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What is a UBO in the UAE? Everything You Need to Know

Nov 17, 2023 | Legal

In a landscape where transparency and accountability are paramount, understanding the role and significance of an Ultimate Beneficial Owner (UBO) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is crucial for anyone engaged in its corporate sector.

This comprehensive guide delves into the intricacies of UBOs within the UAE’s regulatory framework, unveiling who they are, why they matter, and how they influence corporate governance and financial transparency.

From the legal definitions that shape their identity to the regulations governing their disclosure, we unravel the complexities surrounding a UBO in the UAE.

What is a UBO in the UAE?

Definition of Ultimate Beneficial Owner

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an Ultimate Beneficial Owner (UBO) is the legal person who ultimately owns or controls a company. This individual is the final recipient of the benefits of ownership, even if the company’s shares are in someone else’s name. The UBO is the one who reaps the most from ownership or control over the company, and this influence goes beyond the immediate legal owner or shareholder.

Let’s say you hold a substantial portion of shares in one company which has a significant ownership stake in another. You’d be considered the UBO of the second company. When you get to know who the UBO is, you’re seeing the full picture of who benefits and controls through the layers of corporate ownership.

Legal Framework Surrounding UBOs

The UAE has put regulations in place regarding UBOs to boost financial transparency and fight against illegal activities like money laundering and terrorist financing. These rules require businesses in the UAE to keep and submit a register of their beneficial owners to the authorities. Legally, in ultimate beneficial ownership regulations, a UBO is someone who directly or indirectly owns at least 25% of a company’s shareholding or voting rights.

Companies must also report any significant changes that might affect the identification of the UBO within 15 days. If you don’t follow these rules, you could face penalties, including fines from the UAE Ministry of Economy.

Importance in Financial Transparency

The UBO regulations in the UAE are vital in promoting financial transparency. By making companies disclose who really benefits from their operations, the aim is to prevent the misuse of corporate structures for tax evasion, money laundering, and other crimes. This transparency is vital for stopping fraud and for maintaining the UAE’s status as a reliable place to do business.

These regulations are meant to draw more international businesses by ensuring the UAE’s practices match global standards. Plus, they show the UAE’s commitment to fighting financial crimes and keeping its economic environment strong and secure.

UBO vs. Shareholder

Distinguishing between a UBO and a shareholder is essential in the UAE’s corporate landscape. While a shareholder is an individual or legal entity that is officially recorded as holding shares in a corporation, a UBO may not be listed on the share registry but still exercises control or influence over the company. Identifying UBOs is a critical step in preventing financial crimes, as it helps reveal the individuals who have the authority to direct the company’s actions and benefit from its profits.

The challenge in identifying a UBO often involves dissecting complex layers of ownership. Nominee shareholders, for instance, may hold shares on behalf of a UBO, thus masking the true owner’s identity. Unlike nominees who receive compensation for holding shares, UBOs have the ultimate economic interest in the company.

In the UAE, the distinction between shareholders and directors is also defined within the corporate framework. While shareholders have rights such as voting and receiving dividends, directors are responsible for the company’s management and compliance with legal and strategic objectives. Although directors can be shareholders, their main role is to make decisions that serve the company’s interests.

The regulations governing UBOs are designed to enhance transparency and deter illicit financial activities. These regulations apply to all companies in the UAE except those operating in financial institutions, free zones or owned by the government. Understanding the difference between a UBO and a shareholder is a matter of legal compliance and a crucial aspect of the international initiative to combat financial crime by ensuring accountability for those in control.

Screenshot Of DIFC Website

Regulatory Requirements for UBO Reporting

Domestic and International Regulations

The UAE’s regulatory framework also mandates that certain entities maintain and submit records of their shareholders and UBOs, aligning with global standards to delineate company ownership structures. However, entities within the Abu Dhabi Global Market and the Dubai International Financial Centre are exempt from these stipulations, as are companies wholly owned by the federal or Emirate government.

Compliance Obligations for Companies

Entities operating within the UAE must establish and preserve a UBO register, a shareholder register, and, where applicable, a nominee board member register. These records must be kept current and filed with the appropriate licensing authority.

Additionally, entities must disclose information about senior management and designate a local contact person authorised to communicate the necessary details. Publicly traded companies and their subsidiaries are exempt from these requirements.

The UBO regulations also impose new duties regarding issuing and transferring shares, supplementing the provisions of the Commercial Companies Law.

Penalties for Non-Compliance

Failure to adhere to the UBO regulations can result in administrative sanctions, underlining the significance of adherence to these rules. Entities must report any substantial changes in UBO information within a 15-day window.

Omissions in notifying the relevant authorities can incur fines or other disciplinary actions from the UAE Ministry of Economy. These measures underscore the imperative for entities to maintain up-to-date and precise beneficial owner data.

Best Practices for UBO Reporting

Entities should implement robust measures to safeguard their registers against loss, damage, or unauthorised access. They are required to retain these records for the duration of the entity’s existence and for an additional five years post-dissolution, liquidation, or de-registration.

