Customs matters in the UAE are not administered at a federal level, and each emirate is responsible for the administration of its own customs procedures. Dubai has the most significant ports, airports and free trade zones in the UAE, and is easily the most developed and pro-active emirate with regard to formal customs procedures for fighting the infringement of Intellectual Property Rights.

The UAE has adopted the Common Customs Law of the GCC States, which prohibits the admission, transit or exit of prohibited or infringing goods except with the approval of the customs authorities. It also prohibits the admission into free zones of goods found to infringe IPRs. When read in conjunction with the UAE's intellectual property laws, these provisions provide the basis for Dubai Customs to act against IPR infringing goods that are imported, in-transit, or exiting the UAE via Dubai, or held in free zones within Dubai.

In 2006, Dubai Customs set-up a specialist IPR unit, and established procedures for the submission of complaints against goods suspected of infringing IPRs.

There are two main scenarios in which a complaint to Dubai Customs regarding suspected IPR infringing goods may arise:

  • Dubai Customs discovers suspected IPR infringing goods in the course of its regular inspections, and notifies the IPR owner.
  • The IPR owner discovers a suspect shipment or suspect goods, and notifies Dubai Customs.

In practical terms, it can be difficult for an IPR owner to provide information about suspect goods due to arrive at a UAE port or being processed in a Dubai free zone. In the absence of such information, it can be difficult for Dubai Customs to find suspect goods due to the quantity of consignments that pass through its control. Despite this, the regular inspections by Dubai Customs, along with market investigations on behalf of IPR owners, do often provide a basis for further action.

In either scenario, whether arising out of a notification to the IPR owner by Dubai Customs or out of a notification to Dubai Customs by the IPR owner, the IPR owner will need to file a formal complaint with Dubai Customs if it wishes to have the matter formally considered.

If the IPR owner has not already formally recorded its IPR with Dubai Customs, it will first be necessary to address this step. (See box for requirements.)

For a complaint that has arisen out of notification by Dubai Customs to the IPR owner, an official fee (currently AED 2,010) is payable. Where a complaint has arisen out of notification by the IPR owner to Dubai Customs, the same official fee is payable, along with a security bond (currently AED 5,000). An identification must also be filed. The security bond amount is partially reimbursed if the complaint is upheld, but retained entirely by Dubai Customs if the complaint is not upheld.

Dubai Customs acts very promptly in accepting complaints relating to clear cases of counterfeiting where the suspect goods bears the IPR owner's trade mark exactly as registered in the UAE. Where suspect goods bear a confusingly similar (but not 'identical') trade mark, Dubai Customs has traditionally been more reluctant to accept complaints. Despite this, all cases are considered on a case by case basis, and there are recent instances of Dubai Customs accepting complaints relating to confusingly similar trade marks that are not identical to the IPR owner's UAE registered trade mark.

The typical process following the filing of a complaint is that Dubai Customs takes a sample of the suspect goods from the shipping consignment or from the free zone location where it has been discovered (eg. a factory, warehouse, retail outlet, etc.) and submits the sample to an official laboratory for testing to determine whether or not it is genuine. For this purpose, the IPR owner is required to provide Dubai Customs with samples of genuine goods that correspond to the suspect goods.

In some instances, it may not be possible for the IPR owner to provide genuine goods that correspond to the suspect goods. For example, the corresponding genuine product may no longer be in production, or the suspect goods may bear the IPR owner's trade mark without actually replicating any actual genuine product. In such cases, Dubai Customs may, at its own discretion, accept a formal letter from the trade mark owner explaining the situation, allowing for Dubai Customs to conclude that the suspect goods infringe the IPR owner's rights.

If the official laboratory confirms that suspect goods are not genuine, Dubai Customs will confiscate them. This will typically lead to destruction of the IPR infringing goods, although if destruction of the infringing goods may have a significant detrimental environmental impact (eg. batteries or cigarettes), Dubai Customs may consider ordering re-export of the goods to the port of origin.

If the IPR owner has been unable to provide a genuine sample that corresponds to the suspect goods, the official laboratory will be reluctant to conclude that the suspect goods infringe the IPR owner's rights. In the absence of formal confirmation of infringement by the official laboratory, Dubai Customs is reluctant to order the destruction of the suspect goods.
In such cases, it is necessary for the IPR owner to manage the complaint, and to seek to convince Dubai Customs of the appropriate outcome.

Action via Dubai Customs provides a further tool for IPR owners to battle against IPR infringement. Although there are some practical aspects that may cause difficulties or may mean that outcomes are not always those desired by an IPR owner, the system is generally effective and arguably the most developed in the region – which is important given the significance of the ports and free zones in Dubai. Supporting Dubai Customs' efforts, by recording IPRs with Dubai Customs, by being involved in Dubai Customs' training workshops, and by responding with interest when approached by Dubai Customs regarding suspect goods, are some basic ways in which IPR owners can raise the profile of their IPRs with Dubai Customs and thus improve the likelihood that Dubai Customs will have those IPRs in mind when carrying out their inspections.

The requirements for recordal of a trade mark with Dubai Customs are:

  • A certified copy of the valid UAE trademark certificate or copyright registration certificate;
  • Material showing the IPR as used (for trade marks, typically digital photos of products showing the trade mark in situ; for copyright works, material illustrating the nature of the copyright work);
  • A suitably notarized and legalized Power of Attorney (if the recordal request is not filed by the trade mark owner directly); and
  • The official fee (currently AED 200 per IPR).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.