Work in the UAE: A Quick Guide to Relocating

Skyline of Dubai

For those seeking job opportunities in foreign climes, the United Arab Emirates is now a primary destination option, with large swathes of professionals being seduced by the promise of a luxurious lifestyle and a more agreeable weather climate. There is far more on offer than an exotic postcode and the promise of sunshine, though – the powerhouse urban districts of Dubai and the capital, Abu Dhabi, are two of the most influential and dynamic employment hubs in the world.

So, if you’re considering making the move abroad, it’s important to be prepared, and we’ve compiled a brief and handy guide to get you started.

From job search tips to potential visa issues, this is what you need to know…

General information

Situated at the southern point of the Persian Gulf, the UAE was created as an independent sovereign state in 1971 and consists of seven constituent Emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman and Umm al-Quwain). As of 2016, the country’s GDP totalled around $350 billion, making it the 30th largest economy in the world, while the unemployment rate during the same period was an impressive 3.7%.

One of the most defining features of the UAE, though, is its demographics. Expat arrivals make up a staggering 88% of the 9.5 million-strong population there, with Indians in particular accounting for a large amount of this immigration wave. Brits are also keen to relocate, with a 2012 census estimating that around 240,000 people had set up residence there.

Biggest sectors

The rapid economic growth of the UAE over the last 40 years is undoubtedly due to its vast oil reserves, and this industry continues to dominate large swathes of the country’s job market. In recent years, however, the authorities have sought to diversify, with the tourism and business industries now also major employment sectors.

In general, key industries include:

In addition, several high-profile global businesses were founded in the UAE and retain their headquarters there, including:

  • Emirates (airline) – largest airline in the Middle East, based in Dubai
  • Etihad Airways (airline) – prominent multinational airline, based in Abu Dhabi
  • First Abu Dhabi Bank (finance) – one of the largest banks in the Middle East, based in Abu Dhabi
  • ADNOC (oil and gas) – the biggest company in the UAE and holder of the world’s seventh-largest oil reserve, based in Abu Dhabi.


Although average salaries generally vary by industry, the high propensity of white-collar positions in the UAE means that the median take-home is relatively high. In Abu Dhabi, for instance, you could expect to earn around AED 145,720 (£29,910 / $39,680) per year, while in Dubai the average is slightly lower at around AED 139,950 (£28,725 / $38,110).

Away from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, salaries tend to drop significantly. For example, the average salary in the next most populous emirate, Sharjah, is around AED 83,370 (£17,110 / $22,700) per year.

Cost of living

Depending on where you choose to live, your rental or mortgage expectations can vary widely. For instance, a one-bedroom apartment in a desirable area of Dubai could set you back around AED 6,600 per month (£1,350 / $1,800), while a similar property in Abu Dhabi would come to around AED 6,020 (£1,230 / $1,640). Prices tend to drop around the outskirts of each city, though, and with an excellent transport infrastructure – as well as predictably cheap fuel prices – this may be a more viable option.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to seek the services of a professional real estate expert before you leave, as well as take a closer look at utility costs, childcare/schooling fees and the prices of everyday commodities, such as groceries. This can help you tailor an expenses estimate based on your own circumstances.

Working conditions

As with most expatriates, it is likely that you will find work in one of the many multinational institutions based in the country. As a result, your working schedule will generally be in line with what you are accustomed to. Typical working hours are 8 hours a day in the private sector and 7 hours in the public sector, with 11 annual public holidays and a highly generous allowance of 30 leave days per year.

There is one major difference to the norm, though. As the UAE is officially an Islamic nation, Friday is considered a holy day and the working week, therefore, takes place from Sunday to Thursday. Normal working hours are also reduced during the month of Ramadan.

In terms of employment law, working conditions – particularly for low-paid migrant workers in the construction industry – have been the source of fierce criticism in recent years. Trade unions are outlawed in the UAE, with strike action illegal and punishable by deportation. In many cases, the treatment of migrant workers has been compared to ‘slave labour’ by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Finding a job

Looking for jobs in the UAE is a similar process to that in the West, with vacancies advertised both locally and online, although – as with many international organisations – it’s worth checking to see if there are any internal openings or secondments available at your own company first.

Indeed, most multinationals have a presence in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, so it’s also worth checking the individual websites of all the major players in your industry; most of these will have dedicated career portals online. Don’t neglect your network, either – spend time on LinkedIn looking for potential opportunities and making connections with professionals who could potentially help you out.

In terms of the application process, you should focus on the basics: do your research, ensure your CV is up to date and prepare thoroughly for any interview opportunities you are given. If you can speak Arabic, meanwhile, this is a huge bonus, although the majority of business is conducted in English and it is unlikely to affect your ability to find a job.

Some handy region-specific job boards include:

  • GulfTalent
  • Monster Gulf

Visas and work permits

All non-Emirati nationals must apply for a work permit before they can legally relocate to the UAE. As with most countries, this process is handled by your employer, with permits for skilled workers being categorised into three education-dependent levels. It is also necessary to obtain a work visa, which is typically valid for two months; during this time, your employer would be required to arrange all essential documents on your behalf, including a UAE Residence Identity Card.

The Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticised the controversial kafala visa system in which unskilled migrant labourers – based usually in the construction or domestic help industries – are required to be legally monitored by their employer. There are many reported cases of unskilled workers having their passports taken, suffering physical and sexual abuse, and being forced to work long hours in insufficient conditions, with little in the way of reform currently forthcoming.

As a foreigner, moving to the UAE is a highly desirable lifestyle choice, with the extravagant shopping, leisure and entertainment outlets in the region adding to the image of an outward-looking nation. This is certainly the case in the job market, where millions of global expats continue to seek a high standard of living.

If you’re looking to follow suit, now is as good a time as ever to start.

Have you made the move to the UAE recently? What advice would you give? Let us know in the comments below…

Cost of living data is compiled and published by Numbeo. Currency conversions are based on rates supplied by on 29 May 2018.