There’s a new breed of celebrity in the UAE; one that you should definitely take note of. These individuals are not finding fame by taking the traditional route — by releasing a record for instance, or presenting a well-known breakfast show. And they are certainly not wearing next to nothing on a magazine cover (yes, Kim Kardashian, you’re guilty). Instead, they’re making a name for themselves by being themselves — entertaining the great UAE public and beyond — without the aggressive marketing machines, big bucks or fancy brands.
Thanks to the high penetration of smart devices and increase in consumption of online content in the UAE, the country is witnessing the rise of the social media star — and they’re growing more powerful by the minute. These digital celebs have flipped the traditional formula of fame. It’s now about amassing an audience first, and making money after. Granted, they’re not Hollywood famous, but there’s no doubt about their influence in the region.
“Local influencers tend to have a large following on social media, which provides brands with the opportunity to reach out to their target audiences through new channels,” says Moustafa Mahdi, Consultant, MasterMind PR and Communications.
“Over the past two years or so, there has been a lot more interest from brands in working with local personalities for a number of reasons. Working with a local influencer or socialite to promote a brand is relatively cost-efficient and is a lot less complicated process. It can be as effective as working with an [international] celebrity, if planned carefully. However, being able to identify the right influencer for the brand is very important.”
If it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be happening, and there are many success stories to back this up. Take Huda Kattan, for instance. The UAE-based make-up artist kick-started her social media empire in 2010. Four years on and the gorgeous brunette has been snapped up left, right and centre to represent a variety of brands, and she has even launched her own beauty line.
You’ve got to work it
Specific qualities help turn someone into a social media star — and standing out from the millions of people who also post online is key. Having charisma is always a good thing, and being attractive or funny, or attractive and funny never hurt anyone. But the main attributes for online success boil down to working hard, consistently delivering fresh content, and staying true to your message. It’s certainly not your typical nine-to-five full-time job.
Mohammad Parham Al Awadi, 40, is one half of the Emirati duo known as the Peeta Planet brothers. Along with his brother Peyman, 37, he has been building an online presence for five years.
“The lines between my virtual and real worlds often get blurred,” Mohammad says.
“Most of the time I’m coexisting in both. But it was exciting [starting out]. We had an honest and rewarding relationship with our community, and the backing of thousands of followers who advised us and looked out for us. They lifted our spirits whenever we felt discouraged.”
Peyman adds, “We learned that a start-up’s journey needn’t be a lonely one if you manage to inspire online communities to believe in you and your vision.”
And what a vision it has been. They have just finished working with the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, shooting a TV series called #MyDubaiTrip, scheduled to air before the end of the year. Mohammad says, “The biggest test is to see whether you still feel passionate about what you do three years down the line, and whether you have the persistence and will to continue.”
But first, let me take a selfie
Another big difference between new-age social entertainment and old-school methods is that, for the majority of cases, the storytelling itself is all about the creator. Tamara Al Gabbani is the perfect example of someone whose success story was amplified by becoming a smart celeb. But the UAE-based Saudi designer, who launched her label three years ago, hadn’t originally set out to become a social media socialite.
“I am an entrepreneur, so my main concern is doing what works for my business,” she tells GN Focus. “When I launched my brand, I wanted to take a backseat and just concentrate on the business, but that didn’t turn out to be what was in the best interest of the brand.”
Al Gabbani, who’s now in her 30s, admits that approaching stores in the region was a difficult process.
“Boutiques only wanted to work on a consignment basis, which can be fatal for a new brand,” she explains. “I didn’t see how the consignment model was mutually beneficial or added any value to my brand. I had two options — either I quit altogether or I come up with something that actually works.”
And that’s when she decided to take the online route. “I withdrew my stock from boutiques, created my website and online store, and managed all the social media myself. I wouldn’t say it was easy, but I was genuinely interested and passionate about social media, so I was willing to put in all the effort, the learning and experimenting.”
And it worked. “It was a risk, but after some time, I noticed a trend: people weren’t just interested in
the brand… they were fascinated with what I was doing too.”
