In an increasingly wired Arab world, mass media consumers do not live by news and politics alone, but rather use a host of entertainment resources that occupy and enrich, depending on one’s perspective, their time. Cross-national studies of Arab media use, particularly since the Arab uprisings of 2010 and beyond, have examined mass media as tools of social change, privileging news and political conflict. This picture of mass media behavior is crucial but incomplete. Localized studies have shown that entertainment media use eclipses news and information-seeking in mass media (Ayyad, 2011; Deloitte, Dubai Press Club, 2013). Saudi Arabia, for example, consumes more YouTube content per capita than any country in the world (Kerr, 2014), and surveys focusing exclusively on legacy news use, to the exclusion of entertainment, can miss important media influences. For these reasons, Northwestern University in Qatar, in partnership with Doha Film Institute, undertook what is the most comprehensive survey of entertainment media use in the Arab world ever conducted. What follows is a snapshot of some of the results from each area of entertainment media explored in the survey.
Media and Leisure
An overarching trend observed in this research is that people want more entertainment media from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). While they may consume and enjoy entertainment from all parts of the world, people in the region ultimately have a strong cultural drive reflected in their entertainment choices and desires.
The large majority agrees more should be done to preserve cultural traditions (79%). Two-thirds prefer to watch films that portray their own culture and would like more entertainment to be based on their culture and history (65% each). That said, two-thirds also acknowledge that their culture should integrate with modern society and people benefit from watching content from different parts of the world (70% and 66%, respectively); this is also the case among country nationals (70% and 63%, respectively, agree).
Almost all Arab nationals consume entertainment media in Arabic (film, television, music, online content). The use of English among nationals varies widely by medium. Very few nationals read print material or watch TV programs in English (14% and 18%, respectively). Comparatively, a third listens to music in English (32%) and even more – about four in ten – watch films and online videos in English (46% and 40%, respectively).
A large majority of Arab nationals – about nine in ten – consume film, television, music and online content produced in the MENA region. Comparatively, two-thirds of nationals watch films from outside the region (64%). Fewer watch other content from outside the region (35% online content, 30% music 23% television).
People in these countries are most likely to watch and enjoy films and television from the MENA region, but many report enjoying content from outside the region as well. Arabs – nationals and expats – also feel strongly that films and television produced in the region are more accurate portrayals of Arabs and life in the Arab world and are better for morality than those from outside the region. In fact, they are more likely to say films and television from outside the region are harmful for morality than good for morality. Perhaps, therefore, Hollywood (and other non-MENA) films and television might be considered “guilty pleasures” that are enjoyed by many respondents despite the fact that many feel they are harmful.
Film is an important outlet for entertainment in the MENA region, though less so in the sense of actually going to the cinema. Fewer than half of people in the region ever go the cinema (45%). Once again, there is great variation by country; the majority of residents of the UAE go to the cinema, while very few in Tunisia do (82% vs. 15%).
Younger people are the most likely to watch films via all formats – television, cinema, online and disc.
Three-fourths of internet users watch films online, and four in ten do so at least once a week (75% and 42%, respectively). One-third says they would be likely to pay to stream or download films (33%).
MENA residents rely on television as a primary form of entertainment; seven in ten watch television every day. Free-to-air is the most common format for watching television (69%), but one-third of internet users watch television online (36%). Internet users are twice as likely to stream shows online as to download them to a device (30% vs. 12%).
Four in ten people in the region “binge watch” television programming; that is, they watch two or more episodes in one sitting. Women are much more likely to binge watch than men (49% vs. 31%).
Four in ten people in the region play video games (43%); half of men and a third of women play video games (49% vs. 36%).
Gamers are more likely to play alone than with others (57.5% alone, 42.5% with others). Those who do play socially are equally likely to do so online as offline (22% and 21%).
Unlike other entertainment media explored in this survey, gamers in the MENA region are more likely to play video games in English than in Arabic (67% in English vs. 56% in Arabic). Country nationals are more likely to play video games in Arabic, but even the majority of gamers in this group play in English (73% of nationals play in Arabic, 59% play in English).
Music is a very important source of entertainment for young people. Almost all of those under 25 listen to music and nearly two-thirds listen to music every day (94%, 63%). Seven in ten in this group say music is important for their entertainment (71%). For under 25s, listening to music is nearly identical in frequency and importance to TV watching; 94% watch TV at all, 60% watch every day, and 71% say it is important.
