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The freelance economy is here in the Middle East. And this is how it will redefine work

Heavily influenced by remote working and the flexibility it offers, the freelance economy is expanding with new startups and marketplaces popping up in Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia

The freelance economy is here in the Middle East. And this is how it will redefine work
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Prior to being stricken by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Middle East and North Africa region was in dire financial straits. The socio-political uprisings and oil strikes had already created a severe economic crisis, low employment, and a growing poverty rate. In 2020, when the pandemic hit the world, the MENA region saw over 2.2 million people infected. 

Similar to the rest of the world, the pandemic helped MENA pivot and dive head-first into freelance options to supplement income, increase education, and take advantage of the growing global demand. 

In a survey of over 4,000 professionals in the MENA region, nearly 9 out of 10 said they are or plan to freelance. Countries like UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Omar, Qatar, and Bahrain have high surges of freelance talent. Most of these jobs are online marketing, graphic design, and content writing. 

The trend of remote working and the availability of online jobs are speeding up the growth of many sectors, especially fintech, and the Middle East is no exception. The GDP in the Middle East is expected to grow by 5.2% in 2022.

Freelance remote work offers flexibility to work from home, not commute to work, and have a better work-life balance. It also opens up many new opportunities as freelancers can work with several companies on multiple projects. 

Dubai, Bahrain, and the UAE are ranked among the top locations globally with the fastest growing startup ecosystems, particularly fintech, edtech, and digital media. 

How work gets done has changed fundamentally, and startups and platforms are popping up to meet the demand. 

Companies are coming up with creative solutions to help better match brands and freelancers, quickly becoming the new infrastructure for the freelance economy. 

It’s getting harder to find the right talent 

Finding the ideal candidate becomes more challenging as new specialties and niche skillsets arise. For example, let’s take digital marketing. This field alone could have over 100 different specialties. A company would need to find an expert with proven experience for a specific niche. 

The task is becoming tricky, and scores of innovative startups have been trying to address the issue. 

Marketplaces and freelance platforms are on the rise

Online marketplaces and freelance platforms— ranging from UpWork and Fiverr to Mayple – have found new ways to find the right freelance talent. 

Ureed, one of the largest freelance marketplaces in the Middle East, closed a seven-figure seed round from Wamda and Anova Investments. Ureed matches brands with the top experts from over 500 specialties, but it also vets each expert.

“There is no better time than now for freelancers. Work has become easier, better, and more accessible in the region and beyond,” said Marwan Abdelaziz, CEO of Ureed.

Other freelance marketplaces in the region include Rizek, an Abu-Dhabi-based startup that raised $3.5 million in seed funding; Sabbar, a Saudi market that raised $1.5 million in a seed round; and Ogram, a Dubai-based startup that raised $870,000 in a pre-series A round. 

Mayple, a Tel Aviv-based marketing talent marketplace, is taking the brand-marketer matching to a whole new level. It uses an AI algorithm to match each brand to the right expert.

Rakefet Yacoby, CMO of Mayple, said that the platform has a leg up on its competition. “The world is moving from the need for access to a need for trust and data-driven decisions. We are not just a freelance marketplace. We’ve built a community of 600-plus marketing experts and match them to each brand based on their proven track record in each niche.”

Matching marketplaces are not the only type of business that is witnessing growth. There is an increasing need for software to support other aspects of working with freelancers.

There’s an increase of SaaS startups creating back-office systems and tools for freelancers.

One of the biggest barriers to assembling a remote international team is each country’s tax regulations and paperwork complexities. Many businesses choose to use platforms that help them manage their remote team. 

Stoke Talent is a freelance management tool for employers that Fiverr recently acquired for $95 million. The platform handles background checks, contracts, payments, budget approvals, tax documents, and workforce classification audits. 

It acts as a back-office for remote team management and effortlessly helps businesses grow their freelance teams. What’s allowing the startup ecosystem in the Middle East to flourish is the change in the microculture of each country. 

Work culture is changing

The glue holding all of this together and propelling the industry forward is the changing work culture in many Middle Eastern countries. Bahrain, for example, is credited with having one of the most liberal economies in the region. Women account for half of the workforce in Bahrain.

It has over 42% of women in the labor force, 24.6% in Kuwait, 21.3% in Egypt, 16% in Iraq, 15.2% in Iran, and 15% in Jordan.

Israel has a booming freelancing industry, with over 300,000 self-employed Israelis and over 60% of women in the workforce. It’s also where two Israeli entrepreneurs initially started Fiverr. 

Companies are also getting more comfortable with remote work. In Jordan, over two-thirds of the responders of the MENA 2021 poll said they expect that remote work will either increase or remain the same post-pandemic. 

Over the next 4-6 years, we will see a significant uptick of freelancers; among them, many will be women who can avoid lengthy commutes and regimented schedules.

The future is here

It’s clear from all these developments that we will see more businesses hiring freelancers as it has proved to be a valuable asset to them, filling up various niche roles and accomplishing tasks. 

Over the past two years, people have experienced a flexible lifestyle and a work-life balance they’ve never before experienced, and it will be hard to return to the regimented pre-pandemic norm. 

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Ben is the Director of Content at Mayple, a freelance marketplace that connects eCommerce brands with the world's top marketers. He likes to write about startups, growth marketing and the startup community in the Middle East. More