How to be your own boss in Dubai

There’s never been a better time to work for yourself in the UAE

Area Guides, Community

Untethered and independent, it’s the self-employed workers who are now calling the shots. According to business experts at Forbes, 2017 is already being dubbed “the year of the freelancer”. By 2020, the US predicts 50 percent of its workforce will be freelancing, a trend that’s already beginning to trickle down to the UAE.

In fact, there was a 40 percent increase in the number of freelancers being hired by UAE companies in the first quarter of 2016, according to local company, Nabbesh, an online marketplace hosting more than 100,000 freelancers across the region. Despite the worldwide push towards corporate downsizing, the freelance economy is surging ahead, as companies begin to adapt their businesses to flexible labour. Over the past few years, increased access to freelance permits has made it easier to work for yourself in the UAE.

Amanda Perry, founder of Dubai-based Vital Corporate Solutions, which helps entrepreneurs and freelancers register their businesses correctly in the UAE, says there are now 58 free zones in the Emirates, with a number issuing freelance permits.

“Some are really affordable and some aren’t, so our job is to clear the minefield of information,” she says.

“Each free zone has different trade licence types available. Not all of them have freelancer permits, but some do. You choose the free zone that’s right for your activity, but also the one that fits well with your budget,” Perry says.

While creative, media and digital industries dominate the freelance market in the emirates, with everyone from make-up artists and hair stylists to fashion designers and digital marketers covered in free zones across the UAE, Amanda believes Dubai Expo 2020 will help drive growth in other areas.

“They are expanding the list gradually. It would be nice to see some more commercial activities and business consultants covered under the freelance permit.”

And that day may come sooner than we think. “Almost every company in the region, not just the UAE, will use a freelancer at one time or another for a specific project or an area of the business where it doesn’t justify a full-time employee,” says Ryan Aldrin, business development director at Nabbesh. Despite this, it’s still very much a niche market. “The main demand is within the verticals of design, creative, content, translation, website and app development,” Aldrin explains.

But, despite the scope for freelance work in the UAE, permits are not cheap and most need to be renewed yearly, with prices ranging from Dhs8,500 to more than Dhs20,000, which includes the costs for a residence visa, Emirates ID and medical. “If you’re issued with a freelance permit, then you must apply for a visa under that permit category. That’s what gives you your residency visa, which allows you to work and live in the UAE,” Perry says.

“Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 freelance permit is the most affordable at the moment, at around Dhs8,500, but it’s restricted in that you need to have a letter of intention of work from a client based in the Abu Dhabi Media Authority.

“Umm Al Quwain is offering a really good option, which is around Dhs20,000. Dubai Creative Clusters Authority, known as TECOM, which includes Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City and d3 (Dubai Design District), offers a permit for around Dhs24,000, but they have a quota on freelancer permits and they’ve fulfilled it,” Perry explains.

With that level of financial commitment, it takes a giant leap of faith to pull the plug on your nine to five job. British expat Olivia Brent is one person who has made the jump. She works as an English voice-over artist and has been living in the UAE for more than ten years. She quit her full-time job three months ago to be her own boss.

“I’ve always worked for broadcasting companies, so wanted to try branching out on my own,” Brent tells us. “I wanted to see how I enjoyed the flexibility and see if I could make it work logistically and financially. I also have other business ideas and I felt going freelance might give me the opportunity to work on these.

“Then there was also the long-term draw, the ultimate dream that if I could build up enough remote clients that I could potentially work from anywhere in the world. Well, anywhere with a decent internet connection – even a boat!”

Brent forked out around Dhs9,000 for her twofour54 freelance permit, which includes basic medical insurance and access to a hot desk and a portal where she can upload her freelancer profile for internal companies to see. While freedom and flexibility are a major part of the appeal of freelancing, it can be hard work.

“It’s not easy, I must admit,” Brent reveals. “I knew I had some clients who would use me when I went freelance, but building up new clients takes time. There are some people who genuinely want to help and recommend you to their contacts. Those people are worth their weight in gold, not just from a networking and building up business perspective, but from the psychological boost their kindness and support provides.”

As well as approaching new clients and nailing the self-sell, discipline can make or break your freelance career, she explains.

“My journey so far has been a learning process, not just how to network and build up a business, but learning a lot about myself, in particular how I handle having less structure to my working day and weeks. It’s also opened me up to new opportunities, [as] outside the limitations of a fixed role within an organisation, I feel I’m more open to saying yes,” she says. Then there’s the anxiety that comes with being your own boss. “It’s a totally different mindset being freelance, you don’t have the security of an employer paying you a monthly wage, or the infrastructure that comes with a company set-up, people and resources,” Brent admits. “You have to take time to get used to the irregular nature of work and be able to keep motivated and focused,” says Olivia. “I’m proud of the little things I’ve achieved so far, such as designing and managing my own website, www.oliviab.co.”

