Working in the UAE
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Your guide on jobs and finding work in the UAE
The United Arab Emirates’ employment climate offers high, tax-free earnings and a real opportunity to save. What’s more: there are more diverse opportunities than you might guess (it’s not all about the oil and gas industries). Find out about this unique workplace in our full guide to working in the UAE.
Wondering how to find a job in the UAE? Then good news: the Emirates have successfully diversified their economy to the point where there are lots of different jobs on offer. No longer reliant just on oil and gas, the UEA job market seeks healthcare, hospitality, and construction specialists in large numbers too.
There are limited workers protection rights in the UAE, and while average salaries are high, there is no minimum wage, nor restrictions on the number working days. So you will need to negotiate all your benefits carefully. Also, as an expat, you have almost no access to state-funded healthcare or social security and will need to insure yourself.
How to get a Job in the UAE
- The job market in the construction and hospitality sectors is profiting greatly from the preparations for the Expo 2020.
- Adjusting both CV and cover letter to the norms for job applications in the UAE might just make or break your application.
Beyond Oil — Main Sectors in the UAE
If you’re still at the beginning of your job hunt, deciding which sector to focus on can narrow down the search. The oil and gas sector is an obvious choice when you look for jobs in the UAE, but it should be noted that as of 2015 the UAE has committed to diversifying its economy.
The plan is to bring the oil sector’s contribution to the national GDP down from around one-third to one-fifth by 2025. This measure is meant to protect the UAE economy from being affected by the volatile oil price. Nevertheless, this sector is still, and will remain, a significant player in the UAE: petroleum exports were valued at over 107 million USD in 2014.
Fortunately, the UAE has a diverse range of significant sectors which, with the new diversification strategy, will be increasing in size. This shift will notably affect the industrial sector. In 2014, real estate and business services accounted for just over 12% of the national GDP, making up a large section of the non-oil-driven sectors in the UAE. Tourism contributed around 8.5%, placing these three sectors above financial services, which stood at approximately 7.6%.
A High Demand for Labor: Hospitals or Hospitality?
The Expo 2020, to be held in Dubai, has called for a significant increase in the size of the hospitality sector, which is expanding rapidly. Skilled hospitality staff is in high demand and language skills in particular will make you stand out. Another safe bet is the construction sector, which has been on full blast since the Expo 2020 was announced. Construction projects are numerous: other than the venue itself, housing for staff and new transportation infrastructure have to be built, not to mention the construction activity in the hospitality sector.
An area experiencing a shortage of experts is the medical sector. The UAE’s population is growing and new hospitals are being built to accommodate this, but the number of medical graduates is stagnating. In August 2015, the job search website Monster conducted a survey based on online job postings by employers in seven countries in the Middle East: the UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. The survey reveals that the healthcare sector has the steepest growth in demand for qualified staff out of all industries in the UAE — 44% from 2014 to 2015.
Many other sectors are always interested in candidates with specialist, hard skills, especially fields such as aerospace, finance, and pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, according to Monster’s survey based on online job postings by employers, occupations related to software, hardware, telecommunications, logistics, and supply chain management have proven promising in the UAE, each with a yearly increase ranging from 22% to 38% since 2014.
Online Tools for the Job Hunt
There are many approaches to the UAE job search: jobs can be found through classified ads in newspapers, through online job websites, social media, and recruitment agencies. Between them, the print versions of Gulf News and the Khaleej Times list vacancies every day of the week, except for the weekend (i.e. Friday and Saturday). Naturally, their websites also feature these job offers. Other UAE job sites include the following:
As can be expected in such a fast-paced country, social media has become an increasingly popular recruitment tool in the UAE. LinkedIn and Twitter are used by serious employers, but following a company’s Facebook page never hurts as they will occasionally post vacancies.
Sharing the Burden — Recruitment Agencies
Having trouble navigating the UAE job market? Then recruitment agencies might be a good medium for you. Using a recruitment agency can be beneficial for expats as the language and cultural barriers attached to the job search are taken care of by (local) professionals.
Here are four agencies in the UAE to help you with looking for work:
Typically, these agencies get a commission from the future employer. In fact, UAE labor law prohibits them from charging a finder’s fee when they have set a client up with a job. If you’re using such an agency from abroad, they are also not allowed to charge you for anything visa-related as this responsibility lies with your future employer.
How to Shine on Paper
Seasoned expats will recognize the value of adjusting their CV to the standards of the country where they are applying. In the UAE, for example, it is common practice to embellish your CV a little, nor is it a bad thing to make it look more extravagant with the use of borders and other designs.
