Ghaliah Tech: Running the Influencer Economy in the Gulf
Social media influencers pervade the Gulf. They grace billboards on Kuwait’s Gulf Road, stream on millions of people’s Snapchat and Instagram stories, and kickoff corporate events and social campaigns. The revolutionary growth in the Gulf’s social media influencers has been facilitated by the increased usage of mobile-based technologies among Gulfies, or khaleejis. Today, one of the most effective ways of selling virtually any product in the Gulf is by having a social media influencer promote it.
Social media influencers can be fashionistas, makeup artists, bloggers, commentators on social and political affairs, or just individuals with high numbers of followers. The Gulf’s most prominent names in this industry, like Fouz al-Fahad, have their social media accounts managed by Ghaliah Tech. The leading social media agency in Kuwait and the Gulf, Ghaliah is home to over 300 social media influencers. It started in 2011 as a small business headquartered in Kuwait, rapidly growing to a medium-sized business in 2016 with branches in Riyadh, Doha, and Dubai. The social media agency is run by millennials: The 31-year-old founder, Abdulrazzaq Al-Mutawa, is the oldest member of a staff all in their 20s.
AGSIW spoke with Abdulrazzaq, the chief executive officer and general manager of Ghaliah Tech, to discuss the company’s inception, the growth of social media influencers in the Gulf, particularly Kuwait, and the future of advertising in the Gulf.
AGSIW: What’s the story behind Ghaliah’s inception?
Abdulrazzaq: In 2011, I noticed that offline means of advertisement were dominating both Kuwait and the GCC. Rulers of GCC states control what information is exchanged between people and what content is delivered to people. I was telling myself it shouldn’t be the case that five newspapers in Kuwait define public opinion and tastes and preferences of people or that 15 newspapers in Saudi Arabia do the same thing. Meanwhile, I saw the power of online means of advertising and its merits, while many people didn’t quite understand what it was.
For instance, consumers would be almost forced to buy a certain product because newspapers and other offline outlets of advertising would prevent anyone else from presenting an alternative product to the market. People were faced with two things: a monopoly and that their purchasing decisions were guided. As I studied abroad at New York University and lived in a contrastingly more open market, I felt what it meant to be free from forces that seek to influence or even limit your decision to a small range of things. I saw that people were free to decide what to buy and what not to buy and who to listen to and who not to listen to.
When I returned to Kuwait, I worked in several private companies and didn’t like it, so I tried to bring PR firms to Kuwait and eventually brought the New York-based Hill+Knowlton Strategies. I tried to navigate through this PR firm in Kuwait, but it didn’t really capture what I had intended to see. Through this PR firm, I learned principles of business and how things are done, and that was when Ghaliah Tech started.
AGSIW: How did Ghaliah attempt to diversify means of advertisement in Kuwait from offline to online?
Abdulrazzaq: Our objective as we started Ghaliah was to transfer businesses in Kuwait to the next level in terms of online activity. In 2011, we didn’t have social media influencers with big numbers of followers in Kuwait; what we had was bloggers and we worked with them. At the time, very few companies in Kuwait had accounts on social media applications like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, so we offered this service to them. We told companies you can join these platforms whether you are a big corporation or a small entity, and we can help you take it to the next level. It was a very difficult idea to implement; many people didn’t believe us in the beginning and we even got kicked out of meetings. I was told this was not going to happen and that while online and open space for advertising exists in the United States, it won’t happen in Kuwait.
The starting point for me was reading studies that have shown Gulf usage of the Internet was significantly higher compared to the rest of the world, especially in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Also, people in the Gulf were not getting the freedom they wanted to express themselves, which shows the importance of utilizing this space. We started with creating accounts for businesses on social media and developing their content. We had food and beverage companies like Sultan Center, a bank, and a group of small business. In the past, al-Kharafi and other food and beverage companies were monopolizing the food sector, leaving no room for competitors to arise, even if they were willing to pay newspapers for an ad space. The online way of advertising gave other companies the opportunity to breathe.
AGSIW: Why is Kuwait particularly well-known for social media influencers?
Abdulrazzaq: Kuwait is a pioneer in the Gulf on multiple levels. We used to enjoy more freedom of the press and more freedom of expression than others in the Gulf. Beyond that, Kuwaitis are trendsetters. They are educated, well-informed, and they travel often interacting with different cultures and cuisines.
