The Qatari Peninsula, protruding into the Gulf from the Arabian Peninsula, has been a historical center for maritime commerce since the Islamic Golden Age, and even before.
Traders of pearls, dyes, spices, and other exotic goods from the East and the West sailed to Qatar's ports and traversed deserts in caravans to do business there in safety and without unreasonable taxation by local rulers.
This description is not far off the modern definition of an economic free zone.
Qatar has maintained its identity as a haven for business activities right through to modern times.
As a safe country enjoying easy access to energy, with world-class shipping and aviation industries, and open to expatriate professionals and businesspeople, Qatar is well-positioned to claim its place as a meeting point of businesses from across the world, and has in recent years successfully branded itself as such.
The Qatar Free Zones Authority (QFZA) was created in 2018 to further promote that image by running clusters of free zones to attract FDI, as well as the offices of global businesses, to Qatar, while enabling Qatari companies and businesses to operate in an international setting.
QFZA will, in part, accomplish this by offering irresistible incentives such as exemptions, high-quality infrastructure, and a clear regulatory framework.
In 2019, the country will unveil two new free zones, according to HE Ahmed bin Mohamed al-Sayed, the Minister of State who also chairs QFZA.
Ras Bufontas (Airport Free Zone) and Umm Alhoul (Port Free Zone) are designed as optimal business ecosystems complete with world-class infrastructure, pro-business tax regimes, and access to utilities.
Overseen by QFZA, both free zones follow the same general philosophy, focusing on logistics, storage, and re-export activities—which is unsurprising given their proximity to Qatar's main airport and seaport.
However, each is specifically engineered in a way which is more conducive to particular groups of industries.
Located no more than 6km away from the highly-acclaimed Hamad International Airport, the Ras Bufontas free zone also has ideal access to Qatar's highway network and railway system.
To achieve optimal clustering, the free zone will host each set of businesses in locations which are predesigned to meet the demands of that particular industry—including “logistics, consumer products, light manufacturing, technology and applications, services, and pharmaceuticals."
To avoid turning Ras Bufontas into another soulless industrial zone in the world, the zone will come complete with urban elements such as housing and accommodation, shopping areas, and healthcare centers, although it is merely a 20-minute drive away from Doha's city center.
The Umm Alhoul free zone also follows the principles of the clustering of industries and integration of urban elements, although, being adjacent to the Hamad Port, the Umm Alhoul zone is more suitable for industries that rely on sea transportation such as “maritime industries, heavy manufacturing, industrial sectors, emerging technologies, and logistics hubs."
QFZA has so far approved over USD300 million worth of international investments. However, Al-Sayed points out that the addition of new free zones is not meant to stimulate competition between the local private sector and global players who will be set up shop in Qatar soon.
Instead, the initiative intends to bring about a synergistic exchange between the Qatari and global markets.
What's more, these free zones will ensure the easy flow of both business ideas and goods to Qatar, and even create a launchpad for Qatari businesses with an ambition to go international, which will undoubtedly contribute to the country's economic diversification and development well into the future.