A creative hub in Dubai and Abu Dhabi would be an attractive sell for millions of young, educated Arabs, many of whom could bring their skills to the UAE's economy.
UAE benefits when young Arab talent can freelance here
A converted warehouse in the industrial area of Al Quoz in Dubai is more usually the venue for a new art gallery or design shop. So it was unusual last week to witness how upbeat a youthful crowd was at the prospect of hearing a lawyer talk about licences and permits for freelancing.
The attendees, over a hundred of them, were there for a summit on freelancing opportunities organised by Nabbesh.com, a start-up that won the reality TV show The Entrepreneur last year with its online skills marketplace. The site matches individuals with companies offering part-time or project-based work - something of a rarity in an economy like the UAE's, which usually requires a permanent employment contract for residency rights.
Loulou Khazen Baz, the company’s founder, says there are many UAE residents who could benefit from freelancing – research by Nabbesh estimates that there is a substantial number of people here over the age of 15 who are not in education and are not participating in the labour force, either.
That potentially represents an enormous pool of underutilised labour.
The importance of freelancers should not be underestimated. Particularly in the creative industries, a pool of freelancers is vital to sustaining production and inspiring innovation. Offering people already resident in the UAE legal opportunities to work and offering those from abroad a legal path to freelance will empower both the UAE and the entire region.
That is the argument Trevor McFarlane of Gulfstat, a research group, makes. Mr McFarlane, who spoke at the summit, hinges his arguments for freelancing on two guiding documents: the UAE Vision 2021 and the Abu Dhabi Vision 2030. Both of these frameworks, he argues, envision a diversified, knowledge economy with a greater role for the private sector. "Freelancers," he says"can unleash the creativity between big organisations and small and medium-sized companies."
Mr McFarlane calls freelancers "unique economic agents", essentially flexible workers who can move between large and small companies without the contract costs to those companies of a full-time employee. This in turn helps to diversify the economy by allowing this sector of the labour market to use intellectual capital to create wealth, thereby enhancing the knowledge economy.
The economics of this argument are sound, but the difficulty lies in convincing freelancers that such part-time projects are viable, and convincing the Government to provide the right legal framework for this type of economic activity to operate. One thing that emerged clearly from the summit was how uncertain employers and freelancers are about the legal aspects of part-time work.
There are two broad "pools" of people who could be freelancers. There are those who are here already because a spouse or parent works in the UAE. And there are those who could come to the UAE for short-term employment. In both cases, the cost to the country is minimal, but the benefits are immense - hence the need for a clear regulatory framework.
In fact, there are work permits available for those who can be sponsored by their spouses or parents. But coming here from abroad for short periods is much harder at present.
It is from among that second group that the real bonus to the UAE could come. The trouble with creative industries in the Arabian Peninsula is the lack of access to freelance talent. Most creative industries - media, gaming or the arts, for example - rely on people who do not work full time. In creative hubs like London or New York, this pool of talent allows creative businesses to take the best without needing to spend on contracts and overhead. At the same time, the pool allows many people to gain experience.
Becoming a hub for the creative industries ought to be easier for the UAE than for any other country in the GCC. It is no secret that the cosmopolitan nature of the country is attractive to young Arabs - witness the results of the Arab Youth Survey last month that found young people in the Arab world would prefer to live in the UAE than in any other country, not merely in the region but in the world.
A creative hub in Dubai and Abu Dhabi - the economic corridor that the author Parag Khanna has dubbed "Abu Dubai" - would be an attractive sell for millions of young, educated Arabs, many of whom could bring their skills to the country's economy. Giving those people the opportunity to come here legally, for short contracts, would also offer a significant incentive to creative companies to set up shop, knowing they could get access to talent from around the region.
By resolving the current legal grey area around freelancing, the UAE would open itself to an influx of talented young people, benefiting the entire economy - as well as, naturally, the art galleries and design shops of Al Quoz.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai