How vloggers, tweeters and ‘grammers are reshaping media in the Middle East

YouTube may be bringing a space to Dubai this year, but a young, digital savvy population has already begun to make waves in new media 

A self-deprecating Tennessee-born beauty blogger with a penchant for contouring and false lashes is, as ‘faces of media’ go – a fairly glamorous version. Yet, if Huda Kattan – the Dubai-based Instagrammer and YouTuber with 17.5 and 1.7 million followers respectively – has shown us anything, it’s that there is no one way to describe new media.

As an example of a young and savvy vlogger who parlayed a hobby into a career, Kattan is virtually unsurpassed. Not only does the Iraqi blogger now have a following that stretches into the tens of millions, she has also translated social media into bricks and mortar, with a makeup range stocked in Sephora stores worldwide.

The growth of social media platforms as a way to communicate and keep in touch with friends and family exploded with the birth of Facebook, in 2004. Suddenly, contact with those close to you was not limited to telephone or email. Photos could be shared online rather than in person; conversations could span days, even weeks – entirely free of charge save for a Wi-Fi connection. And, connections could be formed with not only those in your locale, but all over the world.

While Facebook still dominates in absolute reach, premium brands and influencers – those whose aesthetic or content is thought to ‘influence’ the purchases of other consumers – are increasingly finding their homes on alternative platforms such as Instagram or Twitter. Research from Twitter found that 49 per cent of consumers seek purchase guidance from social media influencers. Could a young population in the Middle East could be poised to seize on this trend?

“The growth of social media and penetration of social media, primarily in the UAE, has reached unprecedented levels and is one of the highest in the region – whether it is Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn,” says Fadi Salem, Research Fellow at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Government (MBRSG).

Facebook still remains the most popular online hang-out in the Middle East, seeing 80 million, or eight in 10, Internet users. The next most dominant social media platform is WhatsApp, used by 77 per cent of Internet users in the Middle East. Yet, other platforms are starting to gain in popularity, with increased user volumes and knock-on effects to the media hierarchy.

“There has been blurring lines between what is for the media consumer,” states Salem. “What is traditional, and what is social? We have seen traditional media companies using social media both as a source and vehicle to disseminate information. On the other hand, the media consumer has been both consuming social media, as well as producing it.” 

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Huda Kattan has 17.5 million Instagram followers

As captive markets go, the UAE in particular has enormous potential. Research in 2016 by Northwestern University in Qatar found that 99 per cent of people use the internet in the country: the most out of any other country profiled in the report, including Lebanon, Qatar, and KSA. Ninety-nine per cent also used a smartphone.

“[The UAE] is already there when it come to the adoption of digital technologies by society, agrees Salem. “The youth population are digital natives, rather than immigrants.”

This digital know-how has put the country in first place in the eyes of global platforms, who are eyeing up the potential of the population. 

YouTube is set to open an incubator space in Dubai, with the aim of giving MENA YouTube creators the “tools and guidance to enable them to innovate and experiment with content.”

Malek Al Malek, CEO of TECOM Business Parks, where the space will be located, said that the partnership “reflects our commitment to creating an ecosystem conducive to innovation… Dubai has the ability to attract the strongest and most dynamic content platforms to the UAE, and our aim is to [nurture] a unique talent pool.”

With or without a designated space, it is a foregone conclusion that the Middle Eastern vloggers already out there will keep creating – using just the force of their personalities to attract an audience that borders on fervent. As Kattan says in a recent vlog of her false lash range: “Even when it came down to the packaging of the box, I want my eyes on it, I want people to see it… I want people to recognise me.”