More than three-quarters of people in all six countries listen to Arabic music and a sizable minority listens to Western music (77% vs. 42%). Four in ten nationals in the five countries, excluding Egypt, listen to Western music (41%), while few Egyptians listen to Western music (8%).
Internet and Social Media
Given the prevalence of the internet in the region, and the Gulf states in particular (96% UAE, 87% Saudi Arabia, 85% Qatar, 62% Lebanon, 47% Tunisia, 36% Egypt), it is perhaps not surprising that the internet is important for entertainment. Six in ten internet users pass time online at least once a day for entertainment (59%); this jumps to 68% among those under 25, but even half of those 45 and older are online every day for entertainment (52%). A third of internet users watch online videos every day (35%).
Facebook is the predominant social networking site in the region; nine in ten internet users are on Facebook (89%). Its use is high among all demographic groups except Qatari nationals. Only a third of Qatari nationals use Facebook (36%). Qatari nationals are more likely to use Instagram (46%), and are as likely to use Twitter (37%), as Facebook.
Men in the MENA region are more likely to be online than women (74% vs. 63%). A gender difference is observed in all countries except the UAE, where both genders are equally likely to be online (97% men, 95% women).
Regulation and Censorship of Entertainment Media
About seven in ten respondents believe entertainment should be more tightly regulated for violent and romantic content, and that some scenes should be deleted, or whole programs banned, if some people find them offensive. Support for regulation and censorship is expressed most strongly in the Gulf states.
While the majority opposes the airing of “offensive” entertainment, they still want their entertainment to reflect “reality.” Two-thirds of those surveyed feel it is okay for entertainment to portray problems in society (67%).
Two-thirds of respondents agree that government oversight helps produce quality entertainment (65%). Residents of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the most likely to support government involvement in entertainment production, while only a third in Tunisia agree (84%, 76% and 37%, respectively).
Social media have a strong influence on entertainment choice. Nearly two-thirds of internet users say social media are important for their entertainment choices (64%).
The majority of internet users choose to comment or share their opinions about entertainment online (55%).
Children and Entertainment Media
There is a clear belief in households with children that exposure to entertainment media has positive effects. Two-thirds agree entertainment helps children be more creative and imaginative and better socialize with others (66% and 62%, respectively). A majority also believes exposure to entertainment media helps children with hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, and to learn skills needed at school (57% and 55%, respectively).
People with children in the home also express some concerns about entertainment media. Nearly half of people with children in the home feel the entertainment their children are exposed to leads to poor health and obesity (45%). This belief is particularly acute in Qatar where two-thirds agree (65%). Four in ten also agree that entertainment leads to a lack of focus and concentration and makes children desensitized to violence (42% and 41%, respectively).
Two-thirds of those with children in the home feel exposure to entertainment media helps children become more tolerant of other cultures (64%), while half agree that entertainment helps children get a better sense of their own culture (52%). A sizable minority believes films and TV reinforce negative stereotypes that children accept (44%).
A Focus on Qatar
There are some entertainment habits unique to Qatar. Qatar residents are much more voracious readers of print media for entertainment compared with those in the other countries; this includes newspapers, books and magazines. Eight in ten Qatar residents read newspapers compared with two-thirds overall (81% vs. 65%), and half do so daily (53%). Qatar residents are also more likely than others to participate in sports and exercise (83% Qatar vs. 65% total sample), and three in ten in Qatar claim to exercise every day (31%).
Only three in ten Qatar residents watch Qatar-produced television, and even fewer watch online content or listen to music from Qatar (18% and 14%, respectively). A meager 9% watch Qatar-produced films. Half of Qatari nationals watch Qatar-produced TV, 32% listen to Qatari music, 29% watch online content from the country, and 18% watch films made in Qatar. Qataris are more likely in general to consume content from the United States than from Qatar.
Going to the cinema to watch films is popular among non-Arab expats in Qatar, but not as much among Arabs in the country. Two-thirds of non-Arabs go to the cinema (71% of Asian expats, 67% of Western expats), compared to fewer than half of Arabs (43% of Qatari nationals, 38% of Arab expats).
People in Qatar are strong consumers of online news and TV news for entertainment; more so than residents of other countries in this study.
Non-Arabs in Qatar are more likely to listen to music for entertainment than Arabs living in the country. Only half of Qataris report listening to music for entertainment (compared to 87% of Asian expatriates, 84% of Western expats, and 66% of Arab expatriates). This figure for Qatari nationals is low compared to nationals of other countries (82% of nationals overall listen to music).