On the electric blue tarmac of a helipad on the edge of Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island on the Dubai coastline, Busra Duran stands on tiptoes. Wearing multicoloured trainers and a pink tulle minidress, the 28-year-old Turkish influencer is posing for photos in front of a red helicopter. Her husband, Gökhan Gündüz, snaps away as she models her pink sunglasses in the shadow of the Atlantis, a blush-coloured hotel with green pointed rooftops which resembles the fake castles of Disneyland’s Magic Kingdom.
‘Gündüz, 29, wears a striped T-shirt with the word “positive” emblazoned around the collar. Duran skips over to check the photos he’s taken, before they discuss her Instagram shots from the ride. Duran approached the helicopter company to request this free 12-minute tour, the shortest available, and they were happy to oblige. “It was amazing,” she says, flatly, sounding unconvinced. The trip is one of a whole roster of experiences Duran has set up for the benefit of her 608,000 Instagram followers. In a few days, the couple have arranged to play golf – another free gift – and Duran often poses for pictures at restaurants in exchange for a meal. Her glittering Dubai lifestyle is displayed on her Instagram: one day she’ll be perching on the side of a bubble bath in an upmarket hotel reading a copy of Gulf News; the next in a red swimsuit beside a pool, a glass of rosé in one hand and a copy of a Paulo Coelho novel in front of her.
The pair relocated to Dubai from Istanbul three years ago “because this is where the big brands are”, Gündüz says. Duran considered going into law after her degree in business administration, but decided growing her social media following was a better option. Her business training is useful for pitching for brand sponsorships, and she has a one-year deal with the Manchester-based fashion retailer PrettyLittleThing, whose £24 dress she wore to ride in the helicopter. The outfit, including Duran’s pink acrylic nails, was planned two weeks in advance, as with everything she wears. Duran and Gündüz won’t say how much she spends in her work as an influencer, or whether she makes an income from it. “She’s showing off her lifestyle in Dubai, to attract people,” Gündüz says. “It’s not just Busra who benefits – Dubai benefits, too.”
Once a small port on the edge of a desert, Dubai has become a global hub of influencer culture, a magnet for social media stars desperate to tweak their image in what has become the ideal Instagram city. The emirate is home to a vast industry of aspiration: agents and producers trained to boost follower counts; hotels and luxury brands eager to use social media as cheap advertising. A few influencers have turned their hard-won follower count into offline businesses, including Joelle Mardinian, whose cosmetic surgery clinic in Dubai, which sells itself as “beauty trusted by celebrities”, uses fillers, Botox and surgery to make flesh what Instagram filters and Facetune can do online.
Already built on the illusion of unlimited indulgence, Dubai has at times appeared a parallel universe as other countries wrestled with Covid lockdowns. Tourist arrivals peak annually in the Gulf’s temperate winter months, and since July last year, the emirate has allowed travellers from almost anywhere in the world to enter, so long as they have proof of a negative PCR test. Until case rates quadrupled in December, bars and clubs stayed open late to attract travellers; the UK opened a travel corridor with the UAE in the middle of its second lockdown last November. For two months, until the UK imposed a quarantine for returning passengers, British influencers scrambled to justify exercising with a view of the Dubai Marina, or smoking shisha in a pool, as “essential work”. Their claims may have looked delusional to their followers in the UK, but in Dubai they were a welcome addition to the flocks whose bronzed selfies present the city’s ideal face.
An hour and a half before Duran takes to the skies, I glimpse the other side of the symbiotic relationship between influencers and local businesses in Dubai. In the offices of Falcon helicopter tours, owner Captain Husam Gamal, a baby-faced 28-year-old, calls one of his staff to check out Duran’s credentials. “Who is she? How many followers does she have on Instagram? What’s she going to post?” he asks. Outside, the whirr of helicopter blades beats a steady rhythm as the small crafts land and take off for close-up views of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel and the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, before returning over the deep blue expanse of the Arabian Gulf.
“In this world, social media is everything,” Gamal says. Influencers are a necessary part of his advertising strategy, but they can often be more trouble than they’re worth – even for an outfit like Falcon, a subsidiary of a larger private aviation company owned by a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Every minute his helicopters stay on the tarmac costs the company money, yet it’s exactly this moment influencers want to prolong. Some pay just for this. “Sometimes, they don’t fly at all, they just shoot pictures instead,” he says.
