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Beyond Stereotypes and Propaganda: A Look Behind the Rise of Social Media Stars of the Gulf

This year, the People’s Choice Awards, an annual American award show that has aired since 1975, will for the first time include a Middle Eastern category to honor the most popular social media star from the region. Within the pool of nominees, four different GCC states are represented. The Gulf as we know has long been the financial nerve center of the Middle East; however, it has also emerged as a region of knowledge and cultural expansion in the past decade. With the highest internet penetration rates in the Middle East, it should come as no surprise that the Gulf has also become home to some very wealthy and renowned social media influencers. Besides challenging common stereotypes about the Gulf, the social media stardom of these influencers also provides interesting socio-political commentary on each of the GCC states represented.

Embracing High-End Fashion and Defying Taboos

The two female nominees—Fouzaza and Ascia—are fashion bloggers, and each have over a million followers on Instagram. Fouzaza, whose real name is Alanoud Badr, is a Saudi fashion icon and designer. She has designed for international models and stars like Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga. Fouzaza is a full-time resident of Dubai and owes much of her success to the exposure she has received living in the UAE.  She has become one of the most visibly empowered Saudi women, especially with the monumental changes that have been taking place in the Kingdom over the past couple of years. Indeed, she has not shied away from discussing subjects otherwise considered controversial in the Gulf. Alanoud is unmarried and recently broached the sensitive topic of egg freezing and its advantages with her followers on Instagram.

Embodying her country’s relatively free and defiant political spirit vis-a-vis other Gulf states is Ascia, a fashion blogger, model, and designer from Kuwait. A Kuwaiti American, Ascia is a mother of two and early this year became the leading voice of the #MeToo movement in Kuwait. Her social media campaign, under the hashtag #Lan_Asket (I won’t be silent), attracted global attention to the problem of sexual harassment in her country, particularly the stigma associated with sharing testimonies. More recently, Ascia appeared in a BBC documentary series about climate change titled “Life at 50C”, wherein she openly stated that this was the hottest year she has ever experienced and how “living life in Kuwait has become hostile in every way.”

Building Bridges or Beatifying Repression?

The remaining two nominees, Omar Farooq and Khalid Al Ameri, are from Bahrain and the UAE, respectively. These two states—especially the UAE—have followed and promoted an aggressive policy of conservative liberalism to keep a tab on aspirations of political freedom in the region at large. The underlying theme of most of the content produced by these two bloggers has showcased the cultural and religious diversity both at home and abroad.  Omar Farooq has achieved notoriety for his undercover videos and social experiments under the hashtag #OmarTries, and has clocked about 500 million views. Be it walking barefoot to Kenya to donate shoes for schoolchildren or landing in Beirut after the August 4 explosion to comfort bereaved families, Farooq is also a keen humanitarian ambassador, promoting the softer side of the tiny Gulf kingdom he comes from.

More recently, Farooq shot a video in the holy Shi’ite city of Karbala in Iraq which gained much traction, garnering close to four million views in less than two months. In this social experiment, Farooq goes around the city introducing himself to residents and pilgrims alike as Omar Farooq. Umar ibn al Khattab, also known as Umar al Farooq, was the second caliph of Islam and remains a highly divisive figure for Muslims, specifically for the Shi’ite community. This experiment is also very significant considering Bahrain’s age-old sectarian fault lines, further aggravated by the Arab Spring uprising of 2011, whereby most of the protestors were from the Shi’ite community, who also form the majority of the Bahraini population.

Khalid Al Ameri, a half-Emirati, half-Scottish YouTube star from the UAE, is a graduate of Stanford University. He started out working for government entities before making a full-time foray into vlogging. A married father of two with little over a million subscribers on YouTube, most of Khalid’s content is daily comical videos involving his family members. Of all his feel-good videos, perhaps the most popular is one that discusses how Christmas is celebrated in the UAE. As the Gulf continues to grapple with the challenge of pushing more of its citizens to work in the private sector, Khalid is a rare example of how some have left the security of a government sector job to immerse themselves in the gig economy.

Most of these nominees come from a mixed cultural background, and barring Omar Farooq, much of their content is produced in English. Therefore, it will not be wrong to mention that they do not necessarily represent or speak to most sections of the societies in the Gulf. The work they do and the global fame they have garnered over a short period of time are very important from a local perspective. They have helped initiate much-needed conversations on topics like identity, representation, feminism, and the societal expectations regarding family life in places where it continues to be difficult to have candid, open discussions. A decade ago, social media first mobilized the Arab youth, albeit unsuccessfully, to overthrow decades-old regimes and the ruling elite. Irrespective of who wins on the 8th of December, all eight nominees are a preview to understanding how the nature of capitalism and autocracy has evolved in the Middle East over the years.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Gulf International Forum.

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Sana Quadri is an independent researcher and writer on the political economy and international relations of the Gulf region. She holds an M.A in Gulf studies from the University of Exeter (UK). She tweets at @QuadriSana.

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