Rest Easy, Dubai. The Writer from The New Yorker Really Wanted To Go Shopping.

I love a thoughtful, well-written article that presents an original point-of-view and makes me think.

Andrew Marantz is a writer for The New Yorker who stopped in Dubai on a 12-hour layover on his way from New York to Sri Lanka with his wife a few years ago. Recently, he wrote an article about his time in Dubai titled “Dubai, the World’s Vegas.” He describes visits to two malls, Ski Dubai, and the top of Burj Khalifa. The essay is supplemented with photographs by a photographer named Ben Thomas.

Yikes. After all these years, was Dubai still being compared to Las Vegas? It was a cultural time warp of an essay. It reminded me almost immediately of another widely circulated article on Dubai from many years ago. Originality, it appeared, was not Mr. Marantz’s objective.

I pulled up A.A. Gill’s now infamous piece for Vanity Fair Magazine from 2011 called “Dubai on Empty.” The similarity between the two articles is uncanny. In his opening lines, Gill references a legendary fable as a lens for understanding Dubai. “The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real. It’s a fable, a fairy tale, like The Arabian Nights.” Marantz also makes a reference to fiction. Specifically, the fictitious life of Walter Mitty. “We passed the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, which boasts “the world’s largest collection of sand tiger sharks!,” and a multiplex, where we considered seeing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” before deciding that our current experience was already Mitty-esque enough.”

When Gill describes Dubai’s skyline as “the cover of a dystopian science-fiction novella,” Marantz proceeds to reprise the sentiment, adding, “The skyline, if that’s the right word for it, was garishly, unapologetically artificial. The city almost appeared to be a non-place in the literal sense, not just the anthropological sense—more like an architect’s rendering than an actual built environment.”

No article in Dubai is complete without mentioning the construction workers who have built this city. Gill describes the workers as Asian drones, who have “… the tough, downtrodden look of Communist posters from the 30s—they are both the slaves of capital and the heroes of labor.” Marantz concurs, albeit with less flair. He says, “We knew that, for many of the non-Emirati laborers who are largely invisible to the casual tourist, Dubai is worse than a non-place, closer to a dystopia.”

The collective use of identical words and ideas extends beyond publications like The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. While observations about constructions workers are legitimate, accurate, and require urgent attention and immediate rectification by authorities, it is the reduction of a dynamic and rapidly changing city to a tyrannical wonderland that peddles a “harsh form of commerce” that is so pervasive it is now officially cheesy.

Photograph of man with camels in the dessert.
Stereotypical photographs of desert dunes and camels accompanied the writer’s article for The New Yorker Magazine. Photo credit: Ben Thomas

And a cover for ulterior motives. Emirati columnist Sultan Al Qassemi wrote a thoughtful reply which he broadcast to his half-a-million strong following on Twitter. He points out, “It’s not the city’s fault that this person chose to visit two malls and a skyscraper in his multi-hour layover.” Right on. That he chose to do so is a reflection of who he is. What I got was a glimpse of a man who really, really wanted to go shopping with his wife. I have no reason to believe he is particularly cultured, or remotely interested in anything like art, history, or even Arabic food.

As a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College many years ago, I learned that Orientalism, or representations of the ‘other’ in stereotypical ways, teaches us more about the cultures that produce it than about ourselves. It is the freezing of this frame, and the multiplication of it, that underpins the success of orientalist discourse and thought. It’s objective is to validate. In this case, it was a deliberate attempt to withhold validation of what Dubai has achieved in such a short period of time. Dubai is no where near perfect, of course. That is hardly relevant. How else do you explain that most of these articles are written by people who have never stepped foot in the country, or are passing through, like Marantz?

Marantz did not bother to experience anything outside the malls because he didn’t want to. While he was successful in recycling stereotypes about Dubai, he inadvertently also reinforced a stereotype about Americans: uncomfortable venturing outside their own comfort zone and confronting the unfamiliar.

Deborah Williams, a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, wrote an opinion piece for The National called Dubai, New York and lazy cultural stereotypes in response to his article. I would go one step further and argue it’s the continued use of cultural stereotypes that produces lazy journalism. Which makes Marantz a writer of questionable ability. His article is practically a succinct version of Gill’s, structured around the same ideas in a shockingly similar way.

