Max of Arabia
Social media influencer Max Stanton, who is also known as Max of Arabia, talks about the importance of cultural integration during an interview with Gulf News at Bikers Cafe in Jumeirah. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

Dubai: Integrating into a different culture is no easy task, but leave it to Max Stanton to make it look like a walk in the park.

With over 660,000 followers on Instagram, 33-year-old Stanton has broken into the Gulf community while documenting his travels between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen. And the one thing he always leaves behind wherever he goes are the smiles around him.

Speaking to Gulf News, Stanton describes himself as “passionate, curious and random”, and those characteristics are clearly reflected in his videos.

“Joining social media was a pleasant accident because I launched my account as a personal aide, and it was never meant to be anything bigger. Now there are certain topics that I’ll talk about more, but it’s completely random. I’m not just a travel page, a food page or an automobile blog. I do everything,” explained the Dubai-based influencer.

Working mainly on Instagram through his online moniker account @Max of Arabia, Stanton delivers his message in the local dialect as well as in English, and aims to ensure that all viewers – whether western or Arab – get a clear understanding of what he does.

Early career

Born in Botswana to an American father and British mother, Stanton spent his childhood in Yemen before arriving to the UAE in 2007 where he attained a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the American University of Sharjah (AUS).

Once graduated, Stanton changed his mind and decided to continue living in the UAE instead of moving back to Yemen and after spending three months job hunting and living on his friend’s sofa, he landed a job at Procter & Gamble, where he worked for four years.

“I didn’t feel like I was an office person. But I worked as hard as I could during the week so I could have the weekend to go outdoors and do what I love doing, like explore, hang out with the guys, go to the desert, going fishing and diving, and that type of thing,” he explained.

“My beginnings on social media were on Twitter and that was it. Then Instagram came along and as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so that was very tempting for me instead of the 140 characters. So I made the transition to Instagram. Initially it was an adventure diary, such as my travels, where I went, what I ate and the followers I had on Twitter transferred.”

Breaking into social media

When Max of Arabia started out on social media, it was not with the intention of becoming an influencer but to help out his budding clothing business that he helped set up with a friend. The strategy was to offer free hats to influencers, who back then would have had an average following of around 50,000 people, in exchange for sharing their photos on social media.

One day, Stanton decided to make his own video and the rest is history.

“I made a video that went extremely viral. I had 3,000 followers at the time, and had posted a video asking why Arabs are surprised when they see an expat speak Arabic, when 99 per cent of Arabs speak better English than I do, and also better Arabic. That video received 3,000 plus comments, and I realised there was something there,” he said.

“Why would I give free hats to people when they’re obviously not getting the same number of views as I was getting. So initially, the only reason I started creating content was to sell my clothes, such as hats and T-shirts. And that jumpstarted and grew, and then I realised there’s a message that I have, and one that people like. By that time, I was already here for around six years in the UAE, and noticed that there was a kind of divide between expats and UAE nationals, which was something that I didn’t like.”

Cultural integration

Reflecting on the cultural divide in the UAE, Stanton pointed out that he had met a few expats who were not only unfamiliar with Emirati cuisine but were also unaware of the cultural nuances and traditions.

“If you see people going to the US or the UK, they learn English. If expats go to Italy, they’ll learn Italian. But for some reason there’s lots of expats in the UAE and they never try to learn Arabic. People should make an effort because if it is just taking a few steps towards learning a little bit of Arabic, such as greetings, it really means a lot to me and I think for other people, it would be a nice gesture.”

“In [Emirati] culture, how you treat guests, how you treat older people, how you go into a door and how the person on the right goes in… these are some of the many small nuances that Emirati people don’t realise that they do. But for someone coming from an alien world and seeing it with fresh eyes, they see it as really cool and it’s something worth appreciating.”

It was then in 2016, that Stanton decided to take the plunge, quit his tradition nine-to-five job, and go on a four-week camel trek. He gave himself a year’s deadline to become successful and spread his message. Stanton now has the added luxury of doing what he loves as well as having a successful career as a content creator, which ranges from integration and product placement to advertisements.

“Instead of being looked at as the guy who integrated [into UAE culture], I would love to be one of the million who integrated. I would love it if every expat made the same effort that I make, because you gain so much by learning the language and learning about the culture, and travelling locally, and going to Saudi, Yemen and Oman. I think that if everybody made the effort to learn 10 or 20 words, learn some of the custom and make some Emirati friends, I think expats would gain immensely.”

Charity work 

One of the charities he holds close to his heart is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where he worked quite extensively with the agency on a number of occasions.

Growing up Botswana, Zaire and Yemen, Stanton has always been aware of refugees, but as he pointed out, working with them first-hand and being acutely aware of the fact that a person’s status can drastically change in a blink of an eye, left a deep impact on his outlook towards life.

“It can happen to anyone of us. There are things that can happen out of our sphere of control, and based on these things, you can go from having the most comfortable life in the world to literally having nothing but the clothes on your back,” he said.

Some of his most notable services to charity include visits to Jordan and Syria while working with Syrian refugees, in addition to flying out to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to work with the Rohingyas.

“Charity is important for me and I think the biggest benefits I received from going into social media was the access I got to do charity work. We’re blessed to live in an extremely safe place but not everybody else is.”