There was once a time when all UAE workers were full time, with visa-linked contracts. If you lost your job, you had to leave the country.
Now that is all changing, and in a recent survey Dubai was ranked as the eighth best place in the world to freelance.
Even before the pandemic, the government sought to foster a freelance workforce of self-sponsored individuals, and the self-employed simply set up small companies, although this was often expensive.
Now free zones make this process cheaper and easier by creating special licences that can be arranged through Dubai Media City, Dubai Internet City and Dubai Knowledge Park, Dubai Design District, twofour54 in Abu Dhabi, RAKEZ in Ras Al Khaimah and Fujairah Creative City.
For those without sponsors, residence visas can also be arranged.
Permits allow individuals to keep their permanent job and to start a sideline business, as long as their original sponsor provides an NOC (no objection certificate).
At one stage the licences allowed only media, education and tech activities, but in November, Abu Dhabi created the Freelance Licence, which covers everything from real estate and pest control to food safety and fine art.
Even soap-makers and stunt workers can now be self-employed.
The permits cost between Dh6,000 and Dh7,500 a year, and increase by as much as Dh4,960 for those needing a visa. New licence holders need to budget for health insurance and other fees associated with getting an Emirates ID.
So as the UAE job market evolves to include more self-employed workers, which jobs have the best rates?
The National went to find out.
1. Work as a self-employed personal trainer
Earn Dh30,000 to Dh40,000 a month (Dh325 to Dh500 per hour)
If you live in the UAE it can sometimes feel like every 10th person you meet is a freelance personal trainer. Certainly, they dominate the Instagram wellness space.
But with so many in the market, is it still a well-paid job?
Personal trainer Tara Nolan recently decided to go freelance from her full-time role at a gym, because she wanted to work one-to-one with her clients.
"The other motivation was being your own boss, and earning a bit more," said the 35-year-old from London.
"People will pay more, because they buy into people. Being a trainer, you're not just helping with their fitness, you quickly become a confidant.
"You do have to pay for your own visa, and keep your clients, and encourage them to buy packages. But I had clients who asked me to train them, before I was even offering PT sessions, so I wasn't concerned about that."
In the UAE, personal trainers charge between Dh325 and Dh500 for a one-to-one hour-long session.
This goes up to about Dh600 an hour if you work for an agency, but in that circumstance the company will take a cut of your pay, often as much as half.
2. Work as a freelance nanny
Earn Dh800 to Dh4,800 a month (Dh25 to Dh150 per hour)
Working parents frequently need to call on freelance nannies to pick up the slack while they are in the office.
While many families in the UAE hire live-in help and sponsor their nannies, there are still opportunities for part-timers, if they have a residence visa, said Ludmila Yamalova, a lawyer and founder and managing partner of HPL Yamalova & Plewka DMCC.
"If you are sponsored, for example by your husband, and you want to work as a nanny – you can. You just need an employment contract and the relevant NOC from your sponsor.
"It might say 'housewife not allowed to work' in your passport, but with an NOC, you can."
The pay varies widely according to skills and nationality. European nannies can earn as much as Dh150 an hour, but the pay range starts much lower, at about Dh25 an hour.
3. Work as a tutor
Earn Dh32,000 to Dh60,000 a month (Dh350 to Dh660 per hour)
During the pandemic, Covid-19 regulations meant face-to-face tutoring at home was banned.
Instead Zoom tutoring became much more popular, and many freelance teachers based in the UAE now have clients around the world.
To work as a tutor you need to have a residence visa, permission from your sponsor, and be able to prove you are qualified, Ms Yamalova said.
Tutoring and training adult clients is also allowed under the free-zone licences.
Despite this, many teachers choose to freelance for an agency, which will either charge you a monthly fee to be covered by their work permit, or take a cut of your hourly rate.
Tutors in the UAE charge by the hour, starting at Dh350 and going up to Dh660, depending on their qualifications, and the academic stage of the child.
4. Work as a freelance journalist
Earn Dh15,000 to Dh20,000 per month (Dh100 to Dh125 per hour)
Freelance journalists tend to be paid by the shift, or by the word.
For an eight-hour day the expected salary is between Dh800 and Dh1,000 depending on experience, and the timings.
TV work can pay considerably more.
Writers are often paid by the word rather than by the hour, with Dh1 or Dh1.5 per word the norm.
Antisocial shifts, such as overnight or early morning are paid more, but journalists are still paid a lot less than copy-writers, who create content for businesses and websites.
Arranging the legalities of working as a freelance journalist are easy under the free-zone licence system.
Rebecca Proctor, 37, used to edit a magazine in the UAE, before deciding to go freelance.
"The process to set everything up in Dubai Media City was really straightforward," said Ms Proctor, who moved to the UAE 12 years ago.
"I just pay the renewal fee every year and I'm basically set. There is an office in Media City I can use, but I mostly work from home.
"I got a few retainer gigs which really anchored me financially, and then it's just about planning and balancing the various deadlines."
5. Work as a self-employed interior designer
Earn Dh10,000 to Dh50,000 per month
Interior design work is a booming industry in the UAE because people are spending more time at home and need a home office or somewhere for the children to study.
"It's crazy how much the industry has taken off in the last year," said Gabby Garvey, 37, a qualified interior designer from Ireland.
She started her company and the Facebook group Style ME Interiors Dubai four years ago.
"At first there wasn't much competition, but now there's a real network of freelance designers who support each other," she said.
"You don't have to have a qualification, but interior decorating and interior design are two different things.
"As a designer you are responsible for knocking down walls, building regulations and where the plumbing and electricity sockets are placed, so for that you need a qualification."
For medium to large projects, freelance interior designers tend to ask for a commission of 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the budget.
For smaller projects or area remodelling, designers charge between Dh3,000 and Dh8,000, with bathrooms costing more than bedrooms because it is more complicated.
Overheads for freelancers include licences, which vary widely in cost depending on what services designers are looking to offer their clients.
Trade licences from the Department of Economic Development, Ajman and Sharjah are popular, said Mrs Garvey, and prices start at Dh1,700 for conceptual design, to Dh16,000 if you are going to be shopping for your client.
If you want an office, then the set-up cost in Dubai will be about Dh30,000, not including rent.
Despite the initial outlay, Mrs Garvey would still recommend the job.
"The best thing is you work for yourself, you make your own hours," she said.
6. Work as a life coach in the UAE
Earn Dh12,000 to Dh18,000 a month (Dh300 to Dh700 per hour)
Life coaches help people when they get stuck in a rut, either in their personal life or in their career.
LinkedIn recently reported a 207 per cent growth in demand for life coaches in 2020 compared with 2019.
Although there is no formal training required to become a coach, most professionals have taken an accredited course, said Leila Almaeena, 43, who runs her own training and development company in Dubai.
"I always advise clients to find a certified coach, there's a difference between subjective advice and mentoring, and professional coaching," she said.
Learning how to become a life coach can be done online, for not much money, and corporate training is one of the trades permitted by the free-zone licences.
The job is well paid, if you can build up your client base, said Ms Almaeena, who is from Saudi Arabia.
"If you are just starting out you can expect anything from Dh300 to Dh700 per hour for a one-to-one. But I recommend people build up their name in the market by offering free workshops and sessions.
"One-on-one personal coaching is a great idea if you're working from home, and if you want it to fit around the rest of your life.
"But the bread and butter of coaching really comes from self-development workshops, when you bring in lots of fee-paying attendees, who can then turn into clients."
The sky is the limit for established life coaches, who can charge as much as Dh3,000 anr hour.
7. Work as a freelance marketing or PR professional in the UAE
Earn Dh6,000 to Dh14,000 per month as a junior, or Dh60,000 to Dh100,00 in a senior role
Marketing and PR are now often bunched together under the general title of communications, and there is a wide disparity between those who are just starting out in the industry, and the more experienced marketing strategist.
Post-pandemic, the freelance market in the UAE is healthy.
That is because companies now prefer to spend less money on staff, and hire on a project-by-project basis, said Laetitia Tregoning, the founder of Story Public Relations.
A British mother of two, she worked as a freelancer before setting up her own company three years ago.
"Going freelance was the right decision for me, because I had a lot of experience, so I could offer high quality work and earn good fees, but I didn't have any overheads like an office.
"Also my clients knew that if they hired me, they actually got me working on their project, not someone more junior," Mrs Tregoning said.
Freelance junior executives are normally hired on a month-by-month basis to work on specific projects, and their fees can start at Dh6,000 a month and go up to Dh14,000.
Experienced marketing and PR professionals can demand a day rate of Dh3,000 to Dh5,000, depending on the client's requirements.
Normally that day rate is turned into a monthly retainer.
8. Work as a self-employed sports instructor
Earn Dh15,000 to Dh25,000 a month (Dh150 to Dh350 per hour)
Similar to personal trainers, sports instructors can choose either full-time employment, or freelance work, where they are paid per class.
Full-time gym employees earn between Dh10,000 and Dh15,000 a month depending on their level of experience, whereas to host an hour long one-to-one session as a freelancer, an instructor can expect to earn Dh150 to Dh200.
Self-employed tennis and swimming instructors tend to be paid slightly more (Dh350 an hour), but often have to factor in the rental costs for a court or swimming pool in their fees.
Tennis instructors in particular can find it hard to find a court on which to teach, said Stephen Melia, 33, from the UK, who started Fade Fit Academy with local businessman and radio host Kris Fade this year.
"While there is an initial cost to securing a licence to coach, being able to be in charge of your own diary, and the ability to keep all of your earnings puts you in a much better position for the future," he said.
