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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.)

  • Big Firm Resources Without the Massive Overhead

    By R. Jason Huf

    Some of you may have obtained entry to the "Monastery" (as I've taken to calling my office) as and when business has required. However, for most of those reading this, I realize that I'm letting you in on a little secret: the advertised address of JHI's NYC HQ office is just a mail stop associated with a shared space & services operation on the 6th floor of good old 11 Broadway.  To maintain my strict "No Pop-Ins" Policy, the exact location of the Firm Headquarters Office/ Monastery's actual physical presence is kept confidential, and that confidence is only breached when necessary.

    Being able to advertise the mail stop as the office address, and the convenience of renting conference room space by the hour on the 6th floor, both enable me to concentrate on my work with minimal interruption.  In addition to this "buffer", availing myself of the shared services when certain tasks need to be performed rather efficiently assists me with keeping costs down, which in turn contributes to my ability to maintaining hourly rates that are very competitive.

    The World is Yours (As an old boss of mine used to say, "This is not the Fish Market"; but, with our competitive rates and innovative price structures, there may not be much need for you to bargain when seeking high-quality, world-class International Legal Services that your company can afford)


    Perhaps most fundamentally to those of you (still) reading this piece, JHI can make available to your company the seamless provision of professional services spanning just about the entire legal prism, without having to figure massive overhead costs into our hourly rates (or more innovative billing arrangements). The outfit that runs the 6th floor operation only caters to attorneys, and many of these attorneys elect to house their firms and solo practices in physical office space on the site. Irrespective of the level of their arrangement, all who participate in some form or another are listed in a directory and, over time, some of us get to know each other reasonably well.

    These attorneys practice in virtually every area of the law, and possess a variety of experience levels. In short, I have at my fingertips a storehouse of legal minds to draw upon, from commercial real estate specialists, to business litigators, to tax professionals - even a very smart fellow who focuses on energy trading. And, like myself, they tend to maintain a relatively unburdensome level of overhead costs, which in turn, permits them to be reasonable with their fees as well.

    A few people still tend to think of my practice as rather narrow, until I dispell them of that illusion - JHI is a Commercial, Corporate, Energy & Banking law firm and we perform a wide range of services for clients hailing from a broad variety of industries.  We just happen to have extensive experience in the Middle East, which may occassionally give rise to some folks instinctively thinking of JHI as a boutique servicing a particular "specialty" area.  However, JHI's capabilities are even broader than I previously reasoned:

    Between the NYC HQ, our Jeddah, Saudi Arabia Office, additional reources in the UAE (Abu Dhabi & Dubai) and access to Singapore and various major cities in India, JHI as a Brand is known as a capable provider of professional services in the Middle East and South Asia, ranging from company formation to arbitration, for those who have invested - or are looking to invest - in those regions in the world.

    What JHI is not (yet) necessarily known for is our ability to assist businesses based in the Middle East and elsewhere with their expansion into the US "mega-market". Whether you are an individual foreign investor entering through the EB-5 Visa process, or a family-owned conglomerate of businesses looking to invest in US real estate, or a publicly traded company in Riyadh entering a joint venture, or a participant in the new US public-private partnerships designed to reform the nation's infrastructure, JHI is well-placed to help get you started as well as protect your US-side business interests down the road.

    We have access to an entire network of intellectual assets encompassing a variety of practice areas ordinarily comanded only by big law firms, without having to factor "big firm" overhead into our fees. So, when investing from West to East, or East to West, consider the cost-effective but powerful option of contacting JHI for your legal needs.

    Feel the difference and put our NYC HQ and affiliated Community of Attorneys to work for you in concert with our Jeddah office and/ or resources in the UAE, India & Singapore (wherever you're from!) as we help you and your company Explore the Boundaries of Your Business.

     – Jason Huf
    Wednesday, August 8, 2017
    New York, NY

  • Saudi Arabia's "Companies Law" of 2015

    Saudi Arabia's (KSA) new Companies Law of 2015 came into effect on May 2, 2016.  At JHI, we wished to see the new law in practice and how it would be enforced by Saudi authorities before commenting.  In the meantime, much has already been written about the new law and we need not cover the same ground here.

    Of particular interest to clients and potential clients of JHI is, we believe, the law's provision of the option of Sole Proprietorships (or "Single-Shareholder" companies), and how applications for the licensing and registration of such by foreign investors are treated by the Ministry of Commerce and Investment and the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA).

    As a general matter, the new law provides that SAGIA may continue to impose additionally stringent incorporation requirements on companies being established with the backing of foreign investors.  While the process of approving incorporation applications has been somewhat streamlined at SAGIA, a certain level of uncertainty, especially at the beginning stages of such an application, remains.

