Always wanted to be your own boss? Now could be the right time, as it’s more affordable than ever to become a freelancer in Dubai, thanks to a new scheme launched earlier this year.
As long as you have all the documents you need (more on those later), it’s also more straightforward than you might imagine, too. And with more and more people setting up on their own, it’s becoming an increasingly attractive prospect in the city. But where do you begin?
Who can freelance?
Firstly, there are only two career paths that you’re allowed to freelance in – education and media-related sectors. So if you’re an actor, screenwriter, journalist, PR, education advisor, researcher, or eLearning advisor, or in any way related to those industries, then you’re well placed to make a go of it.
What do you need?
To work as a freelancer in the city you’ll need a residency visa and work permit – which you can get from a free zone, including Dubai Media City, Dubai Studio City, Dubai Production City, Dubai Knowledge Park, Dubai Design District, twofour54 in Abu Dhabi and Fujairah Creative City. Costs for a permit head up to Dhs20,000 – and must be renewed every year.
However, this summer a new scheme was set up by GoFreelance from Dubai’s Tecom Group, launched in partnership with Dubai Creative Cluster Authority. With this site UAE residents can now apply online for a permit for Dhs7,500, which the team says is 70 percent lower than in the past. It also allows you to sponsor your family members. The aim is to attract more talent to the region – by making it more affordable and simpler to set up.
According to organisers, it was started due to the “growth of the free business economy” and aims to “enable independent professionals and entrepreneurs to start their careers and make the most of their skills and talents.”
You’ll need a business plan, passport and visa. If you’re already under a parent or spouse visa, then you don’t have to apply for a new visa – you can apply straight for a Tecom permit, although you’ll need a no objection letter from your sponsor (husband or father). If not, you’ll have to go through the usual process to obtain a visa for Dhs3,250.
Freelancers can register online at www.gofreelance.ae and there’s a three-step process – submit your online application, go in person to sign the documents and pay the fee, and then you’ll be emailed your permit.
So far, so simple.
What the experts say
Of course there are other ways of going solo, too. “We get many enquiries about the process of freelancing,” says Neelesh Pillai, company set-up specialist at Fichte & Co. “It’s fairly straightforward, too. Mainly it’s about what you’re looking for – if you’re in HR for instance you’re unable to freelance. But if you’e in the right sector then it’s easy enough to go ahead with it. Aside from the new scheme, one of the most affordable places to get a permit is Abu Dhabi’s twofour54, where it costs around Dhs4,500,” he adds. “However, the requirements are different – you must have three years experience in the region first. There are no such requirements with TECOM. Aside from the money you’ll also need a reference from your bank, your CV and an NOC from your sponsor.”
If you can’t face the rigmorale of going through the process alone, then there are also companies in Dubai to help with the process.
Freelance PR Maryanne Haggas worked with Dubai-based Vital Corporate Solutions, which helps entrepreneurs and freelancers register their businesses correctly in the UAE. Each free zone has different trade licence types available, and not of them have freelancer permits – so it can be tricky finding the correct one for your activity and budget.
“The support was very hands-on and it was 100 percent beneficial,” she tells Time Out Dubai. “They sorted my licenses, worked it all out and also helped with my passport and visa process. I registered through Sharjah as it was the best deal at the time.
“Things change all the time, so it’s hard to keep up. It’s worth every dirham to have experts to help you. It wasn’t really a painful process, it was far simpler than I thought.”
And Haggas loves the freelance life. “There’s the opportunity to make more money and then there’s more freedom,” she says.
“A nine to five job wasn’t right for me, sometimes I want to start at 7am and then go to the gym at lunchtime. I don’t work less, I just work differently and make my own schedule.”
Another route to finding work is through local company, Nabbesh, an online marketplace hosting more than 100,000 freelancers across the region.
The online platform matches freelancers with potential jobs, within 24 hours of the role going live. The company searching for a freelance then can check the quotes, profiles and chat with person, before hiring. Payment is done through the site, so there is protection for both parties.
