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The new Casablanca: Why Dubai draws Iran, intrigue, and tusk smugglers

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Dubai has long invited trade because it lacks the massive oil reserves that have made its Gulf neighbors rich.

It began setting up free-trade zones in 1985 and slashed its import tax to 5 percent, a now-common standard in neighboring countries. It established a reputation for processing cargo quickly – a vital service for firms shipping goods via Dubai from, say, Sweden to Pakistan.

In 1979, Dubai opened the world's largest seaport – so big it can be seen from space. The port of Jebel Ali has been ranked the top seaport in the Middle East for 15 years in a row by trade publication Cargonews.

Next door is the Jebel Ali Free Zone (Jafza), a sort of duty-free megastore for the 6,500 firms that have set up shop. There, they can manage their shipments without paying tariffs and avoid UAE restrictions on foreign ownership and hiring. And, with so many firms, Jafza can meet most business needs – a synergy other nations in the region haven't matched.

"You can pretty much do your business without having to worry about who you have [available]," says Ali Talev, a Lebanese businessman who has worked in Dubai for 10 years. Transportation firms alone number around 200, which "allows you to move your product very fast."

Why firms ship goods 1,000 miles farther for Dubai's services

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