Pro vs amateur
Emirati media personality Anas Bukhash first made his mark online through his photography.
“It started with Flickr, where my account became more popular,” the 33-year-old recalls. “Then
along came Twitter and Instagram. I noticed that I really enjoyed it and was good at it. Now, I simply portray snippets of my life and thoughts through all these channels.”
It may be tempting to post every 30 seconds, but one of the keys to success is having a good strategy and keeping it professional at all times.
“I don’t like flooding, and I’m quite picky about what I post,” he says. “Most of my photos are taken using my iPhone, and then for editing, one of the most common and popular apps is Snapseed. I’d start with that, and then use a few others to adjust a nice filter. When it comes to video editing, the iMovie app is definitely one of the best.”
And finally, take care of what you post, he says.
“Simply post things that are true to yourself and express you — not what you think people want to see. I think that’s crucial. And yes, edit well.”
Tamara Al Gabbani
The UAE-based Saudi fashion designer keeps 110,000 fans updated between her main social accounts on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, as well as on Pinterest and YouTube. Through these channels, Tamara showcases her latest designs; her daily looks and even posts light-hearted videos.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, her work is a 24/7 job, with her most important tool being her phone.
“I am always working, my business is my life,” she confesses. “The modern day entrepreneur can manage their entire business from their smartphone.”
It’s a tough job, but Al Gabbani wouldn’t change a thing. At the moment, the designer is working on her new collection, plus a few other projects.
The Al Awadhi Brothers – AKA Peeta Planet
It was only five years ago that Mohamed and Peyman Parham Al Awadhi burst onto the food scene with their shawarma eatery, Wild Peeta. Since then, the online world has been their oyster with the Emirati duo even bagging their own TV show, Peeta Planet.
Their latest project, #MyDubaiTrip focuses on 12 of the world’s most popular social media personalities being flown in to experience Dubai through itineraries created by 12 local Instagram users.
The brothers updated their 65,000 fans during shooting, mainly through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. “We valued building relationships through honest conversation over buying followers,” says Mohamed. “And we were convinced that no matter what happened to us, our followers would be there for us.”
The Emirati entrepreneur’s first venture, Ahdaaf, is a sports club that was launched with three partners in 2009. They now run 13 fields across Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
Through his Twitter and Instagram accounts, Bukhash keeps an impressive 60,000 followers updated, with everything from his outings to travel abroad. Such is his influence in the UAE social sphere that he is constantly in demand by brands to represent them online (most recently, he shot a video with Axiom Telecom).
Bukhash also runs a talent management agency with his brothers aptly titled Bukhash Brothers, and is currently working on another sports start-up, as well as a TV show.
The UAE-based makeup artist launched Huda Beauty in 2010. Four years on and the blog is pulling in more than a million page views a month, along with the added support of her Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram accounts.
Huda has represented brands such as Lenovo and Vaseline in the region, and she has even launched her own range of false nails and eyelashes, also called Huda Beauty, in association with Sephora Middle East.
Originally from the UK but now based in Abu Dhabi, EMKWAN (it’s an online pseudonym – no one knows his real name) is an opinionated technology commentator and video blogger. So popular are his posts – particularly his YouTube videos – that he is constantly named by the media as one of the region’s most influential English-speaking individuals in the Middle East.
With a healthy fan base of over 40,000, so far he has collaborated with the likes of BlackBerry, Nissan, Rolls Royce, BMW, Nike, and even The Princes Trust in the UK. Plus, he has appeared on a number of tech shows.
Saleh Al Braik
Through his social media accounts – where he has around 150,000 followers – Saleh has been able to turn his passion for social media into something much bigger. The 26-year-old entrepreneur runs his own PR company, called Think Up, which helps businesses in the country attract Emirati customers.
But that’s not all; he also uses his online presence to recruit thousands to help good causes. In 2013, an initiative saw 450 young Emiratis help distribute meals to those in need during Ramadan.