Earlier this summer, nearly a dozen Kuwaiti social-media influencers—some with millions of Instagram followers—had their passports seized and assets frozen by Kuwait’s public-prosecutor’s office following charges of money-laundering. The country’s state security agency suspects that influencers may have laundered upward of the equivalent of $100 million in suspicious funds—a massive amount for what are essentially brash kids shilling fancy lipsticks and luxe laundry detergents.
The influencers—including Halima Bouland, a Kuwaiti television presenter; Dana Al Tuwarish, an Iraqi-Kuwaiti fashion specialist; and Farah Al Hady, a “stateless” cosmetics mogul—were allegedly recruited by Gulf-based organized criminal networks involved in drug and alcohol rackets.
The influencers allegedly helped “wash” the criminals’ ill-gotten gains by heavily inflating the fees they charged for digital ads and promotions. (The influencers didn’t actually bill the advertisers and promoters higher fees; it’s believed they created fake invoices to explain to anyone who asked why they suddenly had extra cash on hand.) It wasn’t long before regulators noticed the surge in conspicuous wealth popping up on the influencers’ Instagram feeds. “Money-launderers are usually not the most sophisticated types of criminals,” said Mike Kenealy, chief operating officer of risk-advisory consultants Insiders Corp. “So they’re never too hard to catch.”
The influencers also allegedly laundered cash through the once hot “social-commerce” giant Boutiqaat, co-founded by Abdul Wahab Al Essa, a former journalist running for parliament in Kuwait’s November elections, and which was recently valued at $1 billion. The influencers—who sold curated collections of their favorite products on the platform—inflated their Boutiqaat revenue figures to conceal the shady cash. (They’ve denied the government’s allegations.)
“Money-launderers are usually not the most sophisticated types of criminals. So they’re never too hard to catch.”
“We really underestimated these influencers; we never thought they could be involved in such high-profile, organized criminal activity,” said a prominent Kuwait social-media creator, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The influencer cases are the highest-profile of myriad corruption scandals currently coursing through Kuwait—many with international implications. In early July, for instance, Sheikh Sabah Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah, the 56-year-old son of a former Kuwaiti prime minister, was arrested on money-laundering charges in connection with the Malaysia-based 1MDB-fund scandal, in which some $4.5 billion had been illegally diverted from the Malaysian government. Likely owing to his royal connections, Al Sabah was released on bail, while former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, accused of pocketing some $700 million of that $4.5 billion, was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Back in early June, Kuwaiti authorities nabbed prominent Bangladeshi businessman and member of parliament Mohammad Shahid Islam and charged him with human trafficking, money-laundering, and bribery. He remains in detention in Kuwait.
“We really underestimated these influencers; we never thought they could be involved in such high-profile, organized criminal activity.”
With their fancy yachts and pricey watches, the sheer “blinginess”—and shareability—of the influencers’ misdeeds has led to a level of regional scrutiny typically reserved for politicians and C.E.O.’s. So severe is Kuwait’s corruption crisis (both digital and I.R.L.) that the nation’s emir and prime minister (both senior members of the royal family) have taken the rare step of publicly addressing the matter. “Nobody will be protected by their position or name if they have committed a crime that infringes on public money,” said Kuwaiti prime minister Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah.
Kuwait is hardly the only nation where canny social-media stars have merged their prominence with illicit commercial activity. “But we are one of the first to identify a comprehensive link between social-media influencers and money-laundering,” said Fahad Al-Haddad, a Kuwait-based author and lawyer who’s focused on money-laundering in both Kuwait and the Gulf region in general. “We have strong anti-laundering laws in place here, but they don’t yet extend to the world of social media.”
From Al Capone to Tony Montana, Pablo Escobar to Paul Manafort, conspicuous consumption always seems to accompany fraud and embezzlement. But the stridently public—and conveniently borderless—nature of social media has elevated ostentatious display to a bankable way of life. Also elevated is the potential for abuse—and the inability of regulators to catch up.
“The technology is now so sophisticated that you can literally encrypt an emoji, place it on a Facebook post, and pass along things like Bitcoin codes,” said Imran Khan, a risk-and-compliance manager with compliance consultancy Protiviti. “This is obviously far easier than strapping bundles of cash onto your body like in the 1970s or illegal wire transfers in the 1980s.”