Some jobs in the UAE are gender-specific. It is therefore recommended that you indicate your sex on your CV, even if it may seem obvious from your name. Other facts that may be of interest to your future UAE employer are your age, your nationality, and even your marital status. You might be surprised to see that it is not uncommon for companies to specify which nationality they are looking for, not to mention the age range of the candidates.
Evidently, anti-discrimination laws are not a high priority in the UAE, especially at the hiring stage. However, this might change with the new federal anti-discrimination law introduced in the summer of 2015, which applies in respect to discrimination based on belief, creed, faith, sect, religion, ethnicity, race, or color. Note that only Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are defined as religions in this context, though, and that Emirati nationals are still legally prioritized in regard to recruiting. Some zones which have outlined their own labor code, such as the Dubai International Financial Center, have also included anti-discrimination clauses.
Resumes without a photograph will not be as well received as those that do have one. Cover letters are common practice in the UAE and should be tailored specifically to the position you are applying for.
A general tip for expats applying for positions from abroad is to take into account the fact that other nationals might not be familiar with certain abbreviations, for example those used in academic jargon (e.g. GCSE, IB, 2:1). Also check what the norms in terms of CV length are in the specific country where you’re applying. In the UAE it is common to spread your CV out over two A4 pages. Finally, employers abroad will be interested in knowing how well you can adapt to an international work environment, so highlighting your experience with different cultures is a must.
- Free zones offer enticing regulations for setting up a business, but be aware of the fact that this does not allow you to conduct commercial activities in the UAE themselves.
- Outside of the free zones, a majority share of a foreign business (51%) has to be owned by a UAE national.
- When setting up a new business, you can choose between onshore and offshore companies, as well as among LLCs, branch offices, and representative offices.
It’s a Numbers Game
The UAE is hardly a secret to investors around the world. Back in 2012, all of the top ten Fortune 500 companies had established offices in the Emirates. Nevertheless, the UAE business scene is regulated fairly strictly. When starting a business in the UAE as a foreign resident, you will come across some barriers. The main obstacle is the fact that if you’re not setting up a company in a free zone, 51% of the business needs to be owned by an Emirati resident.
However, the UAE does have a good legal framework for protecting minority shareholders, which is why expats don’t shy away from starting a company under these conditions. As with so many things, there are some exceptions that enable foreign residents to own more than 49% of a business outside the free zones. If the foreigner in question is a GCC national, a foreign majority shareholder is perfectly acceptable. The second exception includes professional companies offering, for example, legal, accounting, and medical services.
According to the World Bank, starting your own business in the UAE has become slightly harder over the past years: relative to 188 other countries, the UAE has dropped from 57th place to 60th from 2015 to 2016. However, the ranking for protecting minority investors has actually improved considerably, so that’s good news for foreign businesspeople in the UAE!
Keen foreign investors can start their journey by checking out the website of the local Chamber of Commerce in the respective emirate they’re interested in:
- Abu Dhabi Chamber
- Ajman Chamber of Commerce and Industry
- Fujairah Chamber of Commerce and Industry
- Dubai Chamber
- Sharjah Chamber of Commerce and Industry
- RAK Chamber
- Umm al Quwain Chamber
Weighing the Pros and Cons
Any investor worth their salt will be aware of the lack of direct business and income tax in the UAE, with some exceptions — the latter include banks, oil companies, and telecommunication operators. Moreover, any foreign-owned business in the UAE will benefit greatly from the skilled expat labor force already living in the Emirates.
You can also freely repatriate as much capital as you want in your home country’s currency, or any other currency, for that matter, as there are no controls on foreign exchange. Despite the country’s relatively small domestic market, these features keep the UAE interesting for foreign investors.
The average number of days it takes to register a firm in the UAE is eight — quite an achievement, given the regional average for the Middle East and North Africa is almost 19 days. The UAE’s number is more in line with the average for OECD high-income countries.
However, there are definitely some potentially negative aspects you should consider when thinking about starting a business in the UAE. As mentioned above, the fact that foreign nationals cannot own a majority share of their business, unless they set it up in one of the many free zones, holds back some investors. If the business is set within a free zone, though, it can be subject to certain other restrictions.
Business Types and Offshore versus Onshore
During your research for starting a business in the UAE, you will probably come across the terms “onshore” and “offshore”. If your business is onshore (i.e. outside one of the many free zones), you need a UAE national to be your partner and shareholder, but this also means that you can trade within the UAE market. Offshore businesses, on the other hand, normally refer to a company located in a free zone. Strictly speaking, however, they are not allowed to conduct commercial activities in the UAE outside the free zones.
