DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When it comes to beauty in the Middle East, one woman has put Dubai on the map. Beauty blogger Huda Kattan has grown her business from a personal passion project, launched in 2010, to an international beauty empire that now includes an extensive YouTube catalogue and a three-year old cosmetics brand, Huda Beauty, whose products are used in makeup tutorials around the world.
With over 16 million followers on Instagram, 32-year-old Kattan has an Instagram audience larger than that of many global pop stars and over ten times more than industry gurus Charlotte Tilbury and Pat McGrath. Her YouTube channel is filled with an endless supply of weird and wonderful tips and tutorials that the beauty community can’t get enough of, from cream contouring (3.8 million views) to making your own toothbrush blackhead remover (8.5 million views), attracting over 1.5 million subscribers to her YouTube page.
Kattan’s commercial breakthrough came in 2013 when she teamed up with sisters Mona and Alya to create a line of false eyelashes after not being able to find any styles she liked. “At the time, there were barely any lash brands available and I realised there was a huge gap in the market and a lot of demand,” she says. The popularity of Kattan’s eyelashes, which won over tough-to-please fans like Kim Kardashian, catapulted her to worldwide fame, pushing her Instagram reach ahead of Michelle Phan, one of the most influential US beauty bloggers, who has 2 million followers.
Kattan has since extended the Huda Beauty business (the word Huda means “guidance” in Arabic) into new categories including lip gloss, eye makeup, nail accessories and henna tattoos, and is among the best-selling cosmetics brands in Sephora in the Middle East and Harrods in London.
If I’m not offering something different that would add value to my customers, there’s no way I’m going to sell it.
Her team now consists of 44 full-time staff in Dubai, of which 27 work in head office and 17 in the warehouse, although the beauty mogul says she is still very hands-on. “I design every single detail of every single product myself,” she tells BoF. “If I’m not offering something different that would add value to my customers, there’s no way I’m going to sell it. It’s the only way I can guarantee the best for my followers.”
But what sets Kattan apart from the many other makeup personalities eager to turn their tutorials into a range of branded products?
Her unique background for one. Born and raised in Tennessee to Iraqi parents, Kattan studied finance at the University of Michigan-Dearborn before moving to Dubai in pursuit of a career as a makeup artist.
“Growing up in an Arab family [meant] there was a lot of pressure to follow specific career paths, which I tried to do when I first graduated to please my parents, but it didn’t last long,” explains Kattan, who is Muslim but unlike other popular Arab beauty bloggers such as Kuwait-based Dalal AlDoub and Sondos Alqattan, chooses to not cover her head.
“I’ve always been into social media from the very beginning. I was one of the first people on Facebook when it was only available to Massachusetts universities,” Kattan says. “We are part of that generation where people spread information and share opinions online. I wanted women to have a source they could trust and depend on for whatever they needed to know about makeup.”
Kattan’s YouTube tutorials are in English, although she has uploaded a few tutorials in Arabic too. The entrepreneur, nonetheless, feels close to her heritage, and cites this as a reason beauty bloggers in the Middle East have a particularly strong influence over their followers.
“It’s in your blood,” she says. “I feel like beauty is a necessity in the Middle East whereas in the US it’s the kind of thing people do at the weekend. Women in the Middle East, because of their amazing features, put on more makeup to enhance them; their big beautiful eyes and bold brows. It’s a part of the Middle Eastern culture and history. They’ve always loved makeup, being very glam and over the top.”
Although Kattan has become a global online phenomenon, her business has an especially loyal consumer base in the Middle East. The region is the fourth biggest beauty market in the world; a whopping $25 billion was spent in the Middle East in 2015, much of it in shopping hubs like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But Saudi Arabia has been the fastest growing market in terms of beauty sales over the last five years, according to Euromonitor International. Kattan declined to disclose sales revenue or the market breakdown of her business, citing the early stages of its development.
While international beauty brands such as L'Oréal and Max Factor have long been popular in the region, Huda Beauty's success is evidence of how local brands are carving their own space in the market. One of two local brands distributed in Sephora’s Middle East stores, Huda Beauty sits alongside Shiffa Dubai Skin Care, a UAE-based company offering organic and holistic products developed by dermatologist Dr. Lamees Hamdan.
At Sephora, customers were running to the counters. At Harrods, customers were queuing outside from early morning.
Kattan has been branching out beyond the Middle East since last year when Huda Beauty launched in the United States exclusively at Sephora. In August 2016, she expanded to the UK market exclusively at Harrods.
“Huda Beauty taps into an important zeitgeist within the beauty industry, one where clients are seeking instantly transformative, yet qualitative and reliable products, which [also] genuinely deliver [on] their claims,” says Mia Collins, head of beauty at Harrods. “We were attracted to Huda Beauty not least due to Huda’s strong vision and point of view on beauty trends [which] resonates with millions of people, as demonstrated by her stellar following on Instagram.”
While Huda Beauty only sells lashes and lip products in the UK, industry sources suggest that it has overtaken some of the best-selling brands in the beauty hall at Harrods. “We were surprised by all the craziness when we first launched," says Kattan. "At Sephora, customers were running to the counters. At Harrods, customers were queuing outside from early morning, wanting to get their hands on every product.”
Kattan says she has a few collaborations in the pipeline but declined to comment on specific deals. “Ultimately I would love to collaborate more with women’s institutions, beauty brands and schools, to help offer more programmes that [enable people] to get started as a makeup artist," she says. "We’ve already had a few ideas, such as offering scholarships to a few lucky winners, but I would love to help women on a larger global scale.”