Tim Callen, mission chief for Saudi Arabia at the International Monetary Fund, spoke with AGSIW about Saudi Arabia's economic reform agenda.
Social media influencers in the Gulf Arab states are becoming increasingly popular, finding a source of fame and sometimes a lucrative stream of income. Gulf social media influencers educate the public, showcase their travels, set fashion trends, and comment on local issues, all while giving followers a glimpse into their daily routines. Authorities in the Gulf states have been wrestling with this new phenomenon, regulating their use of social media platforms, while simultaneously trying to capitalize on the influencers’ fame.
Reality Shows and the Rise of Gulf Reality Personalities
The social media influencer phenomenon is directly connected to the emergence of reality TV stars in the 1990s. Reality shows such as “The Bachelor” and “The Real World” expanded the popular perception of stars from extraordinary individuals to the ordinary, allowing the audience to observe the process by which the latter become celebrities. In these shows, the celebrity value as a commodity is based on visibility in and of itself. The stories of daily lives gradually become a representation of truth and reality that offer an alternative to the manufactured stardom of the entertainment industry.
Celebrity culture was slow to come to the Gulf Arab countries. The creative arts in general were underdeveloped and acting in particular was seen as a disreputable profession. This can be measured by the paucity of television and film production in the Gulf countries up until the early 2000s. Many pioneering Gulf, or khaleeji, actors tell of their families’ objections, and how they struggled to pursue their dreams to become professional actors.
When popular reality shows like the Arab edition of “Star Academy” began broadcasting in 2003 on satellite channels in the Gulf states, khaleeji participants were limited in number (35 khaleejis out of 169 participants). The appearance of the khaleeji participants on the TV screen was provocative as the whole idea of reality shows is to publicize private life, a still controversial notion in the Gulf. Despite this public disapproval, the appearance of the khaleeji youth on these programs became very significant. Several of these reality stars were later recruited by khaleeji media companies to act in movies or host TV shows. Moreover, the reality shows created a new relationship between the audience and the khaleeji celebrities in terms of voyeurism and obsession with their private lives even after the reality show itself was over.
The introduction of participatory Internet platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Twitter further promoted celebrity culture and the interest in sharing scenes from everyday life. With these new platforms, users became involved in both creating web content and consuming it. This bottom-up celebrity production and self-branding renders individual narratives accessible for commercial gain and cultural capital with the potential to reach an audience that rivals that of the television networks.
The notion of voyeurism that was introduced by reality shows was amplified by the omnipresence of smartphones. In the digital age anyone can create and brand an identity and become a star. The Gulf region has the highest mobile phone penetration rates in the world with 76 percent of the population on average mobile subscribers as of 2017. The latest 4G technology and inexpensive subscription packages make access to fast Internet readily available to the majority of the population. Saudi Arabia had the largest annual increase in social media usage between January 2017 and January 2018 compared to the global average. In the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Internet users spend an average three hours per day on social media. The demographic of Gulf Arab countries, where youth between the ages of 15 and 29 comprise more than 25 percent of the population, provides a wide fan base for social media influencers in the Gulf.
Today there are hundreds of these individuals in every Gulf Arab country. Some use social media to voice grievances and opinions about local issues and trends, such as Faisal Al Basri and Mishari Buyabis from Kuwait, whose outspoken and brash personalities have made them popular figures on Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. Khalid Al Ameri, who is based in the UAE, uses social media to document his everyday activities, providing social commentary and a window into family life in the Gulf. Bahraini tech geek Ali Fareed has a serious following among Gulf tech enthusiasts, who listen to his views on video games, technology products, and film. He is now featured in advertisements for VOX Cinemas and the IGN Convention, a video game, movie, comics, and a pop culture convention held in the region. In Saudi Arabia, YouTube became an alternative to the nonexistent cinema; starting in 2009 Saudi youth produced several popular comedy shows that were critical of social and political aspects of the country. These shows grew into production companies specialized in creating YouTube content like UTURN Entertainment and Telfaz11. As these YouTubers became stars, dozens of Saudis replicated their success, expanding celebrity culture in the Gulf Arab states.
Many khaleeji women follow Kuwaiti fashionistas such as Fouz al-Fahad and Rawan Bin Hussain for the latest fashion trend and beauty tips. Ascia Al Faraj, the Kuwaiti-American hijabista, has been one of the main drivers of the hijab in fashion lines across the Middle East, opening the Gulf to greater diversity in appearance. There are also popular non-khaleeji social media stars who live in the Gulf countries, such as Max of Arabia, a British-American based in the UAE, who is popular among Emiratis for his mastery of dialects from the region, passion for native culture, travels, and humanitarian work.