While there are various business types in UAE law, most foreign investors opt for one of the following three: Limited Liability Company (LLC), branch office, or representative office. Representative offices are somewhat restricted in their function and usually serve only as administrative and marketing centers with a small number of employees acting on behalf of a company headquartered abroad. A branch office — while also being wholly-owned by a foreign parent company — is able to conduct regular business activities more freely.
Both branch and representative offices need to appoint a UAE national as their service agent or sponsor. Local agents are generally not involved in running the business itself, but help the company to obtain UAE visas, licenses, etc. in exchange for a lump sum payment. If you need more detailed information, many international law firms provide instructions of setting up a branch or representative office in the UAE.
Sometimes, however, the term “offshore company” can also refer to an International Business Company set up under the so-called offshore regulatory system. This means that the business in question can’t be actively involved in any kind of commercial activity in the UAE, either within a free zone or in the Emirates as such. These kinds of offshore business are normally set up as asset, property, or holding companies, e.g. for owning property in the UAE.
Free Zones — Welcoming Expats with Open Arms
The reason why free zones can offer foreign investors full ownership of their business is that they are governed by their own set of regulations. Therefore, free zones generally make it easier to set up your own business and doing so will be less time-consuming here than elsewhere in the UAE.
All seven emirates have various free zones, so you don’t have to limit yourself to the popular destinations of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Some of the largest free zones — based on the number of companies they house — are the following ones:
- Jebel Ali Free Zone (Dubai)
- Sharjah Airport International Free Zone
- Dubai Media City
- Ras Al-Khaimah Free Trade Zone
There are multiple free zones in the UAE, but the registration processes are similar across the board. First, you need the official approval from the respective free zone authority. Once you’ve received the initial approval, you can move on to applying for a license and registering your company. The latter usually takes between four and six weeks.
The free zones are governed by a Free Zone Authority (FZA), which is also the body which approves your business in the free zone and distributes licenses. You can either register under a Free Zone Establishment, which ties you to the free zone regulations, or you can establish a branch office of an existing company in the free zone.
Setting up in a free zone has many advantages:
- Full foreign ownership is allowed.
- Your business is completely exempt from import and export duties.
- There are no restrictions on the repatriation of capital.
- Residency visas are available to registered business owners.
- You won’t have to pay any corporate tax for at least 15 years.
- You don’t have to pay any personal income tax.
- The paperwork for your business is mostly available in English.
- Support services for such things as recruitment and housing are easily available.
Naturally, all businesses must obtain a license from the emirate they are based in. Companies must also be officially registered in the Commercial Register. However, such procedures may vary between emirates. Within a free zone, the respective FZA is responsible for granting licenses and leasing land for office space.
The three license categories for setting up a business in the UAE are:
- commercial or trade licenses to cover trading activities
- industrial licenses for industrial or manufacturing activities
- professional licenses covering professional services
If you hold a trade or an industrial license, you can, however, only conduct commercial activities within a free zone or in other free zones in the country, as well as abroad. You can trade under these licenses in the UAE by using an official UAE agent.
Industrial licenses will outline that the majority share of the business must be in the hands of a UAE national, and that 40% of the sale value of the products in question must be value-added in the UAE.
Although the UAE is very conducive to business and commerce and is becoming increasingly welcoming to foreign investors in this respect, it is still advised to hire local legal counsel and make sure that everything is set up properly.
Upcoming Changes for Foreign Business Owners?
In March 2015, the Ministry of Economy indicated that the UAE is planning on implementing legislation to allow the full foreign ownership of businesses outside of its free zones. This would, however, only apply to certain sectors where doing so would make strategic sense. When the law is going to be instated, if at all, was not specified, and the sectors wherein foreigners might soon benefit from fewer restrictions were also kept secret.
The Commercial Companies Law (CCL) was updated in June 2015. Even though the statement made by the Ministry of Economy looks promising for foreign investors, the new legislation also includes a clause which enables the Cabinet of Ministers, per recommendation of the Ministry of Economy, to restrict certain sectors to UAE businesses only.
- The UAE is accommodating to different cultures, but there are some double standards such as when it comes to punctuality.
- Be sure to shake the hand of the most senior person in the room first, and read up on the proper etiquette when it comes to greeting women.
With its business-friendly regulations, the UAE does remarkably well in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, ranking 31st out of 189 countries. Furthermore, because of the relatively large international community in the UAE, especially in cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the country has become very accommodating to foreign customs.
