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Gig work has become popular in the MENA region, but drawbacks remain

While there’s a willingness to accept more freelancers into the job market, regulation is needed to safeguard their rights.

Gig work has become popular in the MENA region, but drawbacks remain
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Workers and employers are increasingly dipping into the marketplace of temps. Boosted significantly by the pandemic, the gig trend is here to stay and is projecting growth across all professions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region

Last year, a survey found 86% of respondents saying that their company planned to hire freelancers, and 78% noted that the companies they freelance for offer them a full-time job after completing a project.

“The growth of freelancing in the Middle East stems from digitalization, remote work trends, economic diversification efforts, a thriving startup ecosystem, especially in UAE and KSA, new visa types, and a youth-driven entrepreneurial culture,” says Leanna Newman, Founder of The People Agency.

“For many years, the way visas and trading licenses worked made it very challenging to work on a freelance and more ad hoc basis or hire someone not on a company visa. Significant changes in the licensing and visa world have made this a lot easier,  especially as it is now not cost prohibitive, and this has appealed to both business owners requiring ad hoc support and freelancers alike,” says Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, Founder and CEO of TishTash Communications.

For companies in the region now, hiring freelancers works in their favor as they deliver on tight deadlines, are cost-effective, and provide extra help for small teams or departments.  

Lubna AlMadani, a freelancer in UAE, says that freelancing provides her with more flexibility in terms of working hours and location, adding that she can save her income that would otherwise be spent on commuting.  

“With the increase of individual businesses and initiatives in the Middle East today, people started leaning towards freelance services that provide permanent solutions within temporary time, or as long as their services are required,” says AlMadani.

Nihal Aboualsaoud, a freelancer in Cairo, adds that as the freelance landscape in the region evolves, so does the recognition of benefits for freelancers. “Many businesses, especially in technology, marketing, and creative sectors, have embraced freelancers for specific projects, allowing for flexibility and specialized expertise.”

Businesses now have the confidence and are embracing it. “Concerns around the need for workers to be based within the traditional bounds of the organization have all but evaporated,” says Ian Saldanha, Director of Client Services at Procre8, a public relations agency.

Nicki Wilson, Founder and Managing Director of Genie Recruitment, says there’s development in different areas like social media, digital performance specifically, “where we’re seeing quite a rise in freelancers.”

All agree that if businesses and freelancers in the region continue to work together, action needs to be taken to foster better understanding and align freelancers’ rights to their work. 


The challenges associated with freelancing include lack of job security (53%,) less pay than full-time jobs (22%,) lack of extra benefits (12%), and fewer chances of receiving a promotion (13%.)

Observers say companies should respect freelancers’ rights and realize that freelancing is on par with a full-time job. 

“Any freelancer putting in countless hours of ‘overtime’ would attest that, for the most part, the grind is the same, if not more,” says Saldanha. 

AlMadani confirms this and adds, “The amount of hours and effort put into the work is equivalent to any 9-5 employee’s time and energy when producing the work.”

Similarly, businesses must keep in mind that freelance work, although cost-effective for the organization, does not necessarily signify a cheaper option. On the contrary, freelance work provides diverse work opportunities, higher earning potential, and the ability to pursue other passions/projects that are not always feasible in traditional employment models, explains Newman. 

Wilson says that businesses opt for freelancers rather than hiring a full-time staff member for the same kind of role stems from tight budgets that span multiple suppliers, pushing them to look at freelancers as a bit cheaper. 

However, AlMadani contests that because freelancers do not receive the usual benefits from contract-based employees, asking for higher pay is not unreasonable. 

Aboualsaoud says that it’s a win-win situation. “It’s more convenient for both sides. The company pays less since they do not pay rent, electricity, and internet, while the freelancers can manage their schedule, save time, and make more money,” she adds. 


The rise of freelance platforms like Upwork and Ureed and government initiatives like Dubai’s TECOM Group have facilitated freelance work in the Middle East.

Newman says that such platforms have helped support the early stages of her business, which soon aims to build an on-demand talent marketplace to support the freelance human resources (HR) community.

“There’s a noticeable trend of businesses in the region accommodating freelance work and increasingly hiring freelancers to address their interim growth or skills shortage needs,” she adds. 

Khansa Al-Sabah, Assistant Professor in Economics in the Department of Economics at Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham Dubai, attributes this accommodation freelancers in the region to a cultural shift towards entrepreneurship and flexible work arrangements, as well as technological advancements that have made remote work more feasible, enabling freelancers to collaborate with clients globally.

“Economic diversification efforts in the region also create demand for specialized freelance services,” she adds.

Saldanha shares that he has seen smaller businesses turn to freelancers and large enterprises similarly embrace this paradigm. “What’s interesting is that regional organizations tend to build long-term partnerships with the freelancers they engage with. Far from seeking new partners for every project, businesses tend to settle on small pools of third-party service providers.” 

According to various polls, the top skills freelancers must have are time management, communication skills, the ability to market themselves, leadership, and attention to detail.

“If somebody decides to be a freelancer but might not have a network, it becomes tough,” says Wilson. “They may even find that they earn less than what they would earn on a full-time job, even though their skills are in demand.”

A survey found digital marketing and IT to be the fastest-growing industries for freelancers in the region, signifying the gap needing to be filled for such skills.

As businesses are diverse and need more services, they seek freelancers who can fulfill those specialized skills. “Freelancers with niche skills are in high demand. This presents an opportunity for individuals to capitalize on their unique talents,” mentions Al-Sabah.

Hatherall-Shawe says she would rather hire specialist services on a monthly retainer rather than having, for example, a full-time IT person. “I can then spend my valuable budgets on those I need full-time and use on freelance as and when needed.”

Today, technology underpins all business initiatives, and if organizations hope to accelerate their digital transformations and sharpen their competitive edge, then tapping into the pool of IT freelancers might be necessary, says Saldanha.

Furthermore, Millennials and Gen Z have been dominating the freelancer job market. The average employment tenure has dropped to just 1.8 years, meaning young professionals are likelier to test the waters than ever. 

“Many in these generations are choosing to freelance from Day 1 in their career, without spending any time on the traditional career ladder as such. It’s the new way of working,” says Hatherall-Shawe. 


To provide them with resources or higher payments, freelancers and businesses agree on regulations and awareness of freelancer rights.

“It is difficult to have your rights taken seriously as a freelancer, which is why governmental involvement and support is needed,” says AlMadani.

“Even in instances where you provide a set of rules in a contract, an invoice, or verbally, those rules are sometimes disregarded or not taken into consideration as companies do not fully value freelancers and their rights,” she adds.

It must be about balancing protections and maintaining flexibility. 

According to Newman, regulations need minimum contract standards, including reasonable payment terms and solid dispute resolution. “Requiring upfront or payment deposits will ensure financial security, and extending healthcare benefits via voluntary contribution approach could be a real positive or even a potential freelancer association that could offer support and advocacy.” 

“Legal protections against client or freelance misconduct should be strengthened, but regulations must foster a supportive environment without stifling innovation,” adds Newman.

There are also cases where freelancers need help figuring out what to put in their contracts. “Many people don’t have terms and conditions at all,” says Wilson.

She advises freelancers to think like self-employed people, work hard, and network. “This is where personal branding comes in, making sure that freelancers are posting on socials. Freelancers definitely have a place in the Middle East, but they must be able to be found. That’s the most important thing.”

Freelancers need to educate themselves on how to protect themselves, but it would be good to have codes of conduct in place here for fair trading, says Hatherall-Shawe. “Standard contracts and templates could be a good idea too to help avoid expensive legal bills to create their own.”

There has been a considerable shift in the acceptance of freelancers into the job market, and the momentum will continue to pick up. As the gig economy expands further, freelancers will play a crucial role in meeting the evolving demands of businesses. “Their agility, expertise, and ability to adapt to changing market needs make them indispensable contributors to the economy,” offers Al-Sabah.

“I hope that more companies start opting for freelancers and reinforce the freelance market positively while valuing freelancers’ input and hard work,” adds AlMadani.

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Suha Hasan is a correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More

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