    When considering establishing or reforming an entity in the KSA, JHI feels that if a foreign investor has a trustworthy local partner/ agent (or "sponsor") then, for the time being, it may remain prudent to make use of such local parties when doing business in the Kingdom.  In addition to possibly enjoying a smoother approval process, one might avoid any potential bureaucratic pushback by some recalcitrant officials who may still be resistant to the Vision 2030 reforms more generally.

    The relationship with one's local sponsor can be further clarified via a side letter to the sponsorship agreement.  Such sideletters have been enforced by Saudi courts with increasing regularity.  And, JHI hopes that the provision for Single-Shareholder companies in the new Companies Law is not seen by the local judiciary as a rationale for reversing this trend.

    We will have more to say about the execution and enforement of the new Companies Law and other reforms as events (rapidly) progress.  Speaking of events, recent news indicates a very real likelihood of a shift in the direction of investment capital flowing between the Untied States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

    Where the Riyals of the Sovereign Wealth Fund go, other Saudi-based investment capital tends to follow.  With that in mind, JHI is seriously considering offering the shepherding of EB-5 (Investor) Visa applications to the menu of professional services our firm offers to incoming companies that invest in the United States, particularly New York, Pennsylvania and/ or New Jersey, where Mr. Huf is admitted to bar.  JHI will have more to say on this in the near future as well.
  • "A Day in Riyadh": An Exhibition of History, Culture, Modernization & Reformation

    During the last week of September, immediately following the opening of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York, a series of seminars, workshops and interactive displays collectively coined "A Day in Riyadh" was showcased at the UN.  This week-long "Riyadh Day" was sponsored by the High Commission for the Development of Arriyadh (Riyadh), and particularly featured the ongoing work of the Arriyadh (Riyadh) Development Authority (ADA).  As a Representative (Observer) for a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) to the UN, and an attorney with an office in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Huf, Principal of JHI, was pleased and excited to attend.

    Riyadh (Saudi) Exhibition at the United Nations
    Focused on the capital city of Saudi Arabia (KSA, or the Kingdom) and the governate (province) of Riyadh, the series of presentations covered subjects relevant to the economy, culture, commerce and development of the entire Kingdom, and the Arab and Islamic worlds more generally.

    Of particular interest to those who follow this space will be the planned reformation of Riyadh's transportation system which, if fully executed, may be the single-largest public works project on earth during the period of construction. However, we will list all of the subjects covered by the panel presentations at the UN between September 27 - 30, to provide a broad look at the planned continued development of Riyadh (one of the chief purposes of the conference) which, in turn, may give us a better view of the Kingdom-wide social and economic reforms known as Saudi Arabia's "Vision 2030".

    Eng Khalid Al Hogail, CEO Saudi Public Transport Company  Saudi Nuclear Program  Arriyadh Development Authority

    9/27 "Riyadh:  Planning for People" - the overall City Plan (by 2030) moving forward, including details on Riyadh's new "Smart City" initiative.

    9/28 "Riyadh:  A Sustainable & People-Friendly City" - details concerning the Sustainable Development of Riyadh.

    9/29 "Riyadh:  On the Move" -  The King Abdulaziz Project for Riyadh Public Transport.

    9/30 "Riyadh:  Development of Civilization and Social Partnership" - Plans for the continued social, economic and intellectual development of the city's population in line with Islamic principles and the traditions of Arabia, particularly youth and especially young women, empowering them to take a more active role in the growth of the city and the future of the Kingdom as a whole.

    Dr. Sana H Alorf and Jason Huf
    (Jason Huf and Dr. Sana Alorf.  Dr. Sana is extraordinary, but not unique. She is a medical doctor working in Riyadh who also participates in many charitable and civic endeavors.  She volunteered, along with many other young Saudis, to travel to New York and talk about their culture, heritage and way of life in side bars at the exhibition.  Many ladies are taking up professions [including and increasingly fields such as law, medicine and science], starting businesses and participating in life outside their homes in the Kingdom.  Dr. Sana has a wealth of information that dispells many of the illusions concerning Saudi society and highlights the progress Saudi women have made - and continue to make.)

    The public transortation project, scheduled for completion in 2018, is a massive affair that could revolutionize life in Riyadh.  In addition to a new bus service, the project includes the construction of a commuter railway (Riyadh Metro) with six lines, dozens of stations, a main terminal for each line, and services areas at each stop, including large-scale shopping complexes at each of the main terminals.  Anticipating use by roughly 3.6 million residents daily, over 3,000 transport stands will be constructed to accomodate waiting commuters.

