Why Vogue Arabia's Premier Cover Didn't Belong to Gigi Hadid

The cover has caused a lot of controversy throughout the region.

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Fandom aside, the eldest of the Hadid modelling trio did not belong on the premier magazine cover for Vogue Arabia. Yes, she is half-Palestinian (and half-Dutch for those of you wondering), but the launch of a magazine as  awaited as this deserved a woman far more integrated and relevant to Arab society. While one of it’s primary competitors in the Middle East, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, launched in 2007, Vogue Arabia only launched its digital edition in October 2016. It was the first of Vogue’s 22 editions worldwide to focus on a digital launch first, a nod to the influence of a digital platform in regards to a business strategy—and subsequently its print edition in March 2017, of which Gigi Hadid adorned.

The arrival of Vogue to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for many feels long overdue, particularly in light of the region’s size and buying power. In recent years, the Middle East was touted as having the highest per capita spending in the world for luxury goods at about $1,900, according to a report by Bain and Company. Last year the market grew by 19 percent, reaching just over $9 billion. This brings into question the reason why the launch of what many perceive as the world's premier fashion magazine came as late as 2017, particularly as its competitors have preceded them by as much as a decade. Jonathan Newhouse, chairman and chief executive of Condé Nast International, had previously made controversial statements in regards to the prospect of such a launch because the region had “an element that rejects Western values of freedom of expression, equality for women and expression of sexuality.” Now, in lieu of the growing market and prominence of the Middle East and North Africa, Vogue has decided to step forward after first testing Condé Nast Traveler and Architectural Digest.

Gigi Hadid was chosen by Vogue Arabia’s editor-in-chief, Saudi Princess Deena Alijuhani Abdulaziz, for the magazine’s first-ever cover. However, despite her origins, Gigi was born and raised in America, and is arguably out of touch with her heritage. There has been plenty of controversy lately over the lack of acknowledgement given to respective cultures in recent years. While Hollywood continues to face backlash over its whitewashing, the fashion industry is similarly accused of cultural appropriation. To be sure, while Gigi may have partial origins to the region, it should not be assumed that she is the best candidate to represent the region itself. Controversy has also been sparked in regards to Hadid’s adornment of a hijab on the cover, the traditional Muslim head-scarf.

Having a rather nomadic upbringing, I can attest to the effects that converging environments and cultures can play on ones identity and the complexities that arise from it. It would be impossible to surmise precisely what it is that Gigi attributes the majority of her identity to. Notwithstanding, what the decision fails to highlight is that the Middle East, while often a region overlooked in fashion and disregarded for its culture, is actually a natural spring of inspiration. While Gigi has has never shied away from her Arab roots—even going so far as to explicitly claim her partial Palestinian heritage on social media—making her the representation for the 22 countries that fall under the purview of Vogue Arabia, is ultimately rather misguided.

Curiously, Mohieb Dahabieh, Vogue Arabia’s special projects director, wrote in defence of the cover, “Now that Vogue Arabia has landed, the time has come to open our eyes and embrace our own ancestry and let go of a hindering common approach that praises the foreign and ignores the home-grown. This cover is the first step on that journey.” That itself however feels inherently counterintuitive. While he also wrote earlier in the article that, “Due to political and economic issues, we’ve had to look outwards to other cultures for design and architecture. Somewhere down the line we seem to have forgotten where we came from,” he seems to be digressing within his own argument. Though Gigi Hadid may be a pop-culture icon in her own right, she is not an icon of the Middle East, nor truly a product of it. Commemoration of the region and it’s rich history would have been better delivered through another—say Queen Rania of Jordan, beauty mogul Huda Kattan, or model Halima Aden.

While the publishing industry continues to endure times of austerity, the content, often more focused on revenue potential than creative ingenuity, has become prosaic. Features in magazines are often tied to family members, friends or acquaintances, bringing into question the sincerity of an article and the content of the magazine. This is many ways, albeit arguably, has created a one-dimensional platform. In short, these habits have bred an environment where those chosen for the covers or features inside the glossies are usually a marketing goldmine or someones best gal-pal. Knowing Gigi’s following—33.9 million at the time of writing this and counting—it is not a far stretch to speculate why she would grace the chief cover of Vogue Arabia.

Creating a cohesive voice for an entire region, of which each country has its own culture and identity, is undoubtedly a behemoth task. Particularly with enduring controversy over topics like the burqa and its role in women’s rights—in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive and are required by law to wear an abaya, a variation of the burqa—to political alliances, the complexities are stark. The selection for the first-ever issue should have been emblematic of cohesiveness and collaboration, highlighting the beauty of a region steeped in a vast and immense history. In addition, the Middle East, despite the dearth of positive coverage outside the region itself, is bustling. The selection of Gigi however gave spotlight to a girl far removed from the cultural nuances of day-to-day life who instead tried to emulate it—a point further illustrated by the hijab featured on the cover and within the glossy itself. There are many inspiring women throughout the Middle East and North Africa. By ignoring this fact at a landmark moment feels uninspired and was a fallacious attempt to simultaneously appear globally relevant, while satisfying the target market. Though it may be overreaching to claim cultural appropriation, it is certainly tone deaf to a region that is eager to be heard.