When influencers want to shoot longer videos, a Dubai police officer will stand next to the camera operator, often combing through their memory card to check their footage presents a positive view of the city. Gamal mentions one Italian blogger who wanted to film himself on Falcon’s helipad in a Lamborghini, surrounded by women, handing out close to £1,000 in tips. “The security said it wasn’t allowed,” he says, leaning in and lowering his voice; the proposed footage would have been too gaudy and sexual.
Any influencer receiving payment for their work in the UAE must obtain a licence to operate. Abiding by the rules means either paying nearly £3,000 for an individual licence, or working with an influencer agency; those who don’t risk hefty fines. The Emirates’ National Media Council, which issues the licences, didn’t respond to questions about whether this applies to visitors. What counts as payment can be a grey area; foreign influencers receiving free stays at luxury hotels are unlikely to attract attention, as their presence is seen as beneficial to Dubai. Still, visitors must abide by extensive rules governing social media and online content, including not “offending national unity”, criticising the UAE’s politics or religion, or defaming another person.
Everything the eye lands on in Dubai was created for a purpose; nothing is natural or accidental, from the smooth skyscrapers to the purpose-built islands that function as gated communities. Dubai’s planners are now consciously building with the Instagram aesthetic in mind. One of the city’s attractions is “The Frame”, a 150m gold filigree hollow rectangle that, from the right angle, with the onlooker’s back to the working-class neighbourhood of Al Karama, frames the Burj Khalifa. Across the city, cafes and restaurants serve food created for online consumption: a cappuccino adorned with gold leaf, or a cocktail served on a platter that looks like a scene from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, complete with dry ice, fake grass and white chocolate butterflies.
This city, powered by the overlap of aesthetics and a desire to make money, holds an irresistible appeal for Instagram itself. The social network has its Middle Eastern headquarters in Dubai, with that of parent company Facebook. Dubai-based head of communications Nada Enan tells me, “Instagram is a platform that inspires people, and this is manifested in this city.” Data from the Global Web Index shows that generation Z now rely on influencers for information almost as much as the brands they represent, and 69% of all internet users in the UAE use Instagram, far outstripping the UK at 53%.
Dubai’s place as a centre of influencer culture has found imitators in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where influencers have been used to rehabilitate the kingdom’s image, particularly following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In late 2019, social media stars were flown in to promote it as a tourist destination, shortly before models and influencers were invited to a music festival in Riyadh in December; on his Instagram, actor Armie Hammer hailed the festival as “a culture shift”. While Saudi Arabia’s use of influencers to massage its image provoked criticism internationally, those working in Dubai’s vast influencer marketing industry speak of the kingdom as a goldmine: virgin territory poised to become a hub for influencer campaigns.
If Saudi Arabia is eager to snatch Dubai’s luxury tourism, finance and influencer crown, the emirate is unlikely to give it up easily. It is a place of incessant construction, where 92% of its population are foreign nationals, notably the migrant labourers building the glass towers. Unlike buttoned-up Abu Dhabi, Dubai has hardly any oil reserves, opting instead to trade on its name as a freewheeling tax haven to attract international commerce, and as a place where tourists can ignore the more conservative mores of its neighbours.
In 2019, tourism provided 11.5% of GDP, according to official data; other estimates suggest its contribution is closer to a third. Influencers are now so important that a subsidiary of the tourism ministry, Visit Dubai, showcases handpicked “curators”, including the Emirati racing driver Saeed Bintowq; Louise Nichol, a British fashion consultant who “fell in love with Dubai”; and Emirati designer Mona Almotawa. Their social media accounts typically show them mingling with the city’s high flyers, sightseeing in the desert, or watching horse racing.
Dubai sells itself as a safe haven from Covid-19: UAE has vaccinated over half its population
“Dubai doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room when it comes to its image,” says Jim Krane, author of City Of Gold: Dubai And The Dream Of Capitalism. “It trades on that and it doesn’t have a back-up plan. It doesn’t have oil. It’s the first successful post-oil economy in the Middle East, full stop.” But trading on brand is a high-risk strategy, as this year has proved. “If there’s an incident that makes it look too oppressive, that’s the biggest sensitive spot,” Krane says. “It’s about as autocratic a system of governance as you can get – a one-man show.”