"There's a lot of compound courts here, so you can do well if you get a good neighbourhood of expats who play."
9. Work as a self-employed make-up artist or hair stylist
Earn Dh20,000 to Dh50,000 (Dh500 to Dh800 per hour)
Self-employed make-up artists and hair stylists have reaped the benefits of a beauty boom, with many availing themselves of the new free-zone licences to work in the country.
The fee stylists can earn depends on the client. The pay at a corporate photo-shoot can vary between Dh1,000 and Dh3,000 for a nine-hour day.
Private clients pay about Dh500 to Dh800 for an hour of make-up, depending on the look and the product choices, said Elena Zhosan, 32, a freelance make-up artist from Ukraine.
"Emirati women like Tom Ford, and ask for expensive products. French women prefer a nude look. Clients want everything to be done in an hour, so I often work with hair stylists," said Ms Zhosan, who has been freelancing for more than two years.
"It wasn't that easy to build up a client base. I have many friends who didn't succeed because they are not used to managing their own schedule and salary.
"A couple of clients doesn't cover your expenses. You need at least five clients a week, and you need a good Instagram site to advertise your work."
10. Work as a self-employed web designer
Earn Dh15,000 to Dh30,000 a month
Every company is now expected to have a digital presence of some sort, leading to a huge growth market for web designers.
Many work for agencies, but you can also hire help on a project-by-project basis, said Saad Ashraf, from Pakistan, who works as a web designer on a professional services licence. He first went freelance in 2008 during the financial crisis.
"There's huge demand for web designers – you can quickly scale yourself up from freelancer to a company," he said.
"During Covid it was good for me because I started getting lots of inquiries from people who lost their jobs, and then wanted to start their own companies."
Designers charge according to the style of website desired by the client. Fees for an e-commerce site start at Dh8,000, up to Dh25,000, and take about four weeks of work.
Static webpages can need as little as a week and cost between Dh3,000 and Dh5,000. They will include an inquiry form, a Google map and a live chat function.
A dynamic webpage, with a blog function, for example, costs from Dh6,000 to Dh8,000.
Mr Ahraf, 33, said he makes decent money.
"One of the positives is working for yourself. If you do a good job, you make connections, and then you just need a couple of good clients to refer you. Then slowly you start getting more and more work.
"Lots of web designers are younger than me. If you're happy to spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer, and keeping up with the tech, then it's a good job."
Is freelancing legal in the UAE?
Yes. Freelancing in the UAE is legal in certain fields, as long as you have a residence visa and, in some cases, a freelance licence.
To get a residence visa, you need to be sponsored by either a family member, your spouse or a full-time employer.
Alternatively, you can get a freelance licence, which then enables you to get a residence visa at the same time.
If you are sponsored by someone else, you need an NOC (no objection certificate) from them, to say that they are happy for you to work, either full-time or freelance.
Freelance licences are issued by each emirate, for varying fees.
To find a list of the jobs you can do under the various emirates’ freelance licences, check out their websites.
How can I get freelance work in Dubai?
If you are based in Dubai and looking for freelance work, the best way is to contact employers or clients in your field, to see if they need extra assistance.
You could also join Facebook groups and post your CV on jobs websites.
The application process for getting a freelance licence is quite fast, so it might be worth looking to see if there is work available, before you apply.
Can I do freelance work while employed in the UAE?
Yes. You can do freelance work while employed in the UAE, but your full-time employer, who is also likely to be the sponsor of your residence visa, needs to give you permission through an NOC.
Also, in certain fields, you will need a freelance licence (see details above).
How much do freelancers get paid?
The amount freelancers get paid depends on the industry and their expertise.
While the hourly rate for a freelancer might work out as more than the hourly rate for a full-time employer, it is worth noting that a self-employed individual often has to pay for their own residence visa, freelance licence and health insurance, plus other fees including the cost of an Emirates ID and, potentially, a driving licence.
What is a good salary in Dubai?
Check out our comprehensive salary guide for various professions here.
Is Dh30,000 a good salary in Dubai?
Dh30,000 a month is a very good salary in Dubai.
The statistics website Numbeo estimated the average cost of living for a single person in Dubai as Dh8,072, and for a family of four, Dh16,478 per month.
This includes accommodation, food, clothing, healthcare and transportation, plus other sundry expenses.
It does not include recreational fees for activities like eating out or going to the cinema.
Dubai ranked 21st in the global Cost of Living index in 2019, making it much cheaper than cities like Hong Kong, London, New York and Singapore, which also have significant expat populations.
Which free zone is best in the UAE?
There is not really a single free zone that is best in the UAE, because each free zone attracts different clients.
Some are designed for creative businesses, and others for technology, education or even medical services.
There are also different free zones in different emirates, with those in the northern emirates tending to have cheaper fees than those in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
It is important to research which free zone is best for you, as that often depends on your industry and where in the UAE you want to live.