.5 percent "Minimum".  That is to say, post production costs cannot drive the royalty actually paid out after calculation to an amount below the 12.5 percent mark.  And, such post production costs will have to be itemized for the benefit of the owner in accordance with the guidelines set forth in the legislation.

    While the bill would affect current as well as future lease agreements, it does not retroactively impact royalties already paid out.  That said, this is especially important in light of a recent push to enforce "forced grouping" or "forced pooling" beyond the Utica region, into the gas-rich lands that are considered to fall within the Marcellus region.

    Forced Grouping is a something of a variation of eminent domain, wherein land owners who have not signed a deal to lease their gas rights are compelled to accept the deal given to a majority of their neighbors.  The underlying reasoning is simple:  Natural Gas is not segmented by the above-ground property line.  This means "hold-outs" can effectively hijack economically useful and beneficial production on an entire deposit, absent some provision such as forced grouping.

    Setting aside discussion of individual property rights vs the needs of society for the purposes of this one article, as a tangible matter the "fairness" of such compulsory grouping largely depends on the terms of the leasing agreements entered into by the majority of area landowners. 

    The arguments for forced grouping revolve around the economics of energy, fostering and encouraging production and keeping prices down for the ultimate end-user.  However, JHI believes that for the anticipated Marcellus Shale boom to be fully realized, the land owners who hold the rights to the gas beneath their feet must be full participants in such a boom.

    If it becomes law as presently drafted, this owner-friendly legislation will add greater credibility to gas producers/ lessees arguing in favor of the enforcement of forced grouping.

    While some folks are "hold-outs" for other reasons, in economic terms such might not necessarily be bad news for land owners who hold the rights to Marcellus Shale natural gas.  If you are such an owner, know your rights.  Gas producers/ lessees have top-shelf attorneys dedicated to pursuing the interests of these companies.  You should have a high quality lawyer guarding your rights and interests.

    In light of this new legislation, talk with your neighbors about a common strategy for moving forward.  JHI will continue to track developments in Pennsylvania law impacting the increasingly controversial and complex issues surrounding Marcellus Shale natural gas exploitation.

  • NJ Legislature May Address Local Governments' Expenditures for Legal Services

    The State Comptroller recently determined that some local government bodies in New Jersey have been paying grossly excessive bills for legal services.  In response to the Comptroller’s findings, it seems the New Jersey Senate soon plans (perhaps after November’s state elections) to take up legislation that supporters say is designed to address the problem.

    At the time of this writing, the proposed legislation appears designed to further regulate the process of selecting Town Attorneys and attorneys representing other local government entities, as well as regulating the substantive content of public legal services contracts.  Supporters claim the pending Senate bill would to require a definition of the Scope of Work, mandate clear determination of billing (such as which services are covered by the initial “retainer” and which services are subject to an additional hourly rate) and prohibit law firms from billing an hourly rate for work performed by support staff. Presently, no branch of government in the Garden State yet shows any interest in addressing the political corruption that gives rise to the potential for abusive billing practices by politically connected law firms.

    While we hope the contemplated legislation succeeds in achieving its purported aims, JHI does not intend to change its current practices: JHI already offers clear and concise terms of service, including our innovative “annual flat fee” billing structure.  This allows Township Committees and other local government bodies to reliably budget for legal services and systemically guarantees the prevention of abusive billing practices.  Our option of an Annual Flat Fee structure does not include dealing with C.O.A.H. (yep, C.O.A.H. ain’t dead yet – sorry folks).  However, the state legislature could always turn its attention to eliminating that particular source of expensive litigation.  After the next election, of course…