    With billions of Saudi Riyals being invested into the project, and given the rather brief time frame, this will generate a labor boom in the capital for qualified Saudis and expatriates.  Mr. Huf asked Eng. Hassan Al Musa, Deputy Director of the Transport Planning Department of the High Commission for the Development of Riyadh, if resources had been allocated to process what should be a substantial spike in Visa applications.  Potential contractors and subcontractors will be interested to know that the Deputy Director responded that his office is in touch with the Ministry of Labor on a regular basis as they set up for this contingency.  So long as employers comply with their filing requirements, he said, there should be no delays in the project caused by a labor shortage brought about by paperwork backlogs.

    Eng Hassan Al Musa and Jason Huf
    (Eng. Hassan Al Musa and Jason Huf.  Mr. Huf found him to be capable, earnest and modest.  Although entrusted with day-to-day management of a massive public works project that progresses under a tight schedule, he always gives credit to others, refering to his "Army" of dedicated public servants.  "That makes you a General", responded Mr. Huf, who later added, "Eng. Hassan is a nice guy".)

    In addition to the lifestyle transformation and relief of traffic congestion that will take place once this project is complete, young Saudis who are lacking in resources such as cars of their own will be able to much more easily venture beyond the confines of their own neighborhoods to look for satisfying work and important educational opportunities.  And, everyone who lives in Riyadh should enjoy the benefit of cleaner air arising from fewer cars on the highways.

    The entire program provided a window through which one could sample Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, the rapid modernization and other wide-ranging reforms ordered by King Salman and spearheaded by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with the aim of guiding a modern but authentically Islamic Saudi Arabia that remains true to its people's history and traditions into a future "Post-Oil" economy.

    These reforms include the KSA's Sustainable Development program, which closely follows the UN's Sustainable Development Goals while keeping in conformity with Kingdom's Islamic principles; increased opportunities for youth & women; and, Saudi Arabia's nuclear power program.

    At JHI, we have offered our own modest suggestions for the shaping of such sweeping reforms, with an emphasis on attracting increased Foreign Direct Investment in the Saudi market.

    With an incoming US Administration that seems keen on utilizing America's energy resources; and, (if feasible) working with Russia to defeat ISIS (which, in addition to commiting henious atrocities, has been fighting forces led directly or indirectly by the Iranians), some may see such investment from the West as slow in coming, and the KSA's reception of it to be less-than-enthusiastic.

    Seen by some as signalling potential push-back against the further development of US energy resources and other recent or possible future policy changes, Prince Alaweed bin Talal of Kingdom Holding Company (Saudi Arabia's soverign investment apparatus) suggested selling holdings previously classified "not sellable" (such as shares in Citi Group and US Treasury bonds), which would be a divorce from Saudi Arabia's long-standing policy of having "buy-ins" in important American economic institutions and, thus, the American economy - effectively giving the US a stake in the KSA's existence and continued success.

    Noises concerning such potential push-back seem unlikely to stem the increased exploitation of US energy resources (another dip in the price of oil, for example, would seem more likely to give pause to an increase in US production).  And, the US-Saudi alliance of over seven decades, while fraying a bit over the last several years, should remain rather tightly tethered:  after ISIS is destroyed, a check on Iranian ambition will have been eliminated, and the US and the KSA will more clearly and simply share strong interests in containing Iran and managing increasingly complicated relationships with Russia.

    In fact, the strong relationships the KSA enjoys with the West, the interest Western countries have in seeing the continued modernization of Arab states, and Western companies' keen eye to continue - and, possibly increase - their investments in the Gulf region were reinforced recently by UK Prime Minister Theresa May in her mid-December visit to the Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Bahrain.

    Overview City Plan Riyadh 2030
    Pending changes to the Kingdom's commercial and corporate laws, which continue to be rolled out, and given at least one or two geopolitical uncertainties, JHI presently and on the whole views it likely that the environment for Foreign Investors will become even more attractive as the Vision 2030 reforms are implemented in the KSA.  As to the Great Social & Economic Reformation of the Kingdom known as "Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030", Mr. Huf doesn't think its on par with the Maji Restoration (the radical transformation experienced in Japan during the late 19th century), but he does see it as the most significant series of reforms in the history of the KSA since the reign of King Faisal (perhaps in the Kingdom's entire history - we'll see) and the most positive collection of developments to take place in the Arab world thus far in this new, turbulent 21st century - and, he certainly viewed the exhibition at the UN positively.