So rest easy, Dubai. It’s not about you. Next time you come across an article like this – by now, you should know there will be plenty more – consider the context of the writer. Start by asking yourself what it says about them, rather than focusing on what it says about you.

The #Saltbae Phenomenon: What We Can Learn About Content Marketing From Dubai’s Social Media Sensation

If you haven’t heard of SaltBae by now, you are officially living under a rock.

Nusret Gocke, otherwise known as SaltBae on social media, is a Turkish butcher at the helm of wildly popular steakhouse Nusr-et. Reportedly born into poverty, he worked his way up in the restaurant world in pursuit of a single goal: to open and operate his own restaurant, which he achieved at the age of twenty seven.

Today, Nusr-et has five locations in Turkey, one in Dubai, one in Abu Dhabi, and soon, one in New York City, the most competitive city for food and beverage operators in the world. If he succeeds in the Big Apple, then this rags-to-riches story is one for the history books.

Not because he has consistently persevered against the odds, but because his unique social media presence helped him do so. Frankly, I can’t think of another Internet celebrity who has managed to leverage social media so successfully and capture the world’s imagination the way he has.

It started with a short video posted to Nusr-et’s Instagram page (the restaurant is spelled Nusr-et, and is a play on words: ‘et’ in Turkish means meat). It shows him slicing and salting a tender slab of meat at his restaurant in Dubai. Unsmiling and wielding a big knife, he cuts with steely precision and delicately sprinkles a handful of salt that sparkles as it cascades down his arm, some of it getting caught in his arm hair.

It has over 13.6 million views.

Ottoman steak 🔪

A post shared by Nusr_et#Saltbae (@nusr_et) on

It is food porn with all the finer points of story telling: dramatic tension, visceral resolution, and a whimsical finale. Nusret has subdued this rather large piece of meat, and if there is still any question about his ability, he reveals slick salt moves that affirm only he can do what he does. Nusret the humble Butcher is now Nusret the Boss, the undisputed scion of cool (an image he cultivates with relish).

Graphic of Nusret as The Godfather

The video went viral almost instantly and gave rise to the hashtag #Saltbae. Everyone from college students to NFL and Premier League players were copying his signature salt move in video, photo, and meme format. King Abdullah of Jordan invited Nusret to barbecue with him. A quick search on Instagram reveals more than 220,000 posts, and almost all from people who have never dined at Nusr-et. News outlets caught wind of the story, street artists painted murals, and at least one clever developer created an iPhone app with an emoji of Nusret sprinkling salt. It was all about that salt life.

Premier League player Danny Welbeck copies #Saltbae on the field

A mural of saltbae in Australia

The restaurant’s Instagram following is currently at a staggering 5.5 million and growing. That is double the combined Instagram following of celebrity chefs Mario Batali (456k) and Anthony Bourdain (2.2 million). In less than a month, #Saltbae became a household name.

I’m not a leading expert on social media strategy, but I have created and managed the marketing and digital communications for two restaurants, both my own, and learned a few things along the way. Well before Mr. Gocke became the celebrity he is today, I can tell you he was doing a lot of things right.

An active Instagram user, he had already accumulated over 100,000 followers, a large chunk after opening in Dubai. That’s a pretty big number. True, he was already a success in his native Turkey. But restaurants can have a hard time growing their following. Beautiful food photography always gets a lot of likes and eyeballs, but if that’s all you are posting it gets old pretty fast. In Dubai, the challenge is two-fold: in a market saturated with food and beverage concepts, finding a voice that resonates and rises above the noise is that much harder.

Here are the top eight ways Nusret is consistently striking social media gold:

1. He lets his personality shine on social media. One look at his Instagram page and you know you’re dealing with one flamboyant dude. He is sassy and funny, and he knows it. His social media voice is strong, unique, and confident. The best part: no other brand will be able to replicate it without looking like an obvious rip off.

Saltbae poses with a cigar in front of a photo of Fidel Castro smoking a cigar

2. He is serious about his product and shows you how. His images display the beautiful marbling and colour of his meats. Furthermore, he goes to great lengths to ensure consistency and quality by controlling the entire process. His meat is literally farm-to-table. Videos of him massaging cows may be funny, but also convey a key brand message: Nusr-et is serious about the meat it serves.

