Media in the Middle East: the relentless rise of digital

Silica valley

Media consumption has changed dramatically around the world over the last few years. The increasingly integral role that smartphones and portable devices play in our personal and professional daily lives has driven a digital revolution.

Nowhere in the world has digital adoption been quicker than in the Middle East. Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, for instance, now rank among the top countries in the world with 100% smartphone penetration and more than 70% social media adoption, figures which exceed those of the United States. This can largely be attributed to the fact that one third of MENA’s (Middle East and North Africa) population is under the age of 15, and a further one in five are aged between 15 and 24, making the region one of the world’s most youthful populations.

This has impacted and increased internet use across the region. In 2016 mobile internet in MENA accounted for 25.2% of total internet traffic. By next year, that percentage is expected to have doubled. Hand-in-hand with this comes a huge increase in data usage: while last year the average MENA consumer used 3.7GB per month, by 2024 this figure is expected to rise to 19GB.

So what has driven this massive growth in digital engagement? To answer this, we need to rewind nine years to the catalyst that sparked mass social media adoption throughout the region: the Arab Spring.

During the Arab Spring, social media – Facebook and Twitter in particular – offered a tool through which citizens, wanting to speak out against oppression and calling for a more democratic future, could share solidarity, inspire hope and demand change. These platforms enabled communication throughout the region, allowing the dissemination of information, raising national and global awareness and organising demonstrations. Ultimately, social media was hailed as a crucial factor in the disintegration of Tunisia and Egypt’s governments.

Following the revolution, the user bases of both Facebook and Twitter boomed, and the evident power that social media is capable of wielding was broadcast worldwide. To this day, Egypt remains the biggest market for Facebook in the MENA region with a user base of over 42m.

Since then, although Facebook and Twitter have continued their dominance throughout the Middle East, more visually-led social networks have overtaken in popularity such as Snapchat and Instagram. Their adoption has been most prominent in the Gulf as they offer greater levels of privacy with messages and pictures disappearing within 24 hours. Snapchat, for instance, now boasts 33m users across the Middle East, more than 17m of whom are in Saudi Arabia, ranking the Kingdom the fifth largest Snapchat market worldwide.

YouTube, too, has enjoyed a surge in popularity with the number of YouTube channels in MENA having increased by 160% over the last few years. This has led to soaring audience numbers across the region: 77% of millennials in Egypt now watch YouTube every day. In Saudi Arabia, YouTube is now the most popular social media platform having overtaken its biggest rival, Facebook. It has since become so widespread that Saudi Arabia currently has the highest YouTube use per capita of any country in the world.

But these platforms are not only being used to share pictures and watch videos; social media has offered another way to keep up to date with current affairs and events. Whilst decreasing numbers are tuning in to watch the news on TV, more and more are looking to social media networks as their go-to source of information. Last year, close to two thirds of young Arab nationals looked first to social media every day for news, up from one quarter in 2016.

In addition to larger audiences accessing news via social media, these online channels are now deemed by most as being more trustworthy than official broadcasters. Across MENA, 82% of the population are confident in the credibility of news from social media (as a point of comparison, only 27% of Europeans consider social media trustworthy). This has been as a direct result of plummeting trust and confidence over the last few years in national news organisations’ ability to report the news fully, accurately and in an unbiased manner. In Jordan, for instance, 66% of people in 2013 believed their local news outlets to be credible and independent, but this had fallen to 38% by 2017. (We could not find more recent figures, but this figure is unlikely to have increased over subsequent years.)

Needless to say, the rise of digital media has come at a cost to legacy media (although the decline of newspaper consumption and production is not an issue that is purely specific to the Middle East). For example, between 2013 and 2019, print newspaper readership decreased by more than 50% in both Qatar and the UAE.

As a result, it has been necessary for media outlets to adjust to these changes by creating online content and social media accounts. Arab News, for instance, relaunched in 2018 with an increase in digital and print offerings spearheading a global and digital expansion. Al Jazeera created AJ+, an online news and current events channel, which produces short, informal videos and exclusive content accessible via social media platforms and a mobile app. Earlier this year, Al Arabiya unveiled its relaunch, boasting new studios, a new design, and the latest technologies to bolster its television, social media and digital platforms.

As innovation in technology relentlessly increases and improves, and with the Middle East leading the charge on the deployment of 5G, traditional media outlets will continuously need to adapt their digital offerings to keep up with the latest trends, internet speeds, and tech. As things currently stand, they will have to move quickly and boldly to regain consumer confidence and outpace their digital native rivals.

Olivia Ogilvie

olivia@trippassociates.co.uk

Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the mediainformationtechnologycommunications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.