Kuwaiti fashionista Bibi Alabdulmohsen
This rapid growth of social media influencers is taking place in a society new to indigenous celebrity culture. In the Gulf Arab states, the individual is still largely viewed as embedded within society and thus his or her behavior should conform with what society considers acceptable. Yet for many influencers, social media provides a virtual space that allows them to behave independently without family or societal intervention. They have broken many social taboos. Bibi Alabdulmohsen, one of the very early fashionistas in Kuwait, became famous after chatting openly with her followers through video on Snapchat. According to Alabdulmohsen, she was the first khaleeji female to do such a thing, at a time when many social media users were hesitant to post their photos on their social media profiles or even use their actual names. Alabdulmohsen shared her daily life and streamed some of her videos from her bedroom, a practice unheard of for women in the Gulf region.
In the “attention economy” social media influencers develop a distinctive public image. Brash behavior in public by influencers such as a Saudi social media celebrity throwing money at people in a mall and Saudi fashionista Afnan Al Batel bragging about her wealth have led to criticism that they are materialistic and shallow. These types of behaviors have led to numerous online hashtags condemning social media influencers such as #Fashionistas_are_the_biggest_shame_on_us and #Warning_from_Fashionistas in Kuwait.
However, the push and pull between the individual and the community has not diminished the popularity of these platforms. The oversharing of socially unacceptable practices normalized breaking social norms on social media in the Gulf. Social media influencers’ accounts became a platform to experiment with social limitations and acceptance. Today, the appearance of khaleejis as celebrities in advertisements and mainstream media is becoming commonplace. Chatting with followers is now very normal behavior and following khaleeji fashionistas in immodest clothes is common, although still unacceptable to many members of Gulf society. And for some Gulf social media influencers, their fame has expanded beyond the social domain to the political one.
The Private Sector and State Take Notice
Gulf businesses have recognized the market power of using these ordinary stars for advertising goods and services. Social media influencers have benefitted enormously from endorsing specific high-end brands through sharable digital content, which can then be used by businesses and advertisers for consumer outreach. They gain lucrative streams of wealth with a post about a product regularly earning between $1,000 and $5,000, with some prominent fashionistas being paid $14,000 per post. This new form of advertising has generated a new influencer economy. Abdulwahab al-Essa and Faisal al-Shayji co-founded Boutiqaat in 2015, a virtual boutique that features the favorite beauty products of Gulf and Arab influencers. The Boutiqaat celebrities’ pictures are posted on street signs in Kuwait. Such prestige offered to these social media influencers not only attracts others to follow their fashion styles but moreover to copy their online behavior.
This new form of sponsorship still is not without risk for businesses. Recently in Kuwait, beauty blogger Sondos Alqattan garnered criticism for a racist rant decrying a new law requiring a day off for domestic workers. Her video went viral internationally as numerous Western outlets such as Buzzfeed and Teen Vogue picked up the story. The Alqattan episode became a public relations nightmare as a majority of her sponsors such as MAC Cosmetics and Max Factor Arabia severed ties with her. Furthermore, the video heightened the diplomatic tension between Kuwait and the Philippines that arose in the beginning of the year over the rights of Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait.
This money flowing to and controversy surrounding young social media influencers has drawn the attention of Gulf governments, which are wrestling with how to regulate this new economy and source of influence. Saudi Arabia passed a Cyber Crime Law in 2007, which has been followed by the rest of the Gulf Arab states. These laws criminalize a wide spectrum of online content using vague wording that could have a crippling effect on social media influencers. For instance, Article 6 of the Saudi Cyber Crime Law imposes fines and prison sentences on the “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers.” In Kuwait, the Cyber Crime Law applies the penalties of the Printing and Publishing Law of 2006 to the use of social media. This online surveillance could be an attempt to restrain Internet users, including social media influences, from producing critical or political content, which would water down the public consciousness of an “influencer.”
In March, the UAE began to regulate paid sponsorships by social media influencers by having them register for trade licenses costing approximately $4,000. This move expands the state’s ability to regulate this phenomenon and tightens control over this growing industry.
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Panel at the 2016 Shoof Forum
At the same time, Gulf governments have recognized the usefulness of social media influencers in helping them reach their young populations. In 2015, the first Arab Social Media Influencers Summit was held in Dubai, followed by Hashtag Kuwait Conference the same year. In Saudi Arabia, the MiSK Foundation has organized several forums on social media since 2013, like Shoof (Look Forum) and Mugharedoon (Tweeps Forum). These events bring together popular Gulf social media influencers with media entrepreneurs, business professionals, and religious scholars to discuss social media content creation, advertising, and social issues such as combating extremism on social media. Furthermore, top government officials have participated in these events, including khaleeji ministers, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Ivanka Trump. Public institutions likewise use these stars as a tool to reach a wide audience, such as a collaboration between a number of influencers in the UAE and the Dubai Police General Headquarters to raise awareness on drug abuse in the initiative “Hemaya.”
It is unclear yet how the states’ legal restrictions on social media will impact the growing partnership between governments and social media influencers – how it will affect their independence, and how it will change the nature of this still developing field. Regardless, the social changes introduced by influencers in Gulf Arab societies – from the new celebrity culture to evolving notions of individual privacy – are transformations that cannot be reversed.
Thanks to Turki Buyabes, former intern at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, for his contributions to this piece.
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