Saltbae faces a cow at his cattle farm

3. He uses the medium of video. Cisco projects that by 2019, 86% of global consumer traffic will be video, including TV, video-on-demand, and peer-to-peer networks. Internet video has an engaged and growing audience and companies not following this marketing trend will not be able to connect with audiences or expand their reach.

4. He uses the right platform for the region. Instagram is popular in the U.A.E., and king with one demographic in particular: locals, or the small Emirati population with mighty purchasing power. The UAE also has 78% smartphone penetration, the highest in the world. That means lots of well-off people taking photos and videos of products and experiences and sharing on social media. What more could a brand ask for?

Instagram has been critical to Nusret’s success online and as a business. He has succeeded in attracting locals as regular customers, so much so that he counts both the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai as frequent patrons. Anyone who has lived here long enough knows there is no higher stamp of approval than a visit from a member of the ruling royal family. And, the fastest route to Instagram engagement and follows in the region.

5. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. As a former restaurant owner, I can tell you this is a rare quality in a chef. Especially a famous one. As much as I love food and appreciate the passion and drive of talented chefs, there is an annoying tendency to install them on a pedestal and give them other-worldly qualities. It’s food, guys. Not a cure for cancer. Nusret is relatable, human, and approachable, and very different from someone like chef Mario Batali who has a reputation for being arrogant. In marketing terms, there is no better strategy. Every brand strives to make a connection with their target audience on a human level.

6. He delivers on his promise. If you have the chance to dine at Nusr-et, you should. It is the best meat I have ever had. Hands down.

7. He is genuine. I was invited to dine at Nusr-et a few days after it opened. I saw the man himself, on the grill and approached cautiously to have a look. He was wearing a tight white t-shirt, a perfect tan, and a slicked back pony tail. He gave me a big smile and insisted I try a piece of his “spaghetti” – thinly sliced pieces of steak that are quickly seared on the grill. Later in the evening, he served us at our table, like he did every other guest, and insisted the ladies take photos with him. He is quirky and fun, and salts everyone’s steak table-side. You can find him at his restaurant everyday, working hard and putting in long hours. He doesn’t speak any English. But his big personality and passion for what he does breaks through the communication barrier.

8. He posts plenty of photos of smiling customers. If your product or service makes people happy, you should share that on social media. In his case, it helps that celebrities like Leonardo di Caprio enjoy his food. If you too have a celebrity clientele, that should be shared where possible.

Nusret is a big hit with locals and tourists in Dubai
How will he do in New York? Given his drive, unrelenting ambition, and ability to connect with people with such ease, I think he will take the city by storm. I for one will be following his social media closely to learn further best practices on brand content and engagement.

All images courtesy Nusr-et’s ridiculously good Instagram page

In the News: Hijab, Hijab, Hijab. Why Are We Obsessed With a Head Scarf?

Model Gigi Hadid on the cover of Vogue Arabia's first issue, March 2017
Supermodel Gigi Hadid on the cover of Vogue Arabia’s inaugural issue, March 2017

In the past week, I have come across more articles on hijab, the head cover worn by some Muslim women and others, than any other news story. More than the war in Syria.

This week alone, government officials, a multinational corporation, individuals, and the European Union are using hijab to articulate a wide range of positions. A symbol of resistance and opportunity for some, a tool of oppression for others.

These are some of the stories making headlines right now:

1. Nike unveils the Pro Hijab for Muslim female athletes. Priced at USD 35 and available in 2018, the Pro Hijab is targeted at consumers in the Arabian Gulf who wield enormous purchasing power. Like many other international brands, Nike is keen to target this demographic. Possibly the biggest hijab story of the decade. 

2. The European Court of Justice delivers a landmark ruling which states the workplace ban on headscarves is legal. Amnesty International warns the ruling “panders to prejudice.”

3. A Pakistan government official wants to make hijab mandatory for female students at colleges in the province of Punjab. To sweeten the deal, extra marks will be rewarded to those who comply. The good news: the government has rejected the proposal. The bad news: this will not end attempts to control what women can and cannot wear.

4. In the age of President Trump and his Muslim ban, women are choosing to embrace hijab as form of resistance, introducing a modern-day counterpoint to a widely accepted image of hijab as oppressive.

5. Backlash to Nike’s Pro Hijab gives rise to #BoycottNike on social media. Many accuse the company of making money off the subjugation of Muslim women.

