Ever since the political changes of 2010-11 there has been interest in the role of social media in the Middle East. See for instance Malcolm Gladwell's “Small change - why the revolution will not be tweeted”,  John Pollock's "Streetbook - how Egyptian and Tunisian youth hacked the Arab Spring" or Clay Shirky's essay on "Technology, the public sphere, and political change".

Whatever your view, it is clear that social media in the Middle East is growing rapidly. Anyone with an interest in the Arab region needs to be aware of how technology is shaping attitudes and behaviours, particularly amongst young people.

Last month saw the publication of the Dubai School of Government’s 5th Arab Social Media Report which features demographic data, emerging trends and the latest adoption figures for three of the largest social networks: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Here are the headline figures:

  • Facebook: There are now 54.5 million users in the region (up from 45.1 million last year)
  • Twitter: 10.8 million tweets come from the region every day. Some 73.6% of all tweets from the region are now in Arabic
  • LinkedIn: Users up to 4.7 million
  • YouTube: 285 million videos are viewed every day - the second-highest regional consumption in the world. Across the Middle East, two hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

While these figures sound impressive, as the chart below shows, penetration of social networks is still relatively low in many countries, suggesting plenty of scope for further growth.

Much of the growth is likely to be dominated by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the region’s two most populous countries.  

With a population of 82.5 million people, Egypt makes up 20% of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) population and is home to more than a quarter of all Facebook users in the region. Even though 1.5 million new Egyptian users have joined Facebook since January, the 14 million Facebook users in that country still represent only 16% of the population.

Similarly Twitter also enjoys relatively large user numbers in Egypt (the second highest in the region at 519,000), but this is just 0.6% of the population. As with Facebook, there’s considerable potential to grow this market.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia is already a more digital society. Home to 28 million people, mobile phone penetration levels exceed 200%. That means there are more than two active phones (or registered Sim cards at least) for every person who lives there - which may go some way to explaining why half the YouTube consumption in Saudi Arabia is done via a mobile.

As well as leading the way mobile penetration, Saudi Arabia has more people online than any other country in the region. In fact, its 8.5 million internet users are akin to the combined numbers online across all of Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Oman.

What’s striking about Saudi Arabia is the relative popularity of Twitter. In contrast to Facebook, which saw 500,000 people in Saudi Arabia drop off the network this year (suggesting that Facebook fatigue may not just be a Western phenomenon), the number of active Twitter users in the country more than doubled - up by 128%.

Saudi Arabia now has 1.9 million Twitter users, more than a million of whom joined in the past year. This group makes up just over half of the Middle East’s 3.7 million Twitter users, and they are responsible for almost half the tweets produced across the in the region each day, 90% of them in Arabic.

With less than 7% of the Saudi population tweeting, it will be interesting to see if this rapid growth can be sustained or if users will simply migrate to other platforms, as seems to have happened in the past year with Facebook.

Elements of this story were reported in the Middle East Digital Digest Q2 2013, a round-up of digital and tech stories (English version; Arabic version).

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Damian Radcliffe

    on 8 Aug 2013 05:52

    Hi Craig,

    You're right about the challenge of getting good stats, different sources do suggest different figures, but as you say the number is not insignificant and the upward curve is pronounced, whatever source you use.

    In terms of the figures above, the DSG explain how they sourced this on page 29 of their report: http://www.arabsocialmediareport.com/UserManagement/PDF/ASMR_5_Report_Final.pdf - "The number of Twitter users, number of tweets, and top trends in all 22 Arab countries, in addition to Iran, Israel and Turkey, was estimated in the month of March 2013 by sampling 733,000 Twitter users and 2.47 million tweets. The study was conducted using a specially developed Twitter API..."

    The 17 million tweets a day figure is also one I've seen before - and indeed published: http://www.slideshare.net/ictQATAR/digital-digest-special-social-media-in-the-mena-2012-review - this figure was given by Kaveh Gharib, localization project manager, Twitter at an event in Doha at the end of last year (See: http://bit.ly/12hwCX3)

    The two stats may not be contradictory, as the 17m a day figure is the number of tweets in Arabic, my assumption is that this includes the diaspora and people outside of the 22 countries covered by the DSG report who speak and tweet in Arabic.

    Why has Twitter taken off so much in Saudi? I can only guess. The short form of tweets may be appealing. It could be just a trend and thus fashionable to join (and equally fashionable to churn off FB) or it could be the fact that some users find the smartphone experience better on Twitter than Facebook. That said, a third of Facebook users in KSA access via mobile only: http://www.slideshare.net/ictQATAR/digital-digest-q1-2013 (Slide 18) - so it is hard to tell. It will be interesting to see the figures next year and if some more long term trends can be ascertained.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Craig Smith

    on 2 Aug 2013 14:00

    I find the social media trend and these stats fascinating. It's hard to come across reliable data especially for Twitter usage in the Middle East though... I have seen estimates as high as 17 Million tweets a day in Arabic since late 2012 on a number of different usage studies - like http://newsgame.co.uk/82/media-evolution-middle-east/ compared the the 7 odd million suggested in your post (10.8M x 73.6%). Still, it's no insignificant number.

    The Saudi Twitter stats in Figure 28 lie an order of magnitude above any other country in the region... I would be curious to know your guess (or insight!) as to why that medium has taken off so aggressively. My take is because it's a lot easier to tweet on your mobile than to use facebook and given the mobile penetration in Saudi, that would be consistent. I would also be curious to know the age demographic of the Twitter users - that might be more indicative of whether it's a passing fad or something that's going to last for some time.

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