Things to bear in mind
Mona Khatib has her own company, Comics Design House, but started off freelancing in Dubai five years ago after wanting a change from agency life.
But although a lot of people dream about freelancing, she warns that it’s not as easy as it sounds.
“You need to have good connections, know the right people and make a respected name for yourself,” she says. “Two-and-a-half out of the past five years I spent mostly networking – to meet people and to get a good reputation.”
And reputation and getting your name out there are vital if you’re a newbie looking for decent work.
“Sometimes with design the work on people’s portfolio is a team effort – not them individually – so it takes a while to become respected,” she says.
“A few years ago it was easier, too, as there was no social media, but now you can find tonnes of people out there, just like that. People pay money for exposure and then they’ll get the job – it’s like a shark tank at times.”
She adds that you need to be prepared to put the time in. It’s not all sitting around in the coffee shop Instagramming your avo toast or pottering around the house making cups of tea and watching daytime telly.
“People love the idea of the free time, flexible hours and working from home – and it is like that to an extent, but you need to be self-motivated and be ready to give up the time to set yourself up,” she says.
“I have twins and no nanny, so it’s about working around them – I work when they sleep or are at nursery. It sometimes feels almost impossible with cooking, cleaning and designing but I’m passionate about it and it is more flexible – I couldn’t do an office job with my lifestyle.”
Payment can be also a painful issue for many freelancers. When you don’t have a regular salary things can be tight and stressful. Especially when you’re not always paid on time, or ever. Chasing money can be a lengthy process, with some advising to stop producing the work until the bills are paid. “As an individual there’s less protection for you if people don’t pay,” says Khatib. “It’s different now I have a company, but before I mostly asked for half the money up front and the rest later to avoid being stung.
“When I was setting up, 90 percent of the work I did was for free. It’s a vicious cycle as you need money to operate, but you need the jobs and reputation to earn that money, too.”
Another thing to consider is whether you’re self-motivated and self-sufficient enough to go it alone.
Helen Farmer, a freelance writer – and two-time winner of Time Out Kids’ Parent Blog of the Year award – loves what she does but offers some advice.
“It’s important to find people who you can work alongside on occasion,” she says. “I have some freelance friends that I meet at A4 Space to work, as it can be quite lonely sometimes. Also, it’s vital to get on top of accounting – it doesn’t come naturally to many people but it’s so important.”
So if you’re ready to take the plunge, the time is ripe.
Three spots to work from
Arrows and Sparrows
If you need a decent coffee and a plate of avo toast to kick-start your freelance brain, this café (pictured below) in The Greens is for you. It tends to get super-busy at the weekends, but in the week you’ll find it a great place to settle in to get stuff done.
Open daily 8am-10pm. Emaar Business Park, The Greens (04 558 8141).
This all-day restaurant in Media City is ideal if you don’t want to stand out like sore thumb tapping away on your laptop. Take a seat and get cracking, and fuel yourself with a variety of dishes from super food salads to monster cheese toasties (depending on how painful a day you’re having). It’s licensed, too, so you’re well placed once you clock off.
Open daily 6.30am-midnight. Media One Hotel, Dubai Media City (04 427 1000).
Looking for a chilled-out environment to work in? What’s more relaxing than a garden centre? Studies have shown that having plants in your office reduce stress and increase productivity, so it’s time to take your office to the plants. Plus, there’s cake.
Open daily 8am-8pm. Dubai Garden Centre, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 449 8578).
What to consider
Do you like working alone?
Are you self-motivated?
Will you be persistent in chasing bills?
Do you have somewhere to work from?
Have a target in mind – what’s your goal?
Are you good at networking?
Are you financially secure enough to start up?
What you’ll need
Bank reference letter
Sponsor’s NOC (if applying for a permit without visa)
Portfolio or sample of work (media sector only)
Credentials and certificates (education sector only)
Dhs7,500 cash (minimum)
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