Controversy surrounding the hijab is not new. If I were to calculate how long the hijab has been an object of public scrutiny, I would need to go back many hundreds of years.

European art of the 12th century and onwards depicts inhabitants of Muslim lands as exotic, backward, violent, and sexually depraved. Artists reimagined the private spaces inhabited by Muslim women and often showed them in the nude, the ultimate “unveiling.” Jean August Dominique Ingres’s Grand Odalisque of a young Oriental chambermaid, hookah pipe in hand, is one of many such paintings of the period. Like others, he never visited the Orient.

Oriental painting of a young chambermaid in the nude
Jean Augusta Dominique Ingres, Grand Odalisque, 1814, Musee du Louvre.

It’s a long running obsession by any measure. Unbelievably, this makes he hijab the most controversial piece of cloth in history.

In comparison, hijab in the UAE is apolitical. Who wears it, how they where it, when they wear it, and why they wear it are all non-issues. No one forces you to wear it, and no one yanks it off if you do (looking at you, France). There is no religious police. Notions of modesty for Emirati society are not religious; they are deeply cultural.

I feel like a broken record. There are plenty of women who chose to wear it, and lead productive lives while doing so. What will it take for us to turn the page and move on from the hijab to a point where it simply does not matter what a woman wears?

Love It or Hate It, You Cannot Ignore Dubai

When the 2008 financial crisis caught up with Dubai, online British newspaper The Independent published an article called The Dark Side of Dubai. It wasn’t a particularly good piece of writing, but the author was unequivocal. “Once the manic burst of building has stopped and the whirlwind has slowed, the secrets of Dubai are slowly seeping out. This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery. Dubai is a living metaphor for the neo-liberal globalised world that may be crashing – at last – into history.”

In March 2011, a writer named A.A. Gill at Vanity Fair magazine hit even harder. Perhaps because it was Vanity Fair, or because the article was so scathing, so well written, the impact was far greater. Dubai on Empty elicited a response from Najla Al Awadhi, a prominent member of parliament, who encouraged readers to voice their anger at what many considered a one-sided, hate-filled view of their city. Gill had recycled many of the same cliches that have come to be associated with the emirate. “The only way to make sense of Dubai is to never forget that it isn’t real,” he wrote.

A man bicycles on the bridge over the new Dubai Water Canal, a man-made waterway comprising of luxury housing, 450 restaurants, 4 hotels and a shopping center
Tales of Dubai’s doom and gloom are punctuated with stories of extravagance. While attending a wedding in Boston some years ago, a fellow party goer asked me if it was true people paid 1 million dollars for a license plate in the Emirates. Actually, no. A young Emirati man had just spent USD 14 million at a charity auction for a license plate with the number 1. Combined with viral social media stories about the world’s most expensive cupcake, a USD 11 million christmas tree, and Dubai Police’s expanding fleet of super cars, many assume this is the exclusive enclave of multimillionaires.

Once in a while, the pendulum swings the other way. Elizabeth MacBride of Forbes Magazine penned a compelling piece last year titled Nine Reasons Dubai Could Be The Most Important City of the 21st Century. She explains how “Dubai has invented itself as bigger than any of those narrow identities. It is emerging as a global city, and possibly the emerging markets capital of the world.” She cites a January 2015 Brookings Institute report which puts Dubai as one of the five fastest-growing metropolitan areas.

Yes, there is staggering wealth. There is rapid development and unbridled ambition. There are problems unique to Dubai, and others common to big cities. There are also 8 migrant workers who have built this city. You see them, but you don’t hear much from them. What Dubai is raises a complex question to a fast moving and rapidly changing 21st century city.

But reporting on Dubai does not reflect understanding of this complexity. In fact, it is oversimplified and outdated. As McBride rightly points out, the story of Dubai is the story of immigrants. In many ways, Dubai now resembles New York at the turn of the 20th century. Instead of investigating this constantly shifting and multidimensional narrative, too many continue to reduce it to a caricature of clueless Arab rulers hell bent on tyranny and delirious with oil wealth. Much of this is deliberate, and derogatory.

The current state of international affairs emboldens the Gills of the world to wilfully ignore the diversity of stories in Dubai and offer dangerous stereotypes instead. Regardless of how you feel, Dubai is a world-class city, and it is moving forward. Writers covering it need to examine their own bias and keep up with Dubai, or risk getting left behind.