I’ve been mapping social media trends in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), producing an annual report every year since 2012, in order to highlight evolving social media habits in the region.
The latest study dropped in March, looking at social media usage during the pandemic, as well as longer-term trends.
Here are five main takeaways from the report.
(1) The Middle East loves social media
Although usage varies, research from GlobalWebIndex indicates that social media users in the wider Middle East and Africa (MEA) region spend over three and a half hours a day on social networks.
In doing this, time is split across a number of different channels. Internet users in the region have an average of 8.4 social media accounts, rising to 10.5 accounts in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). That’s “the highest number of social media accounts per person globally,” Forbes reports.
In the three most commonly researched markets — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — Google, WhatsApp and YouTube sit in the Top 10 brands list of YouGov’s 2020 Best Brand Rankings. These brands typically sit alongside regional and national brands, demonstrating high levels of consumer trust in social networks and tech giants.
(2) Older networks remain relevant
Newer, more visually-led social networks are popular, especially in the more prosperous Gulf region, where smartphone penetration and incomes are higher. However, older networks— like Facebook and Twitter — remain very relevant in North Africa and Turkey, where their take-up continues to expand.
Egypt is the most populous country in the region, with a population north of 100 million, and it is the ninth largest national market for Facebook in the world, with 44 million users. Libya (100%), UAE (93%) and Qatar (90%) are among the countries with the highest levels of reach for Facebook, relative to the population, according to data from We Are Social and Hootsuite.
Facebook continues to grow in several North African markets. Morocco, Algeria and Egypt can all be found in the Top 10 markets where Facebook is growing the fastest.
Meanwhile, Turkey (sixth), Saudi Arabia (eighth) and Egypt (18th) are in the Top 20 largest markets for Twitter.
Lebanese pop artist Elissa is the Arab world’s most influential person on Twitter and the only Arab figure to make a list of 50 most powerful international influencers on the social network, a report published by Brandwatch revealed.
(3) Social media habits are redefining other behaviors
Adoption of social media has also begun to influence other consumer and media behaviors.
More than three-quarters (79%) of Arab nationals between the ages of 18-24 say they get their news from social media. That’s up from 25% in 2015, according to the latest Arab Youth Survey.
Social media is shaping other activities, too. Users in Morocco (60%), Egypt (60%), Saudi Arabia (59%), Turkey (56%), Israel (52%) and UAE (49%) are all more likely to use social media as part of their research into brands than the global average.
As eCommerce and online shopping continue to grow, following the shot in the arm they received during the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of online behavior will only become more significant.
(4) Visual-led networks pack a punch
Four MENA countries (Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt) are in the 15 largest national markets for Snapchat.
“In Saudi Arabia, more people watch Snapchat Discover content every day than any of the top 10 TV channels, both before and during COVID-19,” says Hussein Freijeh, general manager of Snap Inc. MENA.
TikTok’s ascendancy meant that the top TikTok influencers in the Gulf region grew their followers by an average of 65% between February and August 2020, with user engagement highest in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Seventy percent of Egypt’s internet users watch YouTube on a daily basis. The network launched YouTube Premium, an ad-free subscription service, last year, which allows offline access. This enables users to watch videos they have downloaded, as well as “background play,” whereby audio continues to play even if a user exits the YouTube app.
(5) COVID-19 has reinforced the importance of social
More than half of users in MEA (57%) reported in May that they were spending even more time on social media as a result of COVID-19.
Similarly, in a separate study, 71% of respondents in the Middle East reported their usage of WhatsApp and other messaging apps had increased since the outbreak of the pandemic. This was just behind the 75% of users who said their consumption of social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok had increased as a result of social distancing. According to PwC, who conducted the survey, these numbers were “substantially more than the average of 52% for all (eight other) territories.”
Alongside inspiring more time on social media, COVID-19 also reminded stakeholders about the importance of social networks as information sources. Efforts to combat the “infodemic” created opportunities for civil society organizations and nongovernmental organizations to embrace social as a key channel for communicating with audiences.
In Sudan, for example, the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund and the World Health Organization set up COVID-19 WhatsApp alerts in Arabic and English to provide “advice on staying safe, frequently asked questions, tips for protecting yourself and others,” according to the press release. Elsewhere, the Mada Center in Palestine, Tech 4 Peace in Iraq and the Lebanon-based Maharat Foundation tackled COVID-19 rumors on social media and highlighted accurate sources of public health information.
Governments also leaned in on social media’s reach, using different platforms — and working with influencers, such as the Jordanian TV presenter and influencer Ola Al Fares — to disseminate potentially lifesaving messages.
The impact of these efforts, and the importance of social media as a source for news and entertainment across the region, suggests that as a channel for engagement, social media will continue to be important for a wide variety of different stakeholders long after the pandemic has ended.
Damian Radcliffe is the Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, a fellow of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture Studies, and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). He also hosts the Demystifying Media podcast, in which he interviews leading journalists and media scholars about their work. Find him on Twitter: @damianradcliffe.