However, in a business setting, expats still have to make sure they read up on proper conduct in the UAE business world. You wouldn’t want to lose a prospective client by handing them your business card with your left hand, would you?
How to Dress to Impress in the UAE
For many expat women in the Middle East, dressing appropriately for the workplace is a regular concern. Having said this, insecurities about possibly offending local business partners in the UAE can arise in both men and women. Even though the UAE is relatively liberal compared to some of its neighbors, dressing according to local norms is important for job interviews, as well as in the workplace.
Showing your bare arms, shoulders, calves, or thighs in a professional context is not acceptable. Makeup should be worn in moderation, and wearing a lot of jewelry is also frowned upon. Needless to say, these guidelines also apply to men. If you are meeting new business contacts and are unsure about anything, the go-to solution is to follow your host’s example. For instance, regardless of how uncomfortable you are in the sweltering Dubai heat, do not take off your jacket unless your host does.
Business Etiquette — Mr. John’s First Impression
First things first: the regular greeting is “As-salam alaikum” (peace be upon you), to which the appropriate response would be “Wa alaikum as-salam” (peace be upon you too). Please is “Min Fudlek” and thank you is “Shukran”. After pleasantries have been exchanged, you can bid farewell by saying “Ma salamaa”.
Addressing someone by their correct title is important as it shows you recognize their status. You would address the boss as Sheikh or Sheikha for men and women, respectively. For Mr. and Mrs. you would say Sayed or Sayeda. Conversely, expect to be addressed by your first name following your respective title: Mr. John Smith would be addressed as Mr. John in the UAE.
Letting others lead the way also applies for greetings, especially when there are women involved. Male expats should wait to see if a Muslim woman extends her hand or not before extending theirs. Similarly, as a woman, you should wait to see if a man extends his hand to you. As a sign of respect for the hierarchical structure in the UAE, be sure to greet the most senior person in a room first.
Don’t be surprised if your hand is held for a relatively long time. This is nothing to get alarmed about, and, to be on the safe side, just wait till your host withdraws their hand. Finally, always use your right hand for everything; it will be taken as an insult if you hand anything to anyone using your left hand.
Now that we’ve covered hands, it’s time to move on to feet. It is very insulting to show someone the sole of your shoe during a business meeting, or on any other occasion, for that matter. This may sound like something that’s easily avoided, but, for example in the case of men, be careful when you sit cross-legged with your foot resting on the opposing knee. Also be careful not to accidentally touch a business associate’s foot with the sole of your foot, under the table.
Getting By with a Little Help from Your Colleagues
Maintaining a close relationship with your professional network is essential in the UAE. Having the right connections will certainly come in handy. Accounts of rules having been bent a little or dossiers having been moved to the top of the pile are not unheard of in the UAE business world.
Making connections which can be used as introductions to other contacts is never a bad idea. Business cards are a handy way to establish such connections, but not a necessity in the UAE. If you do print business cards, though, make sure to print the text both in English and Arabic.
Cultivate your relationships by planning future get-togethers. Emiratis are very hospitable as this is part of their culture, and reciprocating this hospitality goes a long way. Face-to-face meetings are often preferred over phone calls as these can be interpreted as rather impersonal. Meetings over lunch or dinner are popular.
When it comes to punctuality in a business setting in the UAE, there is a bit of a double standard. Punctuality is not strictly practiced by locals, but it is expected of foreign residents. Expect to be kept waiting, but don’t think anything of it.
Patience is also important when you make deals as the straight-to-the-point approach is not appreciated in the UAE. Similarly, if you notice your business partner being evasive, you should probably interpret this as a bad sign: in the UAE business associates will probably do anything but say “no” straight to your face.
Even if you have planned a meeting with someone, it is not unheard of for said meeting to be interrupted by others or by telephone calls. Speaking of scheduling meetings, you should be considerate of prayer times and religious holidays and work around them.
Social security and benefits
- Social security in the UAE, just like employee benefits, is regulated by different laws on the federal and local level. Free zones may have additional employment laws with better benefits.
- Coverage for such important schemes as retirement pensions and public health insurance usually extends to UAE citizens only. GCC nationals have free access to public healthcare, too.
- Expats need to compensate for this lack of provisions with occupational insurance schemes and private policies.
The Legal Framework for Social Security and Employee Benefits: Federal, Local, or Free Zone?