Popularly known as Fazza – meaning “the one who helps” in Arabic – the crown prince Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Maktoum heads Dubai’s executive council, which oversees government institutions. (He is also an Instagram star in his own right, attracting 11.3 million followers with pictures of himself skydiving or flying in helicopters.) His father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has governed Dubai since 2006 and is vice-president of the UAE, part of a power-sharing agreement among six ruling Emirati families since British rule ended in 1971. His reign has been marked by the effort to position Dubai as a centre of global trade and travel, alongside aggressive military policies set by Abu Dhabi: it deployed elite ground troops in Afghanistan and has a large presence in Libya, where the Emirates use Egyptian airbases to flout a UN arms embargo and send support to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
In 2019, a UK high court fact-finding judgment accused Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid of orchestrating the kidnap of two of his daughters, Princess Sheikha Latifa (in 2002 and 2018) and Princess Shamsa (in 2000). Footage of Sheikha Latifa’s detention in a Dubai villa on her return home resurfaced earlier this year, leading to questions about the treatment of women in a society that sells itself using images of bikini-clad tourists drinking on the beach. “Any kind of bad publicity like that, for a city that trades on its image and tries to obscure the fact that it’s an autocracy, can have a direct effect on GDP,” Krane says.
As Covid-19 has spread around the world, Dubai has had to rebrand itself once again – this time as a safe haven from the virus. Still bruised by the memory of the 2008 crash, which shattered its construction industry and financial markets, it imposed a harsh lockdown last spring, under which residents could leave their homes only once every three days, with permission. Dubai saw an exodus of 8.4% of its population in 2020 (primarily low-income workers affected by the downturn), double that of anywhere else in the Gulf. Homeless blue-collar workers, whose sudden unemployment meant their visas were revoked, slept rough in the city’s parks as they waited to be repatriated.
By early 2021, Dubai was handling Covid-19 in a way that almost let visitors forget about it. Indoor dining was permitted; bars, cinemas and malls remained open, with limits on capacity. An efficient vaccine drive means UAE has now fully vaccinated over half its population, second only to Israel in the global race to immunise. Positive cases dropped to less than 3,000 a day in March.
A government-led initiative prioritised tourism workers for the jab, including at the Dukes Hotel on the Palm Jumeirah. “We want to promote that Dubai is safe, everything is open,” says marketing manager Cyrine El Klifi, as sunlight glitters across a nearby infinity pool ringed by lounging bronzed tourists.
The authorities insist vaccines are limited to those with Dubai residency, but this hasn’t stopped some visitors from trying to benefit; the British head of Canada’s largest pension fund was forced to resign in February after it emerged he had flown to Dubai to skip the vaccine queue. Earlier that month, the £25,000-a-year British club Knightsbridge Circle claimed it could fly members there to receive China’s Sinopharm vaccine, for a £10,000 fee.
Throughout the pandemic, the Dukes hotel has continued to host influencers, welcoming at least one a month with complimentary stays that promote the idea the resort is safe to visit. Klifi recently welcomed Israeli influencers; a Russian party is expected soon. “They have the power to promote the message that you can travel, you can be safe at this dream destination,” she says, adding that influencers provide an escape route for people trapped in lockdowns: “It’s a way to travel through photos – you see that there’s hope!”
In a light-filled, open-plan living room, sisters Reem and Natalya Kanj bounce between client meetings on Zoom and a discussion about launching a lab-grown diamond jewellery line, a sequel to a vegan ice-cream range they released last year. They are British-Lebanese, raised in London, based in Dubai, and former fashion bloggers who founded the influencer management agency Ego & East in 2016. The all-white furnishings resemble an Instagram image brought to life.
Ego & East represent influencers including Karen Wazen, who posts glamorous images of her family life in Dubai, and “the Triplets”, sisters who share artsy shots of themselves with matching black bobbed hair and detached expressions. As they set up another Zoom call, Natalya talks to a client about their Instagram profile. “No, don’t go live with anything – we need to send it for pre-approval and finalise the caption… They want it to go live Tuesday,” she says, showing her sister an image on her phone. “What should we caption it, babe?” she asks. “I don’t know, babe – what did you think when you saved it?” Reem replies. “I thought… so pretty,” Natalya says vaguely. They keep thinking.
