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Key Legal Issues when Freelancing in the UAE

22 July 2014

Saarah Badr

Media Lawyer Saarah Badr discusses the key legal issues with freelancing in the UAE.

Why should I set up as a media freelancer in the UAE?

The UAE has been attracting increasing numbers of Hollywood films to grace its shores for location shoots. Burj Khalifa as featured as Tom Cruise's modern day "Mount Everest" in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, along with the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray posing as flashy Mumbai in several scenes. The Dubai backdrop also appeared in Warner Bros' Syriana and Universal's The Bourne Legacy.

Abu Dhabi has been the latest talk of Tinseltown with a succession of blockbusters such as Universal's Fast & Furious 7 and, of course, the highly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII (not to mention an incredible 6x6 SUV desert test in BBC's Top Gear and the Bollywood feature film Bang Bang from Fox Star Studios).

For Abu Dhabi, the appeal of filming in the Emirate has gone beyond the incredible landscapes to its attractive 30 per cent rebate for film productions. This rebate scheme will undoubtedly continue to attract English and Arabic filmmakers from around the world to shoot in Abu Dhabi. Of course, increasing Hollywood shoots and a flourishing media industry require talented production staff, readily available to work on a project-by-project basis. Step forward UAE's pool of local and international highly skills media freelancers.

Why set up as a UAE freelancer?

The media freelancer pool is symbiotic with the growth of the media industry in the UAE. Media production is a project based industry, depending on a skilled workforce, often required at short notice. One of the major advantages with becoming a freelancer is the flexibility of being able to move from project to project.

Setting up with a freelancer scheme will enable you to become sponsored for a UAE residence visa and licensed to carry out your trade from within the relevant Emirate/free zone. Sponsorship and licensing of freelancers are legal requirements in the UAE. If you are unsure whether you fulfil these requirements, you should discuss this with your legal advisor.

Legal requirements: sponsorship

Under UAE immigration law, all individuals residing in the UAE must be sponsored. If you wish to work in the UAE, you are required to hold a visa that permits you to do so (unlike, for example, a non-working spouse residence visa).

Traditionally, in the UAE, your employer is also your sponsor. This does not work for freelancers who work as contractors (rather than employees) for various third parties, with no employer-employee relationship. Therefore, freelancers are sponsored in their own right, effectively as a sole trader/proprietor (although, of course, GCC national freelancers do not require sponsorship).

Legal requirements: licensing

Along with being sponsored, freelancers are also required to be licensed by the relevant authority that has jurisdiction in the Emirate/free zone in which the freelancer intends to provide his or her services.

A freelancer is only officially permitted to undertake activities in the Emirate/free zone that are specified on the freelancer's licence.

Setting up in a free zone

There are a range of freelance licensing options available in the various free zones in the UAE.

The Media Zone Authority – Abu Dhabi (which regulates the twofour54 free zone) has acknowledged the transient nature of freelance work by offering flexible licence terms of 6 or 12 months and no requirement to rent office space (or even hot desk). Joining the twofour54 scheme opens the doors to working with twofour54's long list of media companies, its studios (intaj) and the increasing international production opportunities.

Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority grants successful applicants with a "freelance permit" allowing them to operate as a freelance professional in their chosen field. Permitted freelance activities range from a presenter to a special effects producer (further information can be found at


The bottom line is: if you want to freelance, make sure you have met the UAE's legal requirements in relation to sponsorship and licensing. Your legal advisor will be able to help you navigate the various options.

This article was featured on page 20 in the July edition of Digital Studio magazine, which focuses on TV and film production in the Middle East.