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The Dark Truth About Dubai’s Influencer Marketing

Influencers play a vital role in selling Dubai to tourists – but the photos they post of luxurious holidays are often a state-sponsored exercise to cover up the day-to-day abuse of migrant workers.

Grand malls, luxury hotels, fine dining, and personalised service: Dubai has established itself as the poster child of luxury holidays, and influencer marketing is its golden ticket to industry dominance. A national lockdown has seen the majority of British people working from home, but social media hasn’t stopped peddling the alternate reality that it often seems influencers and celebrities live in. Instead, Dubai has kept its borders open to tourists over the lockdown period, and its travel and tourism industries have capitalised on the stagnated competition that a global pandemic has caused.

Tourism is a major contributor to the United Arab Emirates’s GDP, with a projected 2026 contribution of $20.9 billion, and with Covid’s impact on oil prices and the economy it’s become an area of heightened focus. Dubai’s lack of historical and natural attractions have forced it to compensate by creating a destination based almost exclusively on consumerism, and since their jobs consist solely of promoting products to followers, influencers are the perfect tool to sell it. What better time to generate desire for shopping and holidaying, too, than when most of the world is in lockdown?

Dubai’s intimate relationship with the influencer industry has been formalised since it introduced its requisite licensing fees equivalent to £3,000 per year for influencers creating sponsored content in the country. The fee was the creation of the National Media Council, a federal body which regulates media-related activities and effectively controls what information is shared online. The Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce also has an Instagram page called ‘Visit Dubai’ and regularly partners with popular influencers to boost their presence. Behind that formal relationship, though, is the insidious reality of Dubai’s dependency on influencer social capital.

Under the kafala (‘sponsorship’) system, Dubai and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council countries rely on huge influxes of migrant workers to realise their rapid development. 90% of the workforce in Dubai are migrant workers, often from neighbouring South Asian countries, who pay recruitment companies to get sponsored. They often arrive to a situation of effective bondage, characterised by complete legal, financial, and mobility control. Human trafficking is commonplace; corporate employers in construction, hospitality and tourism manipulate migrants’ hopes for a better life and bind them into dependency.

The precarious nature of migrant workers’ citizenship status and the framework of the system means they are viewed as informal workers, and therefore possess next to no civil rights or physical or lawful protection. The conditions that construction workers in Dubai are subject to, for example–which consist of endless hours of physical labour in the heat – have been linked to record numbers of heart failures: 70% of the 126 Indian blue-collar workers who died in the UAE last year did so as a result of heart attacks.

The laws of the kafala system also require workers who want to leave the country to get an exit permit from their employer. Workers’ requests are regularly denied, leaving them no choice but to work in inhumane conditions and for abysmal and inconsistent wages. One engineering company, Mercury MENA, failed to pay its workers for over two years, and a study by Swedish organisation Fair Action found that out of 30 migrant hotel staff working in Dubai, only 2 had managed to keep hold of their passports – the rest losing them to the hands of their employers.

The emotional impact of these conditions can, unsurprisingly, be devastating. It’s been recorded that suicide rates for expatriates in Dubai are seven times higher than the rate among nationals, with three-quarters of suicides taking place among people from India. In 2011, the Indian consulate in Dubai said that two Indian expats were dying by suicide each week, often jumping from the skyscrapers they helped to build.

There have been numerous calls to end the kafala system and the human rights violations which plague Dubai’s tourism industry, including from Amnesty and the International Labour Organisation. The commodification of migrant workers as resources to be consumed and then replaced is the high price behind the façade of pure and untainted luxury – but aware of the growing outrage, the UAE has seized on influencer marketing as a safety net which can cleanse its image and ensure its flow of tourists remains consistent.

Unfortunately, the nature of influencer marketing and the infinite amount of content we consume on social media means we often take things at face value. We fail to recognise the use of Photoshop in a selfie advertising skincare, or fall for the impossible sales pitches of placebo diet pills. The bright lights of Dubai as the glittering backdrop of our favourite influencer’s post are just another deceitful tactic.

Young people who aspire to the lavish lifestyles of the social media icons they follow can’t be blamed for their susceptibility to powerful algorithmic marketing techniques which sell them a fantasy, but it’s more important than ever to remember that rapid industrial development so often comes at a weighted human cost. Millions of Africans were enslaved in order to power Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and forced labour in Dubai is subjecting thousands of poor workers to exploitation and serious bodily danger. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s the basis of a capitalist system that stratifies people based on their role, and sees their lives as another opportunity cost.