Dubai: Businesses, their owners, and auditors in the UAE are awaiting the next big update on the corporate tax – the one related to ‘qualifying income’ for free zone entities and on which they get the 0 per cent tax benefit. A decision on this is ‘imminent’, according to multiple audit industry sources.

Any income that these free zone based businesses generate outside of that qualifying income will come under the 9 per cent corporate tax coverage. And there lies the crux, which is why these businesses are awaiting the guidelines on QI with such heightened sense of anticipation. 

The confirmation of the qualifying income benchmark will also be of significance to the many UAE free zones, given the clarity it brings in their dealings with existing entities licensed by them and prospective ones they are looking to sign up.

The UAE Corporate Tax comes into effect June 1. 

What could make up the qualifying income?

According to Raju Menon, Chairman and Group Managing Partner at Kreston Menon, “Income that conforms to business ‘restrictions’ of each free zone authority should be regarded as QI.

“Accordingly, export of goods from a free zone, the trade in goods within a free zone or between free zones – and without any ‘contamination’ in the UAE mainland – may be regarded as qualifying income for the ‘qualifying free zone person’.”

“So would any ‘passive income’ earned by free zone companies.”

These are the confirmations that all stakeholders are looking to from the Ministry of Finance. In recent weeks, debates have intensified over whether businesses should retain their free zone status or go for a full license from the mainland. Particularly among those businesses with a heavy chunk of their income derived direct from operations or services rendered on the mainland.

According to Deepak Bansal of AskPankaj Tax Advisors, “The scope of qualifying income is an evolving issue. The crucial point is to understand the subtle difference between honoring the promised tax incentives (given to free zone licensed companies) and offering a new set of tax incentives.”

What makes up a ‘Qualifying Free Zone Person’?

  1. The entity must maintain ‘adequate substance’ in the UAE, or in other words have a definable direct exposure in the local market.
  2. Derive qualifying income as specified in a Cabinet Decision.
  3. Comply with ‘transfer pricing’ rules and maintain relevant transfer pricing documentation.
  4. Not have made an election to be subject to corporate tax in full.

‘Propertionate’ or ‘activity’ based incentives?

“The concept of proportionate taxation is prevalent in India for tax incentives to companies based in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and certain other countries,” said Bansal. Singapore offers ‘activity-based’ tax incentives as compared to ‘entity-based’ incentives, requiring proportionate determination of eligible/ineligible taxable income.”

The UAE model on qualifying income – and subsequent free zone incentives – would be based on best-of-breed regulations from other jurisdictions on how they treat income generated by such entities.

“Free zones were conceptualized as international trading/manufacturing hubs,” said Bansal. “The income from exports (goods and services), and trading within free zones, is likely to be treated as QI. “The fenced areas of free zones (connected to ports) are treated as outside UAE for VAT/custom purposes. Import of goods from such areas to mainland may also be categorized as QI, i.e., at par with non-resident suppliers’ income from goods imported into mainland UAE.

“Certain passive incomes may also qualify as QI. Any other income may be taxed at 9 per cent resulting in proportionate taxation principles. The concept of ‘disqualifying income’, if introduced, could however have ramifications on business operations.”