Access to the information in the registers is restricted and may only be disclosed with the consent of the UBO or nominee board member or by judicial order. Entities are encouraged to submit their UBO declarations electronically.

Diligent maintenance of the registers, including timely updates of any alterations, is crucial. Adherence to these guidelines assists UAE companies in promoting a transparent and secure business climate that aligns with international benchmarks and attracts global commerce.

UBO Disclosure Requirements

Information to Be Disclosed

The UBO Law mandates that entities provide comprehensive details about their Real Beneficiaries. These are individuals who, either through direct or indirect means, hold a substantial portion of the company’s share capital or voting rights. The law identifies individuals with at least a 25% stake in the company’s capital or equivalent voting power, direct or indirect ownership or those who exert control through other means, such as the authority to appoint or dismiss the majority of directors or managers, as Real Beneficiaries.

If no individual meets these criteria, the person who exercises control through other means is considered the Real Beneficiary. In situations where the company’s structure does not permit the identification of such an individual, the senior management official responsible for the company’s operations is the natural person designated as the Real Beneficiary.

Exemptions and Special Cases

Exemptions to the UBO disclosure requirements are provided for publicly traded entities, subsidiaries of such entities, and those owned by the federal or local government. Additionally, entities within the DIFC or ADGM are not subject to these obligations.

Entities owned by a company listed on a recognised stock exchange, which is subject to adequate transparency regarding their beneficial owners, or a company wholly owned by such a listed entity, are also exempt from maintaining detailed UBO ownership information.

The UBO Law enforces stringent penalties for non-compliance, including fines and other administrative sanctions for entities and their officers. These penalties can be levied for various violations, such as not maintaining accurate records of beneficial owners, failing to report changes in ultimate beneficial owners or ownership within the prescribed time frame, and not having current information on beneficial owners six months after the regulations were enacted.

Entities are obliged to notify the relevant authority of any modifications to the UBO register within fifteen days of the alteration. Furthermore, the information within the registers must be kept confidential, and the relevant licensing authority is prohibited from disclosing this information without the prior written consent of the UBO or Nominee Board Member, except under a court order.

To preserve the integrity of the UBO registers, entities must implement reasonable procedures to prevent these records’ loss, damage, or destruction. The registers must be maintained for the duration of the entity’s existence and for five years following the entity’s dissolution, liquidation, or de-registration, ensuring that historical data remains accessible for regulatory and compliance purposes.

Screenshot Of ADGM Website

Why is UBO important in the UAE?

The concept of UBO has become integral to the UAE’s regulatory efforts, with a focus on anti-money laundering and enhancing the corporate sector’s transparency. By pinpointing the individuals who ultimately benefit from financial transactions, the UAE is taking a proactive stance against financial crimes.

UBOs can sometimes conceal their identities, making them less visible than BOs, who might be shareholders or hold other positions that allow them indirect benefits.

Identifying a UBO involves understanding the intricate network of control and benefit, pinpointing the individuals who, regardless of the formal chain of command, reap the most from a company’s operations. This differs from a BO, who may enjoy the perks of ultimate beneficial ownership even without the property being in their name.

The ultimate beneficiary of UBO is the person who, ultimately, benefits the most from the entity’s transactions, which can include shareholders, guardians of minors, individuals with power of attorney, or nominee directors.

The UAE’s implementation of UBO regulations is a strategic move to fortify its regulatory environment. By aligning with international best practices, the UAE enhances its appeal as a destination for global businesses. This elevates the country’s reputation and fosters trust with international investors and stakeholders who prioritise integrity and transparency in their business interactions.

Furthermore, the UBO framework is instrumental in preventing the misuse of corporate structures for illicit purposes. By mandating the disclosure of the percentage of shares held by UBOs during business verification checks, the UAE actively works to see potential risks and thwart activities like terrorist financing. This vigilance ensures that corporations and legal entities are not exploited for detrimental activities, safeguarding the nation’s economic and social fabric.

The emphasis on UBO identification in the UAE underscores the country’s commitment to a clean, transparent, and secure business environment. It is a crucial component of the broader initiative to combat financial crimes and promote ethical business conduct, reinforcing the UAE’s status as a global hub for commerce and investment.

Navigating UBO Compliance in the UAE

The UAE’s commitment to transparency and financial crime prevention has set a clear course for businesses to navigate. Recognising and reporting the individuals who hold ultimate sway over company operations is more than a regulatory mandate—it’s a pledge to integrity and international cooperation.

Adhering to these guidelines requires a one-off effort and an ongoing vigilance that keeps pace with regulatory changes and shifts within the company’s ownership structure. UAE enterprises that embrace the spirit of these regulations will avoid penalties and bolster their reputations as trustworthy partners in the global market.

Maintaining meticulous UBO records is no mere formality; it’s a cornerstone of the UAE’s robust economic framework, ensuring a secure and inviting commercial landscape. For businesses, impeccable compliance is the beacon that guides their journey towards success and credibility in an ever-evolving financial world.

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