The United Arab Emirates are a federation of seven territories: like many other aspects, social security in the UAE is regulated by federal law. Unless there is a specific framework, such as in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, social security in the UAE is based on the Federal Labor Law of 1986 and especially the Pension and Social Security Federal Law of 1999. The General Authority for Pensions and Social Security was created to implement that law.
Labor laws mostly cover working conditions in the UAE, only touching upon social security in the UAE as they refer to related benefits for employees as well. Employee benefits — such as paid maternity leave or workers’ compensation — may also differ in the UAE’s free zones, provided the conditions are not less favorable than the Federal Labor Law. The Dubai Financial International Centre, for example, has its own employment law, whose policies are more generous than federal regulations.
Local regulations for specific emirates can also supersede federal laws for social security in the UAE. For the sizable expat population, though, it is essential to know that retirement pensions and other provisions (such as financial support for widows and orphans) are generally reserved for Emirati citizens. Expats can partly compensate with private insurance plans tied to their current employment.
Emirati Employees Only — The UAE’s Retirement Pension Scheme
The most important part of social security in the UAE is the old-age pension for retired workers and employees. Upon reaching the official retirement age (usually 60 years for Emiratis), they are entitled to a pension: based on their average salary during the last few years of employment and the number of years they have paid contributions for.
Payments for social security in the UAE are usually deducted from gross earnings on a PAYE (pay-as-you-earn) basis. The employer, as well as the government, also contributes a certain percentage of the insured person’s salary to social security.
The retirement age, the share of the employer’s vs. the employee’s contributions, and the precise method for calculating the final retirement pension may differ slightly throughout the UAE. Abu Dhabi in particular has introduced the Abu Dhabi Pensions & Benefits Retirement Fund. Its social security regulations are not quite the same as those mandated in federal law.
Again, it is important to note whom this framework for social security in the UAE excludes. The pension funds only extend to UAE nationals in dependent employment. Business owners, freelancers, and self-employed professionals are not included, regardless of nationality. Furthermore, no foreign nationals — no matter what they do for a living — are covered by public pension plans.
No Country for Old Men? Retirement Provisions for Expats in the UAE
As social security coverage generally doesn’t extend to expats living and working in the UAE, what are they to do? The good news is that, according to UAE law, foreign employees are entitled to a lump-sum end-of-service payment once they have finished their job.
The exact amount depends on the number of years they have been working for this company, as well as varying provisions in federal vs. local law. In Abu Dhabi, for instance, the end-of-service benefit paid to an expat employee after five years with their current employer is one and a half monthly salaries for each year, i.e. 7.5 times their basic salary.
In addition to the end-of-service benefit, many employers in the UAE offer private pension schemes to their expat workforce. This is by no means mandatory, but plenty of companies want to improve the working conditions for expatriates and give themselves an advantage in recruiting.
Generally, both employer and employee contribute about 5% of a full-time salary to such occupational pension schemes. The primary purpose is to accumulate funds for the employee’s retirement. They will be paid in cash when the employee retires or leaves the company. However, if a contract is terminated early, the employee may only be able to retrieve their own contributions, but may lose those made by their employer.
Bridging the Gap: Planning for Retirement as an Expatriate
If you are planning to work in the UAE, please get professional advice concerning your future finances first. Sometimes, you might be able to keep contributing to both national pension schemes and private retirement plans in your home country. In other cases, this won’t be possible. Then you should find a way of putting aside roughly the same amount of money and contributing to a different pension scheme while living in Abu Dhabi or Dubai.
The fact that the UAE doesn’t levy any income tax might help you earmark part of your budget for that purpose. Moreover, always check your UAE employer’s company pension plan very carefully — sometimes, you could be able to re-negotiate and get better conditions for your retirement funding.
A New Safety Net — Compulsory Healthcare for Expat Employees
When it comes to public health insurance in the UAE, both Emirati nationals and citizens of other GCC member states enjoy free access to public hospitals and clinics. Again, this coverage does not include any other foreign nationals. Expats should make sure to take out health insurance when moving to the UAE.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai, however, have introduced compulsory health insurance schemes for all expats working there. Their local employer has to offer them a private insurance package for the duration of their job. This law has been in effect in Abu Dhabi since 2007, and similar measures are being rolled out in Dubai, to be finalized in the course of 2016.
Nonetheless, you should keep a few things in mind: Firstly, these benefits mostly cover the employee only. Dependent family members are not necessarily included, though some companies may offer it as an additional incentive. Secondly, these insurance schemes often provide for a basic standard of medical care. It’s strongly recommended to read the small print, so you can either re-negotiate or pay for top-up insurance from your own pocket.