DUBAI: From extravagant trips to the Amalfi Coast and sunset photoshoots on Dubai's beaches to an almost complete lockdown - the coronavirus has forced the Gulf's social media "influencers" indoors but hasn't lowered their glamour factor. While they can no longer upload pictures of themselves zipping through international airports or strutting down London streets in high-end brands, many have turned the cameras on their lives at home as they spend time with family, cooking and decorating.
Most have encouraged their followers to stay home as the number of novel coronavirus cases in the oil-rich Gulf, which is also home to millions of foreigners, rises past 9,000 despite tough lockdown measures. Others have given their audiences an inside look into their personal lives. Kuwaiti beauty-salon owner and style queen Fouz Al-Fahd shared images of her March 17 marriage ceremony, showing her smiling as she received an enormous diamond ring from her new husband amid a lavish backdrop of white flowers.
While few people were in attendance - in line with social distancing rules - Fahd's three million Instagram followers were virtual guests. "Thank you for making us forget the coronavirus even if it just for one day… how lovely you are as your hands shake when putting on the rings. My eyes teared up, I love you, Fouz," said one follower.
In the past year, Instagram influencers have played a big part in promoting events in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia which has been touting its tourism and entertainment industries as it diversifies its economy away from oil. Some top figures on social media were reportedly paid six-figure sums to help rehabilitate the kingdom's image amid scrutiny of its human rights record. But cultural and sporting events have been scrapped across the region as governments try to curb the spread of the pandemic, leaving influencers scrambling for content.
"It's not easy for one to create content and attract thousands… and millions, it takes a lot of dedication," said Joelle Mardinian, a Dubai-based influencer and founder of beauty brand Joelle Group, in one of her Instagram stories. "From the morning I think 'what can I upload for you'," she said. "I like to share with you nice things, such as playing with (my son)… or if my daughter is doing something cute, or if I cooked something I'm proud of," she told her more than 12 million followers.
Mardinian has encouraged her followers to "find things to do at home" as she posts content ranging from whipping up a dish, to refurbishing outdoor furniture with her daughter in a garden filled with reproduction classical statues. Also making guest appearances were her dogs, including one that had a bedazzled pink collar that reads "SPOILED". "I was proud of myself, and I also wanted to encourage you, not only for the sake of content. You are always on mind," she said.
Social media influencers can play a positive role during the pandemic, said Rima Sabban, an associate professor of sociology at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. "They can help, even with the little things," she told AFP. But she urged influencers to drop their "social masks" and avoid putting such a gloss on the situation that it makes ordinarily people even more miserable about their locked-in existences. "At this time it is important to be honest with people," she said. "This is now a moment for humanity… to drop these masks and be courageous."
Ragda Bakhorji, a Saudi with more than 14,000 followers on Instagram, said now was the time to bring "authenticity" to the forefront. "Generally, my posts reflect my daily activities with a focus on sarcasm and social matters, that raises curiosity and allows my followers to come to their own conclusions," she told AFP. "I think it's important to be honest and authentic, especially at this time when we should focus more on humanity and be considerate, rather than focus on trivial stuff."
For Souad Naim, a marketing manager in Dubai, social media figures in the Gulf have been a reliable source of entertainment as well as inspiration. "I check my phone in the morning and in the evening, and I like to see what the influencers are planning for the day or what they did already," the 35-year-old told AFP. "When I see something I like, I get inspired." Her favorite figures have changed tack dramatically during the crisis, she said, adding: "I'm enjoying their live discussions with their followers and how they're adapting to the circumstances and making home-cooked dishes. There aren't many things to do now, so it's entertaining." - AFP