How to win friends and influence people: Dubai’s social media empires

CNN  — 

The UAE is one of the most socially-engaged countries in the world, with the highest social media penetration globally, per Hootsuite’s “Digital in 2017” report.

Like YouTube in Saudi Arabia, Instagram and Snapchat have particularly taken off in the UAE. Local news reported the findings of one 2016 paper which stated 60% of people online in the Emirates used Instagram, versus 42% worldwide. As the commercial heart of the UAE, Dubai is at the center of a social media whirlwind, and retailers are all too happy to be swept up.

Dubai’s online retail industry is expected to “soar by 2021,” according to consultancy firm Knight Frank, and regional retail trends indicate social media has a role to play. In June, PricewaterhouseCooper found 48% of Middle Eastern consumers engaged in online promotions via social media, while 41% had used their smartphone for online purchases – above the global average.

Social media sells, and in a city of aspiration an unimaginable wealth, Instagram is the shop window du jour. Dubai’s high-profile ‘Grammers are finding new ways to build their brands – and their fortunes – either on their own two feet or with a little help from the corporate world.

CNN spoke to three such social media stars to discuss the decisions going on behind the lens.

“I’m always thinking about the headline”

Name: Rashed Belhasa (aka Money Kicks)
Instagram followers: 600,000
YouTube plays: 42,000,000
Business: Sneakers and urbanwear

“They call me,” says Rashed Belhasa. Publicists and agents, trying to book in time with the 15-year-old.

The son of billionaire Emirati Saif Ahmed Belhasa, he comes from unimaginable privilege. His life is one of private jets, powerboats and fast – but not yet drivable – cars. Rapper Fat Joe is Belhasa’s chaperone when he visits New York, and he hangs out with DJ Khaled in Miami. The teen has met everyone from Rihanna to Lionel Messi to Salman Khan. Scrolling through his Instagram feed, it would probably be quicker to name celebrities he hasn’t posed with.

Belhasa’s Instagram is the launch pad for Money Kicks, his urbanwear brand founded on his love of sneakers. It’s a passion shared by many of Belhasa’s celebrity friends. He has collected over 350 of the world’s most exclusive pairs; never released Yeezys, Jordans signed by the NBA icon himself. When asked if there’s a sneaker left on his bucket list, he pauses for a moment, before saying he doesn’t think so. At 15 years old Belhasa already has them all.

He’s most prolific on the Money Kicks YouTube channel, where his irreverent hand-held videos have received over 42 million plays to date. “I’m always thinking about the headline,” he says. All capitals and plenty of exclamation marks seem to be a winning formula for the young entrepreneur: “INSIDE DJ KHALED 10,000,000 $ MANSION !!” and “MY NEW YEEZY CAR!!!,” to name but two.

Belhasa’s show-and-tell ad libs are told with all the enthusiasm of youth, flitting from celeb to luxury item to host. Adverts run ahead of videos, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to monetizing the brand.

“I’m stocking two (Money Kicks) clothing lines,” reveals Belhasa. There’s also a backpack collaboration with Sprayground coming soon, along with an online retail space for urbanwear and sneakers, launching August 4. “We’re taking this seriously,” he says of his attempt to tap into Dubai’s $11.5bn apparel and footwear market.

Instagram and YouTube will be a crucial shop window, and the entrepreneur’s number one rule is “if you start a clothing line, wear only your clothing line.”

Belhasa is under no illusions that without his family’s finances, Money Kicks might never have happened. But at the same time, he had no say in the family into which he was born.

So what’s his most valuable advice? “Always build your contacts,” says Belhasa. “Contacts are important than money.”

“You have 2.5 seconds”

alanoud badr 4

Name: Alanoud Badr (aka Lady Fozaza)
Instagram Followers: 549,000
YouTube plays: 1,000,000
Business: Fashion

“You know the phrase ‘It’s a small world?’ It’s even smaller on social media.”

Alanoud Badr, a Saudi-born, Dubai-based fashion designer, has seen her Lady Fozaza blazers leap from her shoulders on to the likes of Kim Kardashian and Lady Gaga in no time, thanks in part to social media.

Building on her previous life as a fashion blogger, Badr once ran an online fashion boutique filled with luxury brands. She launched Lady Fozaza in 2011, using Instagram as a one-woman catwalk to push her range, which “promoted my brand twice as much as I could with the blog.” Today she has 549,000 followers.

Grabbing the attention of your audience is key, she says. “You have 2.5 seconds for whoever is checking out your account. You either attract them or you lose their interest.

“It’s very important that the first page – the first nine images – be extremely attractive and inviting.” For that reason, Badr hires a local photographer every time she travels, though admits she’s noticed her followers now seem to prefer the “raw images” taken by her iPhone.

Bloomingdale’s stocks some of Badr’s lines, but the online marketplace is a vital part of her business model. In August 2016 she was given another outlet when Instagram Stories launched.

Before then the only hyperlink on the platform lay in an account’s bio, but users were “too lazy” to navigate back to it, she says. The Stories mode allows users to consume Lady Fozaza clothes “like they’re reading a magazine, flipping through the images,” Badr explains. “They like something, they can swipe up (and out of the app, via a built-in link). They can buy it instantly.”

Direct sales via Instagram Stories circumvents the traditional shopping model and has made a “huge difference,” says the designer. “I found that a lot of my sales went through a lot faster.”

“A touch of the brand”

bin baz dubai 1

Name: Abdulaziz Al Jassmi (aka Bin Baz)
Instagram followers: 4,300,000
YouTube plays: 35,000,000
Business: Comedy

Abdulaziz Al Jassmi is “a free man in a free world” according to his Instagram bio. A man free to poke fun at anything and everything in a series of wildly successful video shorts.

Four years after the 24-year-old started posting funny pictures, the comedian commands a significant following: 4.3 million users on Instagram, 35 million plays on YouTube, along with an unknown number on Snapchat.

His winningly low-tech clips take aim at pop culture, with others contrasting growing up in the Arab world versus the West. Often playing multiple characters, Al Jassmi could be Superman in one video, a wayward son and disapproving mother in the next.

“I like to keep it simple,” he says. Instagram allowed that, particularly when the app also became a platform for video in mid-2013.

“I like to stay close to people, and close to my culture,” he explains. “I want the people in the region to easily relate my comedy to their daily life situations, and those outside the region to get curious about it.” His multilingual approach, utilizing Arabic and English subtitles, certainly helps Al Jassmi’s cause.

But how do you monetize laughs without taking your act off-platform?

Al Jassmi says he began attracting corporate attention around the time he crossed one million followers on Instagram.

Over three million followers later and he’s worked with Etihad Airwaves, Coca Cola and TAG Heuer, mixing his own brand of humor (see: running away from Maasai warriors in Tanzania) with more stylized promotional cuts for Etihad. There’s also been a series of TV adverts for network provider Etisalat.

“I only choose to work with brands that I believe in, and that feel natural to me,” Al Jassmi says, describing the process as “very organic.”

“People (will) notice if you are doing something just for business purposes,” he adds, saying the Instagram content is still Bin Baz, but “with a touch of the brand.”

Despite mixing it with Hollywood and Bollywood stars, and the Crown Price of Dubai, staying grounded is important to the social media star.

“My comedy has evolved in (a) lot of different ways,” Al Jassmi says, adding that brand collaborations “hasn’t changed my way of working.”

“I still like to keep it simple and stay true to my followers… I like being and remaining myself, despite of all the success.”