Tolerance Day celebrations were going on in full swing at Abu Dhabi’s Umm Al Emarat park and I was struggling to spot Khalid Al Ameri in the milling crowd. The Emirati social commentator, who was vlogging about the event, had promised to meet me here for the interview, but was nowhere in sight. Half an hour after the scheduled time, as I was wondering if I should send him a message, I saw him emerging from a throng of people. Apologising profusely and with his characteristic effusive smile, he said he was ‘held up filming the Tolerance March. The past couple of days have been hectic, that’s why I suggested we meet here.’
As we head for the cosy picnic spot his wife Salama had set up, random people come by requesting a selfie with him. Ever obliging — ‘I just can’t refuse a photo with anyone. These people are the most important part of what I do’ — Khalid clearly exudes a positive energy, and combined with his congeniality it’s little wonder that he is a household name today.
Get this: Khalid has 1.7 million followers on Facebook, 350k on Instagram, 153k on Twitter and more than 51,000 members in Khalid’s World Group on Facebook.
They tune into his social media platforms every day to see what new video he has shared. Daily anecdotes, compiled in two-minute clips, are mostly on socially relevant messages, cultural exchanges, campaigns or lifestyle. While most videos attracts millions of viewers, Khalid believes a reason for his success is because he portrays the life of an Emirati in a universal language that people can easily connect with.
‘I am just friendly old Khalid, the guy with a video camera,’ says the 34-year-old. ‘I think my videos are appealing because they help build bridges between people.’
Born and raised in Abu Dhabi to an Emirati father and Scottish mother, Khalid credits his grounded nature to his upbringing. ‘My family comes from a very humble background. My mom and dad met in the UK where my dad was finishing his graduate studies. My mom worked in an old person’s home for a year to save up for tickets to visit Abu Dhabi,’ he says.
Coming from different cultural backgrounds, his parents maintained their individual identities, and this had a strong impact on his life. ‘They raised me and my brothers to respect people and their values and beliefs,’ he says.
After taking up different administrative jobs, in 2011 Khalid left for the US to pursue an MBA at Stanford University. The electives he chose were digital media and publishing, and he quickly realised that making videos was his true calling. Returning to the UAE, he made small Snapchat videos on life, relationships, work and career and tasted modest success.
Fast forward to 2016, when one of his videos made the cut. Invited by CNN Abu Dhabi to do a series of videos on the misconceptions surrounding Ramadan, they went on to become instant hits – convincing Khalid ‘that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life’.
Khalid then decided to do a series of short videos that would help spread messages about love, peace, tolerance, acceptance – topics the common man could relate to. ‘It would be the first time an Emirati had done a show like this,’ he says. ‘I pitched it to every TV station but they all turned it down. Since I didn’t have any other choice, I took to Facebook.’
Within one year, he amassed a viewership of 1.7 million people. Following the success, Khalid quit his full-time corporate job, deciding to make videos on a daily basis. ‘I haven’t taken a day off since then,’ he says, preparing to pose for our photographer.
Having a penchant for comedy from childhood, he used to idolise Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. ‘I believe the art of sharing an important message through the ability to make someone laugh at the same time is the most powerful thing in the world,’ says the vlogger. This operative strategy, distinct in most of his videos, has helped greatly in making them viral. ‘When Salama and I talk about serious topics in our videos, we use a strong element of humour. It relaxes people, gets the message through and goes a long way.’
Each video is conceptualised and written by him, with ample support from Salama. The most successful video they have done to date is titled ‘What happens without a mother’. It focused on the life of working mothers, and garnered 27 million views. The main message it imparted was that a working mother puts in twice as much time and effort into their careers and family than a single working man or woman does.
Another titled ‘When Muslims celebrate Christmas’ went on to make headlines in newspapers for nurturing communal harmony. ‘Just being able to tell the world that in a Muslim country, we have four churches around a mosque, and that a particular mosque is called “Mary mother of Jesus”. That, for me, shows how the UAE embraces every religion and culture and allows people to celebrate their faith so openly.’
His work approach is simple and straightforward: He goes up to people, introduces himself and requests their permission to film them. There are times when people don’t recognise him at all. ‘But that is OK since I am no George Clooney,’ he says, with a laugh.
His family is especially proud about his work and the impact his videos are making on society. ‘My mom always knew I would end up doing something like this. My father calls me up every time his friends or colleagues say something good about my videos. That really warms my heart. When my brother was in Oxford, one of his classmates said ‘you look like this guy I watch on YouTube’. I am so glad to have been able to reach out to those from all different demographics.’
Salama, who also runs a pearl jewellery business, picks up the thread. ‘Our elder son Khalifa proudly states that his dad is a video maker. The eight-year-old is truly happy when his friends comment about the videos,’ she says.
According to Khalid, the secret of his success is finding topics that universally link us together, regardless of our socio, economic and cultural differences. ‘The UAE is the perfect place for that. If you look around, there are thousands of people from different countries and backgrounds, all enjoying the same kinds of facilities and freedom. I love making videos about my country. A recent one about the Abu Dhabi Police Happiness patrol was well received because people did not know that such services existed.’
