December 7, 2011

‘Fit for use’ – a guide to authenticating documents in the United Arab Emirates

Doing business in the UAE can often appear to be an opaque process that is tricky to navigate.  Foreigners accustomed to the systems and processes of Western jurisdictions can be left frustrated by the requirements associated with conducting even the simplest of transactions.  At the heart of any business concluded in the UAE, whether it be a disposal or an acquisition, or an establishment or the winding up of an entity, is the requirement for authenticated copies of documents.

For the many businesses and entrepreneurs looking to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), doing business can often appear to be an opaque process that is tricky to navigate.  Foreigners accustomed to the systems and processes of Western jurisdictions can sometimes be left frustrated and confused by the requirements associated with conducting even the simplest of transactions.  At the heart of any business concluded in the UAE, whether it be a disposal or an acquisition, or an establishment or a winding up of an entity, is the requirement from the outset for authenticated copies of documents.

In essence, the process of having a document authenticated guarantees that it contains truthful and accurate information as well as legal validity in the state where it will be used.  As the UAE is not a signatory to the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement for Legalisation for Foreign Public Documents (the Hague Convention), authentication is a legal requirement without which a document cannot be relied upon by the authorities. 

The process of authenticating a document so that it can be effectively used and enforced in the UAE consists of four obligatory steps which commence in the country where the document has originated and conclude in the UAE, where it will eventually be used.  These steps can be summarised as (1) notarisation; (2) attestation by the relevant ministry of the country where the document originated; (3) certification by the UAE embassy or consulate in the country where the document originated; and (4) certification by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the UAE (MOFA). 

Depending on the purpose for which the document is being used in the UAE, it may be necessary to undertake the further steps of having the document translated by a certified legal translator into Arabic and then having the translation certified by the UAE Ministry of Justice.

Step 1 – Notarisation

The first step in the process of ensuring that a document is authenticated for use in the UAE is to arrange for it to be notarised in the country where the document was produced.  The role of the Notary is to ensure the authenticity of the signatures that appear on the document.  Where the document can be signed before a Notary, the Notary will insist on witnessing the signature and any supporting documents which certify the identity of the signatory such as a passport.  In the event that the document is being signed on behalf of a company, the Notary may also need to see evidence that proves that the individual signing is authorised to do so by the company.

Step 2 – Attestation

Once the document has been notarised, it then needs to be attested.  Attestation can be best described as the process whereby a document is certified to give it legal standing internationally, which is why this process is also occasionally referred to as legalisation or an apostille.  It should be noted however that attestation is only referred to as an apostille by signatories to the Hague Convention and is usually the final step in effecting legal validity of a document for use in such member states.  Careful enquiry should be made in to the relevant ministry for attestation of the state where the document originated. For example, in the United Kingdom this process would be undertaken by the Foreign Commonwealth Office.  This ministry will attest the document by cross-checking the name and practicing number of the Notary on the document that has been notarised with the list of notaries that they have on record.  Once they are satisfied that the document has been notarised correctly, it will make the necessary certification and the document will be attested.

Step 3 – Certification by the UAE Embassy or Consulate in the state where the document originated

As the UAE is not a member of the Hague Convention, any foreign document required for use in the UAE must undergo two further certifications after it has been attested.  The first of these certifications will usually be carried out by the UAE Embassy or Consulate in the state where the document originated.  The attested document will be submitted and the Embassy/Consulate will check to see if the document has been attested by the appropriate ministry in the relevant foreign state before stamping it with the UAE Consulate stamp that certifies the date and state in which the document was certified.  Once this has been performed, the document will need to be brought to the UAE to undergo the final stage of the authentication process.

Step 4 – Certification by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The certification of the document by MOFA will usually be the final step in the process of authentication.  Once submitted, the document will be checked by MOFA to ensure that it has been notarised, attested and certified by its UAE Embassy in the country where the document originated.  Once it is satisfied, MOFA will certify the document and it will then be deemed to have legal effect in the UAE. 

Occasionally, however, the document may have to undergo a couple of further steps depending on the nature for which the document will be used in the UAE.  If the document is required to be submitted to a UAE Court or another Ministry, for example, such authorities are likely to demand an Arabic translation of the document as Arabic is the official language of the UAE.  In such instances, it would then be necessary to instruct a certified legal translator licensed by the UAE Ministry of Justice to translate the document into Arabic and then submit the translation and the original document to the UAE Ministry of Justice which will certify the Arabic translation.  If, however, the document is needed by a free zone authority, it will usually not require these additional steps as English is accepted by most free zone authorities in the UAE.

Overall, the entire process, from notarising the document in the home state to sending it to the UAE for authentication by MOFA can take between two to three weeks.  Coupled with the fact that it is also an expensive procedure, foreigners should determine beforehand which documents are absolutely necessary for authentication so as to not incur unnecessary time or expense.  The process of authenticating documents for use in the UAE can be challenging, however by seeking advice beforehand and following the above guidance it is hoped that the foreign businessman or investor can save himself from incurring unnecessary confusion or frustration.