Kuwait is also very diverse, you’ve got badu [tribal], hadhar [urban], and people from different sects. It is not like you’re in Buriadah where people are very similar, or in Doha where almost all Qataris uniformly wear the ghutra [traditional headdress] and eat lunch at home. Kuwaitis are diverse and their diversity distinguishes them.
Almost all khaleejis are familiar with the Kuwaiti dialect because of Kuwait’s famous national soap operas. In the Gulf, Kuwait is like Egypt in its dominance over the media. Before Kuwait became well-known for social media influencers, it was celebrated for its influential writers like Ahmad al-Rubie and others who had an impact on the region, regardless of whether others agreed or disagreed with them.
The Kuwaiti economy is distinctive, too. You have many Kuwaitis in the private sector, especially in the food and beverage sector opening restaurants and cafes. When you have a strong private food sector combined with technology, online marketing agencies come to push this forward. You can’t do something similar in Qatar, where many people over there still think governmental jobs are the best thing one can do.
AGSIW: Ghaliah manages over 300 accounts of the Gulf’s most prominent social media influencers in different fields like politics, fashion, and others. How do you select who to sponsor and what services do you provide them with?
Abdulrazzaq: First, we choose influencers who we think have high ethics and would not use their social media accounts to attack others while being paid to do so. Second, we look for those who have high influence. We measure influence through having influencers advertise for a company through their social media accounts and then we observe the increase in sales to determine whether they are influential or not and decide whether we wish to sign up with them. If you can’t do this, we may still help you as we did with Fouz al-Fahad, now one of the region’s biggest and highest paid influencers. Fouz visited us with only 2,000 followers on Instagram. We thought she had potential and spent a year promoting her to businesses for free, until she eventually started to sell and made a huge number of followers, 2 million on Instagram alone.
We develop content for influencers and, given that we operate in four countries, we can bring influencers with customers in a heartbeat. We also provide our influencers with a team of photographers and a fully equipped studio. Dior is our client in Dubai; we matched Fouz al-Fahad with them to work together on an ad and we provide other influencers with similar opportunities through our connections and wide reach in the Gulf.
AGSIW: A considerable number of social media influencers quit their full-time jobs to make advertising for products on social media their full-time profession. How profitable is it to work as an influencer?
Abdulrazzaq: The average profit for big names ranges from $100,000 to $300,000 a month. Other less known names would earn starting from $10,000 monthly.
AGSIW: I have noticed recently with the spread of influencer fashionistas, a lot of people are associating their rise with a negative societal influence, especially to youth. Why is that?
Abdulrazaq: Multiple factors come into play here. Some people get jealous of how much fashionistas earn compared to say a medical doctor. In a single night, a fashionista can earn an entire doctor’s monthly salary. Others who are very conservative think that these fashionistas are teaching their kids culturally inappropriate things. You also have some people who think that these fashionista influencers shouldn’t gain this much spotlight and that other intellectually oriented figures are the examples that people should follow.
To me, I think influencers are advancing our society and economy. We have enlarged all small businesses that worked with us. Kuwaitis now dine more at local restaurants rather than franchises. Starbucks in Kuwait now has many local competitors. The best burger you’d eat in Kuwait was Wendy’s; now you have local alternatives that have become people’s favorites. We now have a new economy enabled by this social media way of advertising.
You now have people travel to Kuwait just to dine at local restaurants. People don’t see the positive influence of social media influencers who brought in money from abroad and made us [Kuwaitis] invest locally in the tourism and food and beverage sectors.
AGSIW: Where is the future of advertising in the Gulf headed?
Abdulrazaq: A hundred percent shift from offline to online in five to six years at a maximum. Speed is what people look for and only through online means are you able to deliver things at high speed. We now learn about developments in real time as they occur on Twitter and Snapchat and don’t wait for newspaper publications to come out in the morning. Al-Qabas and other previously leading newspapers are struggling with numbers and financial losses. Families that own these newspapers today are losing interest as they are neither influencing public opinion nor making profits from ads. I predict they will go out of business very soon.
Mai Alfarhan is a research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.