Challenges and opportunities for SMEs under Economic Substance Regulations – 

These Economic Substance Regulations in UAE are designed to ensure that companies engaged in significant economic activities possess substantial presence, such as tangible workforce, physical offices, and effective management structures, commensurate with the scale of their operations. While larger multinational corporations typically possess the resources to comply with these new regulations, smaller and medium-sized local enterprises may face more significant challenges. This article explains the potential hurdles that these smaller firms might encounter in adhering to the new rules, while also exploring the opportunities that the regulations present if these companies navigate them strategically. Consult Economic Substance Regulations experts

Key Challenges for SMEs

SMEs face many challenges under ESR, some of which include:

Compliance Costs

Meeting the ESR’s “Core Income-Generating Activity” and physical presence requirements, such as employing qualified full-time staff and incurring operating expenditures, involves fixed costs that impose a relatively higher burden on SMEs. Conducting board meetings and maintaining accounting records in the UAE adds to compliance costs.

Lack of Resources

Unlike larger firms, most SMEs have limited financial, technical and human resources to understand complex regulations, hire consultants for compliance advice and invest in infrastructure for physical presence. Outsourcing core activities may not be feasible given associated expenses.

Regional Presence Requirements

The ESR mandates conducting core activities and directing management within the UAE, which is challenging for SMEs with regional/global operations and businesses structured for tax efficiency rather than physical presence in any single location.

Documentation Requirements

Maintaining extensive documentation like minutes of board meetings, employment records, expenses statements etc. to evidence compliance requires investments of time and effort that SMEs may not have adequately.

Significant Penalties

Non-compliance with ESR can attract penalties, creating compliance pressure. The penalty risk is disproportionately high for SMEs due to low.

Opportunities under the ESR

Despite challenges, the ESR also presents opportunities for SMEs:

Enhanced credibility with stakeholders

Compliance demonstrates substance and legitimacy to financial institutions, creditors, investors and customers who seek low risk partners following ESR. This can improve access to capital and market opportunities.

Tax benefits of physical presence

Qualifying for tax residency and permanent establishment status can help reduce overall tax costs through potential deductions, incentives, and avoidance of branch profit taxes.

Level playing field with MNEs

The ESR creates clearer rules of engagement for all firms on par with international standards, removing advantages previously enjoyed only by larger MNEs due to lack of substance requirements.

Building expertise and networks

Compliance experience can help develop specialized skills in managing global operations, interacting with regulators, and using professional advisors – valuable for future growth.

Innovation and operational improvements

Meeting physical presence standards may encourage process optimization, digitization and other efficiency and service quality upgrades with long term benefits.

Recommended Strategies for SMEs

To leverage opportunities while mitigating challenges, SMEs should:


  • Determine applicable activities and seek advisor support to ascertain compliance needs upfront
  • Utilize exemptions wherever possible based on ownership, jurisdiction or lack of foreign related party transactions
  • Outsource core functions judiciously to third parties within the UAE while closely supervising outsourced operations
  • Centralize regional management and administration at a UAE entity to evidence direction and control
  • Maintain comprehensive but risk-based documentation commensurate to the level of real economic activities
  • Consider professional services firms that provide pay-as-you-go compliance packages tailored for SME needs
  • Collaborate with industry bodies and peer network for regular updates, guidance and cost-sharing of common provider arrangements
  • Engage proactively with regulators to address uncertainties and seek relief wherever disproportionate compliance burden exists due to firm’s scale and risk profile


Which SME activities are likely to be exempt under the ESR?

Activities wholly owned and conducted only in the UAE by SMEs without foreign related party transactions are likely exempt.

Can SMEs outsource core functions to reduce compliance costs?

Yes, the ESR allows outsourcing core functions to third parties in the UAE, subject to close supervision of outsourced operations by the SME.

What documentation is critical for SMEs to evidence ESR compliance?


Key documents include evidence of a regional presence like board meeting minutes, proof of qualified employment and operating expenditures in the UAE commensurate to economic activities.

How can SMEs best utilize industry associations for ESR support?

SMEs can leverage industry bodies for regular guidance, cost-sharing of common compliance arrangements, representation with regulators, and networking with peer firms.


Although small and medium enterprises (SMEs) encounter relatively elevated costs in complying with ESR due to their size, they can capitalize on exemptions, outsourcing possibilities, and strategic handling of essential obligations to capitalize on the significant long-term opportunities it offers. Proactively interacting with regulators and seeking industry assistance also aids SMEs in overcoming initial hurdles as ESR evolves. Overall, the UAE ESR holds the potential to create a more transparent and fair business environment for all companies amid the evolving global tax scenario.

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