World Free Zone Organization Conference

Last week I attended the World Free Zone Organization’s annual conference in Dubai.

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Last week I attended the World Free Zone Organization’s annual conference in Dubai. One of my goals with the Charter Cities Institute is, first to map, then bring together the groups which are a natural constituency for charter cities and other types of free zones. As such, what follows is a mapping of what I believe the important aspects of the World Free Zone Organization are.

  • The World Free Zone Organization (WFZO) is four years old. It is not the only international special economic zone organization, another is WEPZA, but the WFZO appears to be the most active.
  • Their funding is nearly entirely from Dubai related entities, see the sponsorship list here.
  • They function as an industry group.
  • African, Latin American, and European free zones were well represented. Asian zones were underrepresented.
  • Conversations were different for different continents. High tech manufacturing in Europe, labor intensive exports in Africa.
  • Most free zones present focus on exports.
  • Very limited discussion on the regulatory arbitrage of free zones. What discussion there was focused on taxes.
  • The speakers focused on international trade. The economists invited did not specialize in free zones.
  • There were relatively few consultants there looking for clients.
  • No discussion of free zones as a tool for economic development.
  • No discussion of charter cities, or free zones with urban areas.
  • There remains no good mapping of free zones worldwide.

The key takeaways from the conference are that discussions of free zones are still relatively underdeveloped. Free zones themselves don’t have an international internally consistent narrative, though they are developing one. There is the opportunity for influencing the WFZO, and free zones more generally, toward mixed use, more urban, deeper reforms, e.g. charter cities lite, which can set the stage for economic development.