Meanwhile, Dubai-based Egyptian-Jordanian expat Heba Hashem is well ahead of her game. The freelance journalist has been working on a Dubai Creative Clusters Authority-issued freelance permit for ten years, which gives her access to a shared desk and facilities, including meeting rooms and a post box.

“I decided to go solo after realising I couldn’t adapt to working full-time,” she tells Time Out. “Companies kept giving me warnings for coming in a few minutes late, even though I was getting all my work done. Spending eight hours inside their premises seemed to be more important than my actual output. That put me off corporate environments and pushed me to find a way to work independently,” she says.

“Initially, it was a struggle, as I had to make myself known and build up a portfolio. I offered to write for free for a well-known publication, which within months landed me paid work and I generally wasn’t too picky. Today, I have clients from different parts of the world and they often recommend me. I’ve also expanded the scope of my services by using my Arabic translation skills to support journalism assignments.”

Clearly, a proactive approach and an ability to diversify your skills and client base will set you apart in the freelance world. “In the first few years, I replied and posted ads on forums and classifieds, and joined media directories,” Hesham says.

“These platforms were popular back then and opened many doors. Word of mouth is very important for freelancers and so is an appealing website that shows your best work.”

But can she justify the cost of the freelance visa, upwards of Dhs20,000? “It’s absolutely worth every dirham,” she says. “The service at Dubai Creative Clusters Authority is excellent and they have their own [employee] who handles all the visa requests.” Like most things, however, Hesham says there are pros and cons to playing by your own rules. “Not having to go through morning traffic and working at your own pace in your pyjamas are all positives. On the downside, it’s also easy to become an introvert when you work alone all the time.”

There’s no shortage of work for freelancers here in the UAE, but casting your net wider will reap more rewards, Hesham advises. “The market has become crowded, but not saturated. There’s room for more freelancers as there’s always demand for independent talent.

“Once you’re established, look for work in local and international markets, expand the range of services you offer, whether that means writing about new topics or upgrading your skills, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The more clients you have, the more financially secure you’ll be.

“My advice for all aspiring freelancers is to first find the right free zone for you, and then start preparing your application. You might need an accountant to help you with the financial plan. I did. [Also,] if your application is refused for any reason, don’t stop there; try again with other free zones.”

But, with 58 choices, where do you start? One option is paying someone to do the hard work for you. “We do all the research when it comes to working out which licence and location is best for you,” explains Perry. “Then we’ll proceed with the application and project manage it from start to finish, right down to taking you to get your medical.” Their fees start at Dhs4,000 for an entry-level type of licence to Dhs20,000 for a more complex licence in a larger free zone.

Dropping everything to join the freelance revolution may seem like a risk, but nobody ever got anywhere by playing it safe, right?

Three to try
Creative spaces to work from

Arrows & Sparrows
This contemporary space is a relaxed spot to work from and feel inspired in, thanks to its earthy tones, mild industrial feel and funky trinkets. It also has a brilliant menu of breakfasts and a decent business lunch deal offering a sandwich, half a salad and a drink on weekdays for Dhs45.
Open daily 8am-6pm. Building 4, Emaar Business Park, The Greens (04 558 8141).

Nadi Al Quoz
This comfy little community hub, located in the heart of art district Alserkal Avenue, is a small oasis of calm and the ideal space to inspire creativity. It also hosts a number of pop-up attractions and a roster of events and workshops, mostly for free, for when you need a distraction.
Open daily 10am-7pm. Warehouse 90, Alserkal Avenue (no number).

Ultra Brasserie
Tucked away behind Dubai Marina Mall this café features a chilled ambience, seats indoors and out, super-fast internet and extra large coffees for just Dhs21. You’ll be left alone to get on with whatever you need to. And with its long opening times, you could spend hours here without even noticing.
Open daily 7am-9pm. Marina Plaza, Dubai Marina (04 277 5644). Other location: Emaar Square, Downtown Dubai (02 643 9699).

Five things
To consider as a freelancer

Amanda Perry, founder of Vital Corporate Solutions, on what to know before going out on your own.

Have a target market in mind. Who do you want to work for?

Before leaving your current employer, think about whether they would engage your services as a freelancer.

Have a clear idea of what kind of companies you want to work for, and how you’re going to pitch to them.

Show them why it’s beneficial for them to employ a freelancer, as opposed to hiring someone full-time.

Find your sweet spot – make sure that your price is right.

Vital Corporate Solutions, Office 1401, 14th Floor, Building X2, Cluster X, JLT, www.vitaluae.com (04 432 3539).

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