Dubai's social media stars cash in as sun sets on UK's jet-setting influencers

Travel bans, a crunch on spending and a crowded market left companies asking what they get for their money. But with much of the world in lockdown, many appear to be thriving

Influencers in Dubai are making a good living, despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While many companies cut their budgets for 2021, that has not stopped them from working with influencers, some of whom charge up to Dh30,000 per story.

Influencers took a bashing after reality TV stars jetted out to Dubai in droves recently to avoid lockdowns in their own countries, which drew the ire of large sections of the UK media.

But UAE-based influencers said their reality was far from that portrayed by the UK reality stars, who regularly posted images of themselves by five-star hotel pools, claiming it was for work.

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The backlash was quite severe and we didn't want our clients to be associated with that

“Because of global lockdowns, people are spending more time than ever online and on social media,” said Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, chief executive of Dubai marketing company Tishtash.

“We actually saw demand from clients looking to work with influencers increase because more people than ever were tuning in to watch content online.”

Ms Hatherall-Shawe said influencers are often able to dictate terms and how much they are paid, depending on the size of their online following and the level of engagement.

Someone with a following of about 30,000 is able to charge an average of Dh2,000 per online post, she said.

Influencers at the high end of the market can charge up to Dh20,000 to Dh30,000 per story, she said, especially if they are working with clients promoting premium goods.

The influencers in that bracket tend to have anything between 200,000 and 500,000 followers on their Instagram pages and specialise in beauty and luxury items.

She also said influencers with smaller followings, in the 5,000 to 30,000 bracket, had much to offer in terms of quality over content, because they tended to have grown their followers organically rather than paid for them.

This meant the level of engagement, which is tracked using unique codes issued to individual influencers, was often higher than those with millions of followers.

But many companies cut their marketing spends.


"Budgets for this year are being affected by everything that happened last year, which means a lot of companies want to offer gifts instead of cash," Ms Hatherall-Shawe said.

“However, most of the influencers who treat it as a business can’t survive on free stuff.”

Tishtash has a database of more than 5,000 influencers in the UAE alone, with competition in the sector fierce, according to Ms Hatherall-Shawe.

Influencers who are paid for content in the UAE must have a trade licence and an e-licence, which requires an investment of more than Dh30,000.

“You can see by the type of content and investment, the more professional influencers make sure it’s not just about unboxing freebies; they invest time in photography, branding and imaging,” she said.

PR companies routinely keep an eye on which celebrities are visiting Dubai and present them with free products in the hope they will share images and videos on their social media pages.

But, Ms Hatherall-Shaw said, that practice stopped after the backlash in the UK.

“The backlash was quite severe and we didn’t want our clients to be associated with that,” she said.

Celina Aoun, a marketing consultant for luxury hospitality in Dubai, said some hotels and restaurants in the emirate did provide a "small budget" to welcome international celebrities and influencers to their premises, with the offer of full board accommodation free of charge.

She said the hospitality industry was one of the most severely hit by Covid-19 and there was an obvious need to raise awareness about still being open to tourists.

However, this quickly became a double-edged sword, Ms Aoun said.

"While celebrities were posting stories about how much they’re enjoying the sun at the most amazing beaches in Dubai and dining with celebrity chefs, most countries were still struggling with new Covid-19 strains, a spike in daily cases and a high death toll,” she said.

“The world was watching. As a matter of fact, due to the ‘indulgent’ content of some of the stories that went viral, and the subsequent increase of cases in Dubai, the world reacted negatively, reminding us that the pandemic isn’t over.”

But influencers living in the UAE said the backlash against the international stars coming to Dubai had little effect on their livelihoods.

Sana Chikhalia, 29, a food and travel blogger in Dubai with almost 95,000 followers on Instagram, said the sector was starting to get back on its feet.

“Everything initially came to a complete stop last year in the first stages of the pandemic,” she said.

“While I wouldn’t say it’s quite back to the same level [as before the pandemic], it is certainly picking up and I think everyone is starting to adapt.”

Being a full-time travel blogger meant Ms Chikhalia would often fly around the world for work, teaming up with tourism boards to promote countries and regions.

That was all changed by the pandemic, but it has not been complete doom and gloom for the influencer.

“There are ways to work around it. We are doing more livestream events now and there are more people than ever on their phones,” she said.

“It used to be companies were offering barter deals at the start of the pandemic, but now I am seeing a return to cash deals.

“There is an attitude of ‘this is the new normal and we have to work around it’. Things are definitely starting to get better.”

Lavina Israni, 28, from India, has almost 75,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts regularly about food, travel and entertainment.

She said the financial effect of the pandemic has been minimal, much to her initial surprise.

“It’s been pretty stable on the monetary side so far,” she said.

“There are fewer streams of revenue than before though. There are fewer events, which means there is less chance to make an extra buck.

“The bigger companies that I work with are still able to pay for collaborations but the smaller local ones are struggling to make ends meet.”

One director of a Dubai public relations company, however, questioned the value of paying for influencers to provide reviews.

“If you’re paying for a review of any product then it can’t be objective ... it’s guaranteed to be positive,” said Nathalie Visele, from Shamal Communications.

“I personally don’t see how it can have any credibility.”

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