Some of the videos are especially close to their hearts, like the one on Salama’s vitiligo condition. ‘I am proud of the skin I am in. It is a part of me. Though I wasn’t that interested in fashion, I have come to realise that it plays a big role in helping me express myself,’ says Salama, who has also modelled for Nivea, among other companies.
The couple appear to share some perfect chemistry, on and off the screen. ‘We are like any normal couple. We love and support each other. We might be at each other’s throats one minute, but the moment the camera starts rolling, we put that aside and get on with the show,’ says the father of two.
‘My life with him is a comedy of errors every single day. We never take each other seriously. The only time when we have a serious conversation is when we are talking about our kids’ future,’ chips in Salama.
Some videos happen organically, while others are planned much in advance. Khalid has a buffer stock of 40 topics on hand at any time. So, whenever he feels a creative crunch, he relies on them.
The Ameris have no time to celebrate the success of a video or ponder why a certain one didn’t click. ‘We just make more stories, pushing ourselves to do better. Mostly we work on instinct. There is no saying what the audience will like or reject,’ says Khalid. For instance, ‘How to ride a camel’ was shot at 5am in the middle of the desert during Ramadan and took five hours to complete. But it went almost unnoticed. Another one about the availability of pork in UAE was a random topic, shot in his car in 10 minutes, but got 1.5 million views.
‘Daily videos are hectic but rewarding because we are doing something meaningful. I enjoy every bit of this journey. Sometimes I tell him to slow down a bit because it can get in the way of family time,’ says Salama.
One video that gave him a sense of accomplishment was a counter to a certain Middle East influencer’s comments about days off for Filipino domestic workers. ‘I made that just to undo her narrative. That is not what the rest of the world should think about us Arabs. It’s not my most successful video but probably the most important one I did,’ he says.
In June, Khalid and Salama were invited by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to raise awareness about the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh. During their three-day visit in Bangladesh, they lived in the tents and interacted with hundreds of refugees.
‘It was overwhelming. Each person had a story to tell. There was a mother who had lost all her children; a young couple who hid underwater for days; a five-year-old looking after his two-year-old sibling... Hearing these, I broke down. These people had experienced the worst of nature and humanity. But still they were going through life with a peaceful disposition.’
In October, they visited Uganda to showcase the impact of UN funding on the south Sudan refugees.
‘We got a chance to show how the UAE’s foreign aid programme was empowering these refugees by training them in education and entrepreneurship opportunities. There were UAE-funded businesses, schools and a water purification plant as well,’ he says.
His Facebook group created this June, called Khalid’s World Group, now has more than 40,000 members from across the globe. ‘I wanted to give a platform for other people to share their videos, pictures and stories. A lot of people have said how they overcame their problems by sharing it in the group. In return, they received very supportive advice and comments. There are single mothers, divorcees, people battling illnesses or just regular people looking to make new friends. They are finding acceptance and voice within the group. Having a global community who all think the same and love and support each other is amazing. I hope it keeps growing and more people share more stories.’
While most of his life is portrayed in front of the camera, Khalid is very clear about his privacy. ‘People think I share a lot of private stuff, but I don’t. I’m very careful about what I share. As a rule I don’t do videos on politics or religion. I just tell a story about a topic – like ‘We hated our wedding’ or ‘How we got through an argument’. These are universal topics. But I don’t give specifics as to what we argued about or what problems we are facing. We just share stories that we want to.’
There have been occasions when people have made offensive comments, but Khalid brushes those off. ‘There isn’t anything to be gained by being mad or getting stressed. Unless someone tries to harm my family or defame my country, I don’t get offended at anything. People are free to say anything they want, I won’t waste time reacting to it if it is not worth it. I would rather spend my time on the people who are positive and supportive and help me drive my career forward.’
What sets him apart from other vloggers is that he puts his audience before himself. ‘Most influencers have this attitude that you should be interested in their life. Like where they shop, what they eat or how they party. I have focused mainly on people and their uniqueness and similarities. And I find that more interesting than talking about myself,’ he says.
The toughest video he has had to make is about his six-year-old son Abdullah, who has been diagnosed with autism. Though the script was ready two years ago when the child was diagnosed, Khalid spent months improvising to give it clarity on screen. ‘When you make a video like that, it has to be perfect. It is something my son is going to grow up and watch and look back on. I was very passionate and emotional at the time we found out and not ready to share it with the world. We wanted to take more tests and be absolutely sure. It’s not easy accepting it as a parent. We tried different schools, different programmes, until we were completely convinced.’
Even after all the preparation, by the end of the video, Khalid was in tears and felt extremely low for the next five days. ‘But it touched a lot of people and they shared their own stories. I hope when my son looks back, he’s proud of the video too,’ he says.
He claims the biggest impact he has made is debunking the myth that Muslim countries are intolerant. ‘If you look at the videos that have received the most views, they are “How Indian is the UAE” or “How Filipinos changed my country”, among others where l talk about cultural diversity and coexistence.
‘I have got many reviews from the western world that they want to actually visit the UAE after seeing my videos. My aim is to break every misconception about the Arab and Muslim world. When I leave this world, I want to know that I brought people closer together.’