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Middle East neighbours can be digitally very different

When it comes to internet usage and social media, the region's countries do not necessarily align

Middle East social media A woman looks at her phone in Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Reuters/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
The UAE uses more social platforms per month than anyone else, at an average of 8.3 per user, against a global average of 6.7

The Digital 2024 Global Overview report gives marketers a chance to see how the online habits and social media usage of the Middle East and North Africa fit in with the rest of the world.

Advertisers and brands use this research by the digital agency We are Social and the software company Meltwater to learn how to tailor their tactics. Because, even on the globally connected internet, one size seldom fits all.

Of the 50-plus countries that Meltwater compares, three are from the Mena region – the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

In general, Arabic is under-represented online: Arabic speakers make up 5.2 percent of the world’s population, but just 0.6 percent of websites are in Arabic.

That makes it only the 19th most popular language on the internet. Unsurprisingly, English is number one, with just over 52 percent of sites catering to the 18 percent of the world’s population who speak English.

Areas where Middle East countries outrank the rest of the world include median mobile connection speed. The UAE has the fastest connections, at 324.92 megabits per second (mbps), and Saudi Arabia, with 112.05mbps, is seventh overall, against a worldwide average of 48.61mpbs. Egypt languishes at 22.11mbps.

This speed of connection is reflected in internet penetration. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are at the upper end of internet users as a percentage of the total population, at 99 percent each. Egypt is at 72 percent, and globally 66 percent of people are online.

Social media is popular in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, it takes up the highest percentage of online time in the world, 43 percent, against a global average of 36 percent. In the UAE users spend 36 percent of their online time on social media, and in Egypt the figure is 34 percent.

The UAE also uses more social platforms per month than anyone else. An average of 8.3 per social media user (aged 16-24) makes it number one globally. In Saudi Arabia this number is 7.7, and in Egypt it is 6.9, against a world average of 6.7.

Saudi social users spend three hours and six minutes a day on social media. In the UAE this figure is  2:58, in Egypt it is 2:43, while the world average is 2:23.

Globally, the most used social platforms are Facebook (3.05 billion active users), then YouTube (2.49 billion), WhatsApp and Instagram (2 billion each), and TikTok (1.56 billion).

However, when asked what their “favourite” social media platform was, 17 percent of global users said Instagram. WhatsApp was second at 16 percent, then Facebook and WeChat (both at 13 percent) and TikTok (7 percent).

Meltwater does not break those traffic and preference numbers down by country, but it is likely that the region does not align with the global average. Snapchat, for example, is likely to register high in both rankings.

It is good news for marketers that, particularly in the GCC, people use platforms to research when they are thinking of making a purchase.

In Saudi Arabia 82 percent of internet users use social media to research brands and products they are considering buying. The figure is 78 percent in Egypt and the same in the UAE. The world average is 74 percent.

Insights such as the above indicate that even when the whole world is connected online, not everyone is the same. The Middle East does not necessarily align its social media usage with the rest of the globe, the GCC and Egypt do not use the internet in the same way, and sometimes even close neighbours like Saudi Arabia and the UAE are not doing the same thing. 

Regional and national marketing strategies are as relevant as ever.

Austyn Allison is an editorial consultant and journalist who has covered Middle East advertising since 2007

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