How to become a freelancer or self-employed in Dubai

TransferWise
07.24.18
5 minute read

As the skyscraper-packed modern metropolis of the oil-rich Persian gulf nation of United Arab Emirates, Dubai has one of the most famously dynamic economies in the world. Travellers and expats love Dubai because it combines the features of a modern, almost futuristic, city with desert exoticism and sun, surf, and beaches. As a rapidly modernizing economy, Dubai is in demand of skilled workers who can quickly produce contract work. The Dubai-based freelancing website Nabbesh.com reported a 40% increase in the demand for freelancers in the first quarter of 2016. So if you’d like to settle in and live in Dubai for an extended period of time and have marketable skills in development, website design, writing, editing, IT, marketing, and graphic design, there are boundless opportunities to make a decent living while you work on your tan.

This article will provide some essential tips and tricks for starting your freelancing career in Dubai, navigating the bureaucracy and revenue service, and assembling the skills you need for success.

What's the difference between being self-employed and being a freelancer?

So you’re doing contract work for an organization. You’re not their employee, but does that make you self-employed, or a freelancer? The difference can be confusing. If you're self-employed, that means that you technically own your own business. But it’s only freelance work if you do it on behalf of another company or organization, not say, an independent plumber working for private homeowners. That’s why freelancers are able to conduct their business under their own name, rather than a brand name. All freelancers are self-employed but not all self-employed people are freelancers.

Can I legally freelance in Dubai if I’m not a citizen or resident?

In most circumstances, you must either be employed by a UAE company or married to a legal UAE resident to work from Dubai. However, for certain in-demand industries, the UAE government issues temporary work visas for special, tax-exempt “free zones” within the city. Each free zone is a geographical area that allows foreign workers to establish businesses for a specific business sector, such as design, development, and media. The following free zones allow freelancers.

  • Dubai Media City
  • Dubai Studio City
  • Dubai Production City
  • Dubai Knowledge Park
  • Dubai Design District
  • Dubai International Academic City
  • Abu Dhabi Twofour54
  • Fujairah Creative City

To become a licensed freelancer, you must first register your enterprise as a business and apply for a Trade License that pertains to your business sector from the Department of Economic Development. A freelance trade license carries a one-time fee of approximately 16.000 dirhams, or around €3850 ($4350).

Aside from the basic Trade License fee, each of Dubai’s 27 free zones has its own registration procedures and fee structure. Some also require an entrepreneur to have a minimum amount of startup capital.

You can attempt to get your freelance business on its feet on your own, but it’s wise to consult with a business development specialist. Many who do, find they’re able to begin freelancing quicker and with fewer headaches after consulting a specialist.

Your Trade License may require you to rent some amount of office space. If you're working as a solo freelancer instead of building a business with a full staff, you may want to look into a co-working space. Co-working spaces function like offices, but instead of being run by a single company, freelancers pay a monthly fee for access. They can be a refreshing break from the monotony and loneliness of working from home.

How do I get paid from abroad?

As a skilled expat worker, you'll likely get paid through a wire service. There are many options, such as Western Union or Paypal. But you’ll want to be aware of the fees and exchange rates charged by different financial institutions. Most banks and transfer services charge low up-front fees, but take advantage of you by using a higher exchange rate and skimming the difference.

To receive payment and have the largest amount left over when you collect it, give TransferWise a try. That way, your money will be converted at the real exchange rate - the same one you’ll find on Google - and that should put more money back into your pocket.

The TransferWise multi-currency Borderless account is probably best suited to your needs. A borderless account allows you to have “local bank” status in either the EU, UK, or US, but reside in a different country, and send, manage, or receive money through the account in dozens of currencies, including Emirates dirhams.

What about taxes for freelancers in Dubai?

One of the most attractive aspects of the Dubai Free Zone model is that all income is tax-exempt for the first 50 years a business is in operation. The UAE draws most of its income from taxing the oil and finance industries, and leaves others alone. That means that all of the income you make from your freelance work stays in your pocket.

Additionally, freelancers aren't required to submit a tax return or keep accounts, and they're not subject to audits. Think of all the time that frees up! The government just wants you to focus on building your business and generating deliverables.

What’s the best way to find freelance jobs and clients?

All sorts of global companies are hungry for freelancers with a diverse array of skills, so there are several websites that allow organizations and skilled workers to find each other. One of the most popular is Upwork. While it’s not based in Dubai, it does allow you to apply a filter for jobs that are inside the country only.

The most popular freelancing marketplace in the city is Nabbesh, which had a membership of over 90,000 people in 2016.

To jumpstart your freelance business, go on one or more of these sites and create a profile for yourself. Use an up-to-date business photo and list as many marketable skills as you can credibly claim. When you book gigs, it’s crucial that you deliver your answer messages from your clients quickly and professionally, turn your work in on time, and be receptive to feedback.

Dubai isn’t exactly heaven for freelancers. As it's essentially one big oil boomtown, it’s an expensive city with high real estate costs. Many renters are forced to share lodging with several roommates or live a good distance from the city center. But with a limitless opportunity, a forward-thinking visa system and completely hands-off taxation scheme, the “Silicon Oasis” can be the ideal place for a 21st-century freelancer to build his or her brand.

TransferWise is the smart, new way to send money abroad.

Find out more