Online and Social Media

From 2013 to 2016, internet penetration rose in all six countries surveyed, but most dramatically in Egypt and Lebanon (Egypt: 22% to 59%, Lebanon: 58% to 84%). Internet penetration in Tunisia has stagnated over the past few years and is the lowest among countries surveyed (49%).

Internet penetration increased among all age groups between 2014 and 2016. Not surprisingly, younger nationals are more likely to use the internet; 93% of 18 to 24 year-olds are online, compared to 85% of adults 25 to 34 years-old, 72% of 35 to 44 year-olds, and 39% of respondents 45 years and older. Internet penetration increases sharply with education (14% primary school or less, 56% intermediate, 79% secondary, 94% university or higher).

Men are more likely than women to use the internet in Egypt and Tunisia (Egypt: 63% vs. 54%, Tunisia: 54% vs. 43%). The trend reverses in Lebanon, where more women than men are online (88% vs. 81%). Internet penetration is similar among men and women in the three Arab Gulf States in the study.

Arab, Asian, and Western expatriates are all more likely than Arab nationals to use the internet (97% Arab expatriates, 98% Asian expatriates, 97% Western expatriates vs. 73% Arab nationals).

Smartphone ownership tracks closely with internet penetration in the six countries surveyed. Nearly all nationals in the Gulf States and Lebanon use a smartphone—nine in 10 or more—compared to 43% of Tunisians and 61% of Egyptians. Smartphone ownership is highest among young respondents; 89% of nationals 18 to 24 years-old own smartphones compared to 85% of 25 to 34 year-olds, 71% of 35 to 44 year-olds, and only 49% of those 45 years or older.

Mobile broadband penetration, however, is not nearly as high in Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia as in the Arab Gulf countries. Large majorities of the populations in Gulf countries have mobile broadband access, but just 42% of Lebanese, 31% of Egyptians, and 31% of Tunisians have mobile broadband subscriptions, according to data from the World Economic Forum and displayed in the chart below.   

Smartphone penetration increases with both education and frequency of international travel. Only 19% of those with a primary education, compared to over 90% of university-educated respondents, have a smartphone. About nine in 10 nationals who have traveled outside the Middle East in the past three years own smartphones compared to about seven in 10 who have not traveled (87% of those traveled outside Middle East have a smartphone vs. 69% of those who did not travel outside Middle East).

Men and women own smartphones equally, except in Tunisia, where 49% of men and 37% of women own smartphones. Nearly all expatriates own a smartphone compared to three-quarters of Arab nationals (98% Asian, 97% Arab, 97% Western expatriates vs. 74% Arab nationals).

About eight in 10 national internet users in the region use Facebook and WhatsApp, the dominant social media platforms (82% and 77%). However, only one in five Qataris use Facebook, but more rely significantly on Instagram and Snapchat (22% Facebook vs. 60% Instagram and 55% Snapchat). Only 3% of Tunisians use WhatsApp, but all Tunisians use Facebook (100%).

Facebook’s penetration in the region has declined since 2013 (88% in 2013, 89% in 2014, 83% in 2015, 82% in 2016). Twitter use in the region fell sharply in the past year (40% 2015 vs. 28% 2016). Neither LinkedIn nor Pinterest have a foothold in the Arab countries surveyed (2% and 1%).

Though more young nationals use social media in general, WhatsApp is more popular among the oldest group (45+) than the youngest group (18-24) (83% vs. 74%).

A significant majority of each platform’s users use it daily, except LinkedIn, for which fewer than one-third of its users access it daily. More than nine in 10 Facebook and WhatsApp users are daily users (94% and 93%). However, while only 17% of nationals use Snapchat, 83% of them use it daily.

Communication with others is the primary purpose for nationals to use both Facebook and WhatsApp (63% and 90%). The primary purpose of YouTube, however, is finding and sharing entertainment (60%), while Twitter users primarily use that platform to find and share news (46%). In both cases, more to find than to share content. An equal proportion of Instagram users name both communication and entertainment as the primary use of the platform (41% each).

Facebook users in the region report a median of 160 friends. About one-third report fewer than 100 friends and 16% have 500 or more Facebook friends. The median number of Facebook friends ranges from the highest in Tunisia to the lowest in Saudi Arabia (332 vs. 60). Men report a higher median number Facebook friends than women (200 vs. 140).

The median number of Facebook friends decreases with age, from 230 among 18 to 24 year-olds to only 80 among those 45 years and older. Cultural progressives report a higher median number of friends than cultural conservatives (200 vs. 150).

Half of nationals say social media influence their entertainment choices, and more Emiratis agree with that statement than any other nationals. The share of respondents who say their choices are influenced by social media ranges from 64% of 18 to 24 year-olds to 28% of those 45 years and older. Forty-five percent of nationals say direct messaging or email helps them make entertainment choices, with proportions ranging from 53% of 18 to 24 year-olds to 31% of those 45 years and older.