The requirement for influencers to obtain an expensive individual licence has increased agencies’ power. It sits among a web of rules governing online content, including the cybercrime law, which bans using technology “for activities which are inconsistent with public morals and good conduct”; breaches can involve jail time for defamatory comments. In 2019, a British woman was detained under this law and faced two years in prison for calling her ex-husband’s new wife “a horse” in a Facebook comment three years before she returned to Dubai to attend his funeral. Facebook has also admitted blocking content following government demands, and telecoms agencies routinely deny access to websites at the state’s request, including news outlets, sites giving information on political detainees and those discussing LGBT issues. Internet fame is no shield: trans YouTuber Gigi Gorgeous says she was detained at Dubai airport in 2016 and prevented from entering the country.
The result is a torrent of positivity, an online world where glamour and achievement are the only acceptable forms of communication. Positivity is what Ego & East say they’re all about. After a discussion about the mark-up on gold and lab-grown-diamond body chains that will retail for over £700 (“I don’t want them to be super accessible, I want them to be good,” Natalya says), the pair Zoom with a girl in Paris they want to hire. “I love your hustle,” Reem tells her. The unpaid intern’s job will be to increase the company’s social media posts, focusing on inspirational quotes, with much thought given to font and background: these are their most popular content. “Manifest, but also do the work,” reads one, in all caps on white.
I did medical coverage for stem cells and told my followers, ‘Guys, I’m taking you on a journey with me to cure my hair’
The government now goes beyond merely controlling the internet and also employs influencers directly. In the cavernous kitchen of a hotel’s penthouse suite, Taim Al Falasi coos over a halal hotdog still warm from the microwave. “Wow, guys,” Al Falasi tells her Snapchat followers. The hotdogs had arrived, in a pyramid of boxes containing food for her to review, on a gold trolley.
Al Falasi is a vivacious Emirati influencer with enormous power. In 2014 she started a hashtag campaign – #thereisnocola – to demand certain restaurants supply Coca-Cola rather than its competitors; she is so dedicated to Coke that she carries a bottle in her handbag at all times, lest a restaurant she visits stocks only Pepsi. She has 3.1 million Instagram followers, 590,000 YouTube subscribers, 823,000 Snapchat subscribers, and her own chain of seven restaurants. In an industry sometimes short on charisma, Al Falasi is a genuine and engaging presence, warmly welcoming her followers to join her on safari or on trips to Istanbul, sharing her excitement about the dishes she samples and being a beaming brand ambassador for Coca-Cola since 2017.
She says she can charge companies nearly £3,000 for a single image on Snapchat, and her campaigns include at least one a month for medical products. Dubai has normalised using influencers to sell almost anything, even medical procedures; the practice is now so widespread that the health authority issued a 25-page document in 2019 regulating medical ads on social media. “Two days ago I did coverage for stem cells,” Al Falasi says, explaining an experimental procedure that involves cells from her body being injected into her face and scalp, the latter to deal with her bald spots. Her followers loved it: “I said, ‘Guys, I’m taking you on a journey with me to cure my hair,’ so it made sense.”
Al Falasi says she is regularly approached to work on campaigns for Dubai’s ruler and the Abu Dhabi government; her manager declines to say whether payment is offered, or whether influencers are simply obliged to participate. “They’re very selective,” Al Falasi says. “There can’t be the slightest blemish on your reputation. If they try with you once and you fail, they don’t come back.”
The campaigns Al Falasi has worked on promoted handwashing during the pandemic, and the “10 million meals campaign”, to feed families in need. Although neither was overtly political, the message was one of reassurance: in a world where there is only the drive towards prosperity, nothing can go wrong, even for residents impoverished by the pandemic. The use of influencers, combined with strict controls on social media, keeps communication flowing in one direction only: from government to people, with no forum for debate. Self-censorship is rife, and “online reputation management” companies proliferate, allowing clients to scour the web for negative comments and expunge them, leaving only polished perfection behind.
Citizens are sometimes invited to participate in government initiatives – but only on the leadership’s terms. During the recent “World’s Coolest Winter” campaign, promoted by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum himself, residents were encouraged to share videos of their winter activities in order to drive up tourism – with cash prizes on offer worth almost £10,000. The campaign also featured videos of sweeping vistas of the UAE, its beaches, mosques, mountains and deserts, filmed by a company that worked with the New Media Academy, an institution in Dubai set up with the explicit aim of training a new generation of social media experts and influencers. Its founder? Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.