Off Hours: Uber boss in the UAE, Chris Free is also a driven triathlete

Uber's Middle East general manager says the job requires "a thick skin" and the ability to "roll with punches".

Chris Free looks after the UAE and Qatar business for Uber. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Chris Free is the Middle East general manager for online ride-hailing app Uber, based in Internet City, Dubai, where he looks after the UAE and Qatar business. Mr Free, 31, is the son of a diplomat and originally from London. He lived in India and Turkey before returning to the UK to attend university in Manchester. He moved to Dubai in March last year and lives in Sports City. Uber suspended its services in Abu Dhabi late last month after some of its drivers were detained by police.

How do you spend your weekend?

I have started training for the Dubai half Ironman. I’ve done two before and they’re an amazing way to switch off. Work is pretty intense and I need a goal, that kind of commitment to get me out at the weekend, riding my bike or going for a swim or run.

How did you become a general manager?

After graduation I joined (the strategy practice) Accenture. Becoming a management consult and it was a great learning curve. I spent time overseas, spanning a number of industries. I then joined a venture capital fund in London, investing in early-stage digital media projects. I joined Uber in July 2014 as a launcher and did that in Poland and Oslo before Dubai. I love that hands on, operational side of the business, to grow a city from scratch, build a team, get early supply on the road. We set weekly targets, such as trips we need to do, and it’s very clear where we need to go. I was strategy and planning manager for Middle East and Africa when I moved over. In that role you take a step back and ask, strategically, what should we be doing across the region. The opportunity came to move back into an operational role as a general manager.

What is your go-to gadget?

My Kindle. I love my iPhone, but I’m trying to separate myself from it so I’ve deleted Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That has freed up time I didn’t know existed.

What was the lowest point of your career?

I was in Los Angeles working for the small venture capital firm. They were going out to raise a second fund and I could see they weren’t going to be successful and it probably meant the business was going to come to an end. That was hard because I had built a life in LA that I expected to last much longer. I took my own initiative as the writing was on the wall. That’s when I joined Uber and had to leave the US. So, while it was a low point it also gave me this amazing opportunity.

What advice would you offer others starting out in your business?

To join this industry you have to be “in a disruptive space”. You have to have thick skin, roll with the punches and not take things personally. A frustration we have sometimes is the great things Uber is doing don’t get written about enough. Bad things people highlight, whether it’s regulatory battles we’re involved in or incidents across the world, rather than the employment opportunities, technology or environmental impacts.

What is your most indulgent habit?

Trashy TV. I watch Netflix for an hour at night. Alongside reading, it allows me to switch off from everything.

What do you have on your desk at work?

A MacBook Air, Thunderbolt monitor, iPhone 6S. We’re towards the end of an office refit so I’ve made it my resolution to be clutter free. As a business we’re quite good at being paperless.

What can’t you live without?

My bike, a Fuji SST. I got into cycling a few years ago and it’s something I’ve managed to take with me to different cities I’ve lived in. I can ride around Victory Heights and Jumeirah Golf Estates.

How do you achieve a work-life balance?

Since I moved to Dubai I haven’t had a very good work-life balance. That was probably a conscious decision because my girlfriend hasn’t been here so I thought this was a good time to put my head down and do some great stuff at Uber and see where that took me. Uber can be all consuming. I definitely sacrificed my personal life over the past 12 months but I’m going to shift that around. There are loads of things in Dubai on my list of things to do and see, places to eat and drink.

If you could swap jobs with anyone who would it be and why?

In England there are two famous triathletes called the Brownlee brothers. I would trade with one of them because after every race I do I always say “you’d be faster if you were doing this full-time”. I’d like to see if I could have been faster or whether I’m just a useless athlete.

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