The mounting tension between the U.S. and Middle East adds to the long list of challenges citizens there are facing. Lack of jobs is another. This is especially so for women, who face even more obstacles — from access to finance to freedom of movement — when it comes to making money separately from their husbands and families.
Thanks to Jordanian entrepreneur Nour Al Hassan, thousands of women there are now making a substantial income.
In 2017, unable to find consistently high-quality, on-demand Arabic translation services for her nine-year-old translation agency Tarjama — which means "translate" in Arabic — she launched Ureed, an online editorial marketplace that connects businesses all over the world with Arabic writers and editors who work from home.
Most of Ureed's freelancers are women who, until now, had been prohibited from working outside the home in a traditional setting. To date, Al Hassan says Ureed, which means "I want" and is based in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, provides work in the linguistic services for some 17,000 freelancers across the region.
"A lot of women in the Middle East are super-talented and highly educated," said Al Hassan, "but unfortunately they are not given the opportunity to work for valued companies or 9-to-5 jobs. We can balance that by giving them flexibility and guaranteeing that they will be paid in a seamless manner. Freelancers worry about getting paid, but the minute a customer signs onto our platform and assigns a job, payment is held in an escrow account for the freelancer."
Although almost all girls in the Middle East and North Africa now attend school, and more women than men go to university, according to the World Bank, women's participation in the workforce remains among the lowest in the world, hovering around 20%, according to the latest data from the International Labour Organization. In other regions it is roughly 40%. Fewer than 20% are believed to hold college degrees.
What's more, a global report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that women often do not share the same rights as men when pursuing a profession and that "protective" labor laws restricted women's work hours and the sectors in which they could work.
"There are two kinds of women — women and stubborn women," observed Amal Drahmeh Masri, the founder of "Middle East Business Magazine and News."
"In this part of the world, you need to be a stubborn one to succeed," she said.
Whether stubborn or simply determined, Al Hassan has been extraordinarily successful.
After graduating from Ahlia University in Manama, Bahrain, with a law degree, Al Hassan founded Pinkmoon Events, a luxury events company. In 2008, while running the company and working as a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development, also known as USAID, she started Tarjama, which quickly grew from two women to 160 full-time employees.
By 2016, Tarjama was turning down work due to capacity workload and limited human resources.
"Even when we wanted to use freelancers," Al Hassan recalled, "it was always a struggle to know how to pay them, how to vet them, how to make sure they're good."
With the gig economy on the rise and freelancers increasingly in demand, the solution was to spin off a new company that would use a digital platform for companies seeking writers and translators and educated women seeking work in those areas from home.
The result was online freelance platform Ureed. Upon signing up, companies have immediate access to a global network of remote workers whose services range from writing, content creation and SEO blogging to editing, translating and adaptation. The companies then post a job, including details and specifying required skills, and invite freelancers from Ureed's extended network of workers to bid.
After accepting a bid posted by a freelancer that's a match between the company's budget and the freelancer's qualifications, the two collaborate until the job is done and the writer or translator is paid.
Expanded and seamless employment for women through technology may be Ureed's business model. But empowerment is the company's underlying mission and, for Al Hassan, the primary driver of the business.
Technology has allowed Al Hassan to reach and recruit thousands of potential freelancers, largely through social media. The company also partners with universities in the region, including Saint Joseph University and University of Sharjah, to offer courses in writing and translating and provides additional courses and webinars online through UReed Academy.
In November, Tarjama acquired Captivate Arabia, an audio-visual translation and subtitling agency, to enhance the company's position in the audio-visual translation domain.
"Technology has allowed us to scale," Al Hassan said. "Without it we could never have reached that number of women, or efficiently taken on more work or been able to pay them so seamlessly."
According to Global Workplace Analytics, in the past decade remote work has expanded 10 times faster than other areas of the workforce. Given continual advances in technology, the trend is likely to grow.
Rajaa Abdelaziz was one of the first women Nour hired, in 2008, to work as an editor and translator at Tarjama. In 2012 she became a full-time employee and today heads the company's QA Department, responsible for ensuring that content delivered to clients is of the highest quality.
As it did for her, remote work has been a game-changer for intelligent, well-educated women in the region who must balance the demands of home and careers. One of the greatest challenges women across the Middle East face, in fact, is achieving work-life balance. Physically demanding work, as well as jobs that require travel or extended hours, amplify the problem.
"Tarjama offered me an opportunity to wok from home, which gave me the flexible hours I needed to maintain the balance between my family and my career," Abelaziz said. "The company always gives women the space they need to excel."
At the same time, there appears to be a growing acceptance of women entrepreneurs and employers in the Middle East, as men recognize the efficiency of working with, and for, women.
"I never felt that being a female-led company in this region and culture was an issue for us," said Al Hassan. "It was very difficult in the early days because when customers would hear 'women working from home,' they would say, 'Are you sure? How do you ensure the quality?' That was until they tried the service. Today a lot of customers are great champions of our business and success — they refer us; they invite us to conferences; they believe in us."
Belief and support extend to the largely male management team at Ureed, as well. "They don't' have an issue with working for a woman," Al Hassan said. "On the contrary, they say, 'We need more women, because women increase productivity.'"
Looking out five years, Ureed's founder and CEO sees even greater opportunities for her largely female staff, her pool of female freelancers and the company she started.
"I want to build a billion-dollar business that impacts people," she said. "I measure the success of the platform by how many customers are leveraging the platform to meet their budgets and fulfill their needs, and by how many workers and freelancers are benefiting from it financially."
For more on tech, transformation and the future of work, join CNBC at the @ Work Summit in New York on April 1–2, 2020.