While there are some nuances – cosmetics made with hemp seed oil are legal in Dubai, for example – possession of CBD-based products is still largely banned in the UAE. (Hemp seed oil does not contain CBD.)
However, with the approval of Dubai authorities, Juana Skin’s product line will bring CBD – or cannabidiol, which is found in the stem, leaves and flowers of the hemp plant – to consumers in the Middle East in the form of clarifying moisturizers, night creams, facial oils and body butters. Unlike its psychoactive cousin THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, CBD does not cause a high and has been shown to help relieve skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, itching or itchy skin, and inflammation.
“I wanted to go where no one else dared to go.”
Yann Moujawaz and his mother Juana Martini. Credit: Juana Skin
But Moujawaz says he wasn’t interested in serving consumers who are already spoiled for choice. He wanted to pave the way and bring the health benefits of CBD to a new market that was closed.
“I wanted to go where no one else dared to go,” he said.
A joint venture
While studying at the London School of Economics in 2013, Moujawaz was part of a team that won first place (and €5,000 in prize money) at the LH Forum French economics and entrepreneurial competition with a proposal to turn fruit scraps into a sustainable skincare brand. Moujawaz now admits that the idea largely repackaged the homemade skincare remedies his mother regularly made for her family from natural oils and food waste while growing up in France.
It was a tradition rooted in Martini’s own childhood, when she lived on olive farms in Syria and made Aleppo soap, a Castilian soap made from olive and laurel oils.
“I am very passionate about natural products, especially oil-based solutions, as I was born into a family that produced olive oil,” Martini said during a Zoom interview from Dubai. “I always watched my mom make all-natural remedies and I did the same for my kids.”
A young Juana Martini, pictured in one of her family’s olive farms. Credit: Juana Skin
After graduating from LSE, Moujawaz worked on major development projects in the Middle East as a lead consultant at the Boston Consulting Group in Dubai. But the stress of his jet-set lifestyle took a toll on his health; he lost his hair, suffered from back pain and insomnia, and had his gallbladder removed.
“I realized a moment when I said to myself that no matter how brilliant my career was, it would never give me back the organs I lost,” said Moujawaz, 32. “That’s when I understood the true cost of a poor quality of life.”
At the same time, Martini struggled to navigate life as a single empty nester in Paris after all three of her children left home and lived abroad.
Between his deteriorating health, burnout and his mother’s deepening depression, the wheels started turning in Moujawaz’s head and he asked his mother to work with him. Only this time, instead of orange peels and fruit scraps, they’d create a brand using the family’s newfound all-natural remedy obsession: CBD oil.
During a family vacation to California in 2019, Martini had discovered the powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant properties of CBD oil – the way it soothed her eczema within hours and accelerated the healing process of a scar.
“I’ve always used olive oil as the base for most of my remedies, but when I added CBD oil, my formulas went to another level,” says Martini, who keeps handwritten records of various formulas in a notebook. “I was really so impressed.”
Moujawaz was also converted as CBD helped relieve his insomnia and stress levels. He read obsessively about their benefits and learned how they have been shown to keep the body’s endocannabinoid system – a cell signaling network that regulates everything from sleep, appetite, memory, fertility and skin health – running smoothly.
In addition to dispelling the myths and misinformation about CBD, Moujawaz says it was essential to highlight these benefits. The brand’s strategy hinges on positioning its product line less as beauty products and more as pharmaceutical-grade natural treatments to help with skin conditions.
Maintain high standards
But the process of creating products that would both override local drug bans and meet legal requirements took time — and patience. Moujawaz and Martini partnered with registered organic hemp farms in Spain and Portugal to source their CBD strains and pumped their products with potency two to four times higher than the average western market products to ensure efficiency. During the product development process, they introduced a ban on some 2,000 filler ingredients, while approved formulas were subjected to clinical trials in France and Germany. He describes the laborious process as a “blessing in disguise”.
“Because the standards here (in the UAE) were so high and we had to prove we were a brand with strong medico-pharmaceutical value, we pushed ourselves daily in reformulating our products.”
While Juana Skin may have cleared the administrative hurdles, Amna Abbas, beauty and health consultant for the Middle East at market research group Euromonitor, says the next big hurdle will be convincing Emirati consumers that CBD is safe and effective
“In this region, the awareness and knowledge of cannabis is not there yet,” she said. “If you say cannabis, it has a negative perception.”
Juana Skin cooling gel. Credit: Juan skin
Moujawaz understands this well, which is why when they officially launch in the UAE this winter, Juana Skin products will be available for the first time at healthcare and dermatology clinics, where consumers can ask questions and learn more about CBD from trained professionals . Moujawaz also hosts educational conferences in the region to demystify CBD, including a recently sold-out “TED Talks” style event at private club The Arts Club Dubai
Abbas also points out that while many women in the region tend to wear full makeup, the pandemic has sparked more interest in preventative skin care and a more natural look. This market shift could work in Juana Skin’s favor.
“After the pandemic, there is more interest in general wellbeing and self-care in the region,” she said. “And that includes a shift from color cosmetics to skin care.”
For Moujawaz, the launch of Juana Skin is also about breaking free from different forms. He also notes that female plants, which produce the highest concentrations of cannabidiol, are the main source of CBD.
“For my mother, it was a chance to show that it’s never too late to start over,” said Moujawaz. “She proved otherwise, that you can take the craziest idea out there and start a cannabis business in the Middle East.”