The freelance industry has been booming for the past decade in most parts of the world. Countless published studies, surveys, and statistics prove that this boom has not even reached its peak yet. However, most of these studies focus on the US or other western countries and regions, where half of the population is expected to go freelance by 2027.
However, very few are shedding light on the silent movement happening today in the MENA region. In fact, if you haven’t heard, this movement, also known as the freelance revolution, is gaining momentum in the MENA region and is being accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the global economy.
MENA economies, to be specific, are expected to contract by 5.7% in 2020 due to COVID-19, the lowest in over 50 years according to the IMF and the World Bank. For a more personal perspective, UNESCWA estimates that the region could lose at least 1.7 million full-time jobs in 2020. These impacts have led to individuals, governments, the private sector, and even venture capitalists and investors alike, to take huge strides in bringing about the ‘Future of Work’ in the region - an era defined by a more flexible, remote, and gig-centered economy.
Larger freelance market and higher employer demand
Information from Ureed.com, an online freelance marketplace in the GCC connecting freelancers with employers across 150 industries, not only supports but solidifies the projections made anticipating a spike in the gig economy in the region. In June, the number of freelancers and employers who signed up on the platform doubled, reaching a peak on July 1st, incidentally the same time that many countries in the region, such as Egypt, UAE, and Algeria, experienced their peak in COVID-19 cases. The gross sales of the platform also doubled, meaning that not only was there a higher number of sign-ups, but also a higher number of jobs posted and freelance hires.
With the rise of COVID-19 came the urge for securing more income and more financial stability, which partially explains why so many individuals have looked towards freelancing as a viable option for navigating these difficult times. In fact, according to a 2019 survey by Bayt.com, around 38% of freelance workers in the MENA region are motivated by extra income, meaning that it has long been the case that freelance work offers a safety net for workers who want to supplement their income. This has only been exacerbated by a loss of jobs and livelihoods in the first quarter of 2020 amounting to 1.8% (equivalent to approximately 1 million full-time jobs) more than the last quarter of 2019, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).
On the other hand, for businesses who are suffering the brunt of COVID-19’s damage on the economy, hiring freelancers presents itself as a cost-effective solution to a downsized workforce and an increased need for pivoting and adapting to the new climate. Indeed, a Deloitte study analyzing the hiring patterns of 5 companies in the period between April and June 2020 showed that there was an exponential surge in the number of on-demand services solicited.
More governmental and infrastructural support
In the UAE, where the freelance industry is much larger and much more advanced than in other parts in the region, there are freelance permits and packages. Dubai Media City, which offers the gofreelance package, digitized the entire registration process, even enabling the permit to be delivered electronically when COVID-19 forced the country into lockdown. Moreover, the Dubai Economy, in partnership with the Mohammed bin Rashid School of Government (MBRSG), has launched "The Great Economic Reset Programme" to support the shift to remote working and the rise of the gig economy.
Saudi Arabia launched a similar program, the “flexible work system” to enable job seekers to engage in the labour market on a more flexible basis. The program documents freelance and gig work, legitimizing and institutionalizing it in a way that was very much lacking before the pandemic. Not only do those measures help provide opportunities to freelancers, but they also play a larger role in normalizing freelance work and creating a cultural shift that will allow more workers to pursue gig work on a full-time basis.
In fact, a recent survey commissioned by Al Aghar Group in partnership with global management consultancy Kearney, revealed that most thought leaders and decision-makers in Saudi Arabia believe that COVID-19 is accelerating the advent of the ‘future of work’ in the Kingdom. They identified the anticipated increased participation in the gig economy as an essential pillar in that transformation, which over 66% of respondents found to be positive.
Investments in facilitatory platforms
On the investment side, while slower and more cautious investments are anticipated in this turbulent climate, Ureed.com’s 7-digit USD seed round from Wamda comes as a powerful indication of the potential of the freelance market in the MENA region, particularly post-COVID19. The sizable investment came at the crux of the pandemic, again in late June, with the aim of helping fuel the startup’s expansion across the MENAPT region and across its provided services.
With this investment, Ureed.com has also acquired Nabbesh, another large freelance marketplace in the region. This recent acquisition will enable Ureed.com to tap into more verticals and add to its 35K+ talent pool of freelancers. It also means that Ureed.com will now have over 135K+ freelancers from across 150+ industries and specialties on its platform, making it the largest freelance marketplace in the GCC. Needless to say, the role that technology plays in creating more access and opportunities for freelancers is boundless. And a platform like Ureed.com, powered by AI and technology, allows freelancers more visibility, exposure, and countless opportunities to advance their freelance careers.
While platforms like these are essential in bringing about a boom in the freelance market in the region, there are also other forces that must come together to make it happen. With the COVID-19 pandemic changing the way millions work worldwide and putting the region on a fast-track towards a different future of work, this new normal is imminent, and freelance marketplaces have the potential to use that momentum and take that market to new heights.
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