Three in four internet users have shared—sent or posted—content or comments online in the past month; videos, news, and music are the most shared topics (43% videos, 30% news, 25% music). This pattern holds across all countries except Qatar, where 58% of nationals do not share online, a proportion twice that in Lebanon and the UAE.

More men than women share about news and sports (news: 33% vs. 26%, sports: 30% vs. 5%). More women than men share content about music (28% vs. 22%). Online sharing increases with education.

More of the youngest (18-24) than the oldest (45+) internet users share content online (78% vs. 63%). The 18 to 24 year-olds are twice as likely as those 45 years and older to share content about sports online, and more than three times as likely to share music-related content. Sharing or commenting on videos is more common among the youngest (18-24) than the oldest (45+) age group (49% vs. 30%).

Sharing content online becomes more common the more social media platforms nationals use. Overall, among nationals using only one social media platform, 65% shared or commented online about any content in the past month. This proportion increases slightly to 67% among those using two to three platforms and jumps to 83% among those using four or more social media platforms. This pattern holds across content types; for example, only 25% of nationals using one social media platform share videos online compared to 53% of those using four or more platforms. The same percentages rise from 20% to 32% for music and from 24% to 33% for news.

Three in 10 national internet users worry about governments checking what they do online, a slight decrease from previous years (37% in 2015 and 35% in 2013). Saudis are more likely to express concern than other nationals (43%), while one in five Emiratis say the same (22%). However, the share of nationals region-wide who express concern about companies monitoring online activity is higher than for governments, and rose steadily from 33% in 2013, to 37% in 2015, and to 42% in 2016. Corporate surveillance concerns more Saudis and Tunisians than any other nationals (52% and 45%), while one in three Emiratis, Lebanese, and Qataris worry about surveillance by companies (36% Emiratis, 35% Lebanese, 35% Qataris).

More cultural progressives than conservatives express concern about online surveillance by both governments and companies (governments: 42% progressives vs. 26% conservatives, companies: 46% progressives vs. 39% conservatives). In 2015, however, the overall level of concern with company surveillance was not only lower than in 2016, but more conservatives, not progressives, were concerned (38% vs. 32%). In 2015, about one-third of each group expressed concern with government surveillance.

Between 2015 and 2016, concern for governments monitoring online activity decreased from four to six percentage points among Arab nationals and expatriates, Asian expatriates, and Western expatriates. Still, more Asian and Western expatriates than Arabs worry about government surveillance (45% Asian expatriates and 41% Western expatriates vs. 32% Arab expatriates and 31% Arab nationals).

Those using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) or other proxy service are more likely to worry about both types of surveillance. More VPN-using nationals worry about governments and companies checking what they do online (governments: 39% VPN vs. 31% no VPN, companies: 53% VPN vs. 41% no VPN).

Overall, only 7% of internet users use VPNs, though the figure is one in five among Emiratis (21%). Even among the youngest and most educated nationals, just one in 10 nationals use a VPN or other proxy service. Expatriates are slightly more likely to use VPNs than nationals (16% Asian expatriates, 12% Western expatriates, 10% Arab expatriates vs. 7% nationals).

Nearly seven in 10 national internet users say they changed how they use social media due to privacy concerns, with proportions ranging from 89% of Saudis and 75% of Egyptians to 46% of Qataris.

Over eight in 10 of those concerned with government or corporate surveillance of their online activity say they have changed their social media habits due to privacy misgivings, compared to about half of those without such concerns.

More Asian and Western expatriates than Arabs have changed social media habits due to privacy worries (76% of Western expatriates and 83% of Asian expatriates vs. 62% Arab expatriates and 68% Arab nationals).

Majorities of internet users spend time online for entertainment, including watching video, listening to music, and watching films (90% video, 78% music, 68% films). Most national internet users pass time online daily, and more do so now than in 2014 (74% vs. 63%). Regionally, four in 10 nationals watch online video daily and three in 10 listen to music online every day (42% and 31%). One in 10 watch films online daily (12%). Checking the news online is also popular; 85% of nationals generally check news online and 40% check daily.

Young adults (18-24) are more likely than other age groups to pass time online daily (79% of 18 to 24 year-olds vs. 67% of those 45 years and older). The youngest adults (18-24) compared to the oldest adults (45+) are twice as likely to watch online video daily, four times as likely to daily listen to music daily, and four times as likely to watch films online daily (video: 53% vs. 24%, music: 46% vs. 10%, films: 17% vs. 4%). Checking online news daily is least common among those 45 years and older (33% vs. 39% of 18 to 24 year-olds, 42% of 25 to 34 year-olds, 45% of 35 to 44 year-olds).

Internet users with at least a university education are more likