Companies in the UAE are increasingly turning to freelancers in order to scale up their businesses and fill skills gaps.
Experts say extra government support - with cheaper licences now available, attracting companies and film productions to work with the UAE's free zones - is leading to a rise in the number of people working for themselves.
The Abu Dhabi government announced that new companies and freelancers will be exempted from paying for business licences issued in Abu Dhabi for two years. The law, part of the Ghadan 21, stimulus package for the emirate, has been in place since December last year.
“There is certainly a rise of people freelancing in the UAE and the government has made it easier for people to do that by providing reasonably priced freelancer licences,” said Steve Ashby, the founder of Businessmentals, a consultancy for freelancers and solopreneurs based in Dubai.
“The world of freelancing here in the UAE is becoming more and more attractive.”
Hiring is expensive generally, and even more so in the UAE with the costs of visas, medical insurance, flights, and other benefits, say experts.
But employers do not have to cover those costs with freelancers, providing them with a cheaper pool of talent to tap.
“I have four young women working for me right now and every single one of them is a freelancer,” said Mr Ashby.
“They work 70 per cent of their time with me and they have other clients. And it works really well. It suits me as I don’t have to go to the expense of doing their visas and all that stuff.”
Companies can also take freelancers on for short periods of time only when they need the extra help, say experts.
“It allows the employer flexibility to engage the freelancers’ services as and when needed, giving the employer a greater control of their cash flow and therefore they will be in a position to be more nimble in their business and make scaling decisions,” said Amanda Perry, chief executive of Vitality, a women-focused business accelerator.
With a range of free zones in the UAE, freelancers can be found working in many different sectors — including film production.
Faisal Amin, 28, from Pakistan, has been in the UAE for six years and worked in the production industry for four years. He is licensed through twofour54, Abu Dhabi's media free zone.
He has worked on six movies, including Hollywood blockbusters War Machine, Mission Impossible and most recently, 6 Underground.
“My main departments are production and location. But on 6 Underground I was the floor boss for transport,” he said.
Filming for 6 Underground has now finished, so he is taking the chance to rest before work picks up again.
“I have heard a lot about other gigs, so probably I’ll be busy from January as well.”
Mr Amin is now doing what he always dreamed of, but it can still be difficult due to the nature of project-based freelance work.
His first two years as a freelancer were tough, and although things have been easier in the past couple of years, work is still inconsistent, which is a reality many freelancers have to prepare and plan for.
“Summers are very tough, which is why I take my vacations then for three or four months and the rest of the year I’m here,” said Mr Amin.
Fellow twofour54 freelancer Sahil Saudagar, from India, has also faced hard times. He has done four films this year, including 6 Underground, which he worked on as a locations PA, but there have still been months when he was out of work.
“I was reaching out to other freelancers and contacts to see if they have any work and can help you out. But we are in the UAE. And during Ramadan and the summer there is usually not much work going on,” said Mr Saudagar.
“I plan on working all around the rest of the year, so when those two or three months hit you can just stay at home.”
But he has made a good living from the work he has landed this year — and there is an increasing amount of it to go around as Abu Dhabi attracts ever more films from all over the world.
"The government is incredibly supportive," said Katrina Anderson, adviser for strategic partnerships and corporate affairs at twofour54.
"They understand the importance of the industry and it is one of the drivers for the Abu Dhabi Economic Plan. We get a lot of collaborative support. The things we are able to turn around and deliver for these films is just incredible. Our production slate is the biggest year we have ever had."
And having quality freelancers whom they can call on quickly is key, she said.
“When productions come to town they might need 300 people at once and then through summer they may not want anyone,” said Ms Anderson.
“Having people who are project based is really critical to what we do. Because our industry is so flexible, we have times where we might be shooting something next week or in other cases there might be six months of planning.”
There are 580 licensed freelancers at twofour54, which has recently launched a new service to proactively match companies with those registered in the zone. And it is working well. Mr Amin, Mr Saudagar and many others have landed work through the zone as a result of call outs.
Part of the free zone’s success has been in allowing foreigners to set up their own companies without the need for an Emirati partner. A new law is coming into force next year that will remove that requirement — although it will not include the media industry, at least initially. But even if it eventually does, twofour54 does not expect the change to affect the free zone.
“From our perspective, we don’t just do real estate or rented space, we have a community — 37 per cent of our partners on campus are Emirati. They don’t have to be here. They come because of the community base,” said Ms Anderson.
“They come because there is someone here who can give them a team to support their project. They come here because we feed them work briefs. They come here because they get to be part of an industry with post production suites. They have studios. They have all of the requirements in one place.”