With its seemingly limitless wealth and penchant for flamboyance, the Persian Gulf region has emerged as a center of nefariousness in the global social-media marketplace—which, according to a 2019 report by Business Insider, is expected to be worth some $15 billion by 2022. South of Kuwait, in Dubai, the Nigerian-born influencer Ramon Olorunwa Abbas—known to his 2.5 million Instagram followers as @hushpuppi—was arrested in June in a joint raid led by the F.B.I. and the Dubai police on charges of money-laundering and conspiracy.
“This is obviously far easier than strapping bundles of cash onto your body like in the 1970s or illegal wire transfers in the 1980s.”
In Abbas’s case, the alleged damages total hundreds of millions of dollars and involve a range of global criminal activities. Like those of his Kuwaiti counterparts, Abba’s over-the-top lifestyle—and its relentless portrayal on Instagram—led U.S. and Emirati investigators to question the sources of his wealth.
According to the Dubai police, raids to apprehend Abbas and 11 other suspects netted “more than $40.9 million in cash, 13 luxury cars with an estimated value of $6.8 million … 21 computer devices, 47 smartphones, 15 memory sticks, five hard disks containing 119,580 fraud files as well as addresses of 1,926,400 victims.”
All together, said Brigadier Jamal Salem Al Jallaf, director of Dubai’s criminal-investigation department, the confiscated documents indicated potential global fraud worth $435 million. Beyond the grand scale of the Abbas case is its sheer brazenness: according to CNN, the influencer apparently intended to “steal $124 million from an English Premier League soccer club”—though the exact franchise has yet to be identified. Hushpuppi’s lawyer says the F.B.I.’s actions are tantamount to “kidnapping.”
“The technology is now so sophisticated that you can literally encrypt an emoji, place it on a Facebook post, and pass along things like Bitcoin codes.”
Meanwhile, in Nigeria, another Dubai-based influencer—the luxury-automobile-and-timepiece-loving Ismaila Mustapha, Instagram handle @Mompha—was arrested last year on charges of Internet fraud, money-laundering, and running an illegal currency exchange as he attempted to fly from Abuja to the U.A.E. He remains in Nigeria fighting to clear his name—and to retrieve the luxury watches, sunglasses, and Apple products seized during his arrest.
In the U.S., the marriage between social media and monetary malfeasance is also being repeatedly consummated. Prominent YouTuber Omi in a Hellcat is reportedly under investigation by the F.B.I. on suspicion of tax evasion, money-laundering, and copyright infringement. Agents raided his upscale home in New Jersey and—as in Nigeria and the Gulf—seized a trove of luxury goods that had populated his social-media channels. (Omi maintains he has made his money legally.)
Social-media posts filled with glittering baubles and six-figure automobiles contributed to the downfall of Colombian-born, Miami-based influencer Jenny Ambuila, who was arrested in her home country last spring. It seems assets used to support her penchant for Porsches and Lamborghinis—along with tuition at the University of Miami—were illegally acquired by her father, a mid-level Colombian customs agent, who then funneled the funds back to his daughter, who converted the monies into Instagrammable luxury items.
As the Miami New Times reported, “The Lamborghini shots were the last straw for Colombian prosecutors.... They apparently uncovered a gold mine of illegal customs bribes.... Colombian police posted videos of Ambuila’s arrest. She was wearing a Gucci T-shirt when she was nabbed.”
Back in Kuwait, some of the accused influencers have taken to (where else?) Instagram to assert their innocence as authorities pore over financial records to build their cases. Boutiqaat, the e-commerce site, is still in business but has reportedly seen sales plummet while conspiracy theorists—a crucial component of any Arab-world saga—suggest the entire affair is the handiwork of Qatari agents hoping to undermine Kuwait’s economy.
Whatever the full story, local lawyer Al-Haddad said the social-media money-laundering scandal might actually benefit Kuwait—as well as other nations battling similar crimes—if and when the key players are brought to justice. “It’s everyone’s duty to fight this kind of criminal activity, because it’s bad for our economy, bad for foreign investment, bad for growth,” he said. As for the influencers themselves, Al-Haddad says they too seem to be #winning. “This scandal has only boosted their popularity. One went from one million to two million followers in barely a week.”
David Kaufman is a writer living in New York City