Going into business for yourself is fast becoming a career of choice in an increasingly competitive job market with restricted opportunities for new graduates in the UAE.
Social media influencers, who use online platforms to promote themselves, their passions and their talents, are holding increasing sway in the UAE, with many building up armies of followers and making a living by accepting payments from brands and agencies keen to tap into their popularity.
This led to the young industry being regulated, with those wanting to make a full-time career out of being an influencer having to dig deep into their pockets to get one of three types of licences required to operate in the field.
Those just starting out are now faced with tough decisions about whether to blog as a hobby or pay out to pursue a professional career as an influencer.
Some have joined agencies such as Vamp and Brand Ripple that cover them under an e-media licence, which reduces the expenses on would-be influencers.
Make-up artist and blogger Hams Saleh is keen to maintain her independence, voicing concern that an agency partially bankrolling social media influencers could have a detrimental effect on content control.
"It's a lot of money, but it will make the content out there more credible," Ms Saleh said. "As a college student doing this as a part-time job, I would personally have to save up for years to be able to pay this amount."
Speaking to The National as she went about her work as a freelance make-up artist in Dubai, Ms Saleh said she hope she would be able to buy the individual licence one day for her public
Instagram page @hamsaleh.
"Being with an agency is not something that I'd want to do because, when I read about the limitations of being under an agency's licence, I realised that they have so many rules that could limit the creativity of the content that I produce," said Ms Saleh, 20, a third-year journalism student at the American University of Sharjah. "If I want to be truthful with my content, I could promote brands that the agency may not work with. So for my account to continue to be appealing and truthful to other social media users, I'd have to stick with getting an independent licence."
The new UAE social media influencers law is now in place, with the National Media Council this month announcing three tiers of e-media licence available for influencers and agencies.
Tier one is an individual licence for independent influencers. Tier two is a partnership licence for small groups, and tier three is a licence available only to official influencer agencies that will cover all influencers registered on their platform.
Those who simply to wish to blog as a hobby or pastime will not need a licence.
When influencers receive payment for promoting a brand or goods, however, they must ensure they have one of the three licences.
Each licence costs Dh15,000 and requires a trade licence for social media influencers to continue advertising for brands. What does this mean for students who are not yet financially stable?
In a small kitchen tucked in the corner of her dorm room, a graduate civil engineer from the University of Sharjah, Rawan Shehadeh, said that the licence fees could be demotivating and might price many out of pursuing their goals.
“It is very expensive, especially for someone like me. I just graduated, I am unemployed and I am not getting paid enough by blogging to pay out Dh15,000” Ms Shehadeh said. “Why pay the Dh15,000 if I am not getting that money back from anywhere? My parents support me, but I can’t ask them for this much money. I’d have to wait until I can make that money myself.”
Inspired by a family that has a deep love for food and her mother who is a baker, Ms Shehadeh believes that her food blog, @rawanshehs, will open the door for job opportunities.
“I can be a food photographer. If one day I woke up and no longer wanted to be an engineer, I do have a back-up plan.”
Ms Shehadeh believes that the cost of a licence should depend on the number of followers an influencer has.
“If someone has above a million followers on Instagram, that person is getting paid well to do what they’re doing, but for someone under 10,000 followers, that’s a lot of money to pay,” she said.
Ms Shehadeh believes that her personal brand helps her to advance her career skills.
"My bachelor degree and my food blog are two totally different things," she said. "But my food blog gave me that confidence that I lacked as a teenager, and that helps me a lot when I am getting interviewed for a job. I can talk to the interviewer without looking scared or nervous."
Palestinian-Canadian Ms Shehadeh started food blogging when she was 18.
“As a child I grew up saying: ‘I am going to cook today and the food is going to be on me’. Then I slowly started sending food recipes to my friends on my private snapchat account.
“I was challenging myself to try something I’ve never done before and making it taste good to my own satisfaction. I never knew I could feed people’s eyes with my pictures.”
Freelance face and body painter Alicia Goveas, who has 23,000 followers on her Instagram account, @dubai_faceandbodyartist, shares similar sentiments about licences.
"I think it's only going to make the famous and the bigger bloggers even bigger," Ms Goveas said. "They can already afford to get this licence so they can easily get it and they will be paid. It is the ones who are really struggling to gain more popularity on social media who will suffer, because they will have to start to pay for whatever it is that they want to advertise, which is not feasible."
Although Ms Goveas believes that the licence seems quite unfair for new graduates and students just starting their personal brand, she said that promoting other brands should not be an influencer’s aim.
"Once brands start recognising that it is profitable to benefit out of you advertising for them, that's when you should consider the licence," she said.
The make-up artist, who has been sharing her work on Instagram for the past three years, said she did not expect her passion to become a source of income.
"I never started out with an aim to make money out of it. I just enjoyed art," said Ms Goveas, 25. "I used to do a lot of promotion jobs when I was in college and for about a year, I did face painting just out of passion. I would share a few pictures here and there on social media and people picked up on it and started booking me for face-paint jobs for Eid and kids birthday parties. It was a big motivation because it was fairly new for the UAE."
Ms Goveas believes that employers should give new graduates a chance to prove their abilities.
"Most of the big companies are looking at taking new graduates as a finished package because of the amount of competition in the city we live in. It's very dynamic and everyone wants to be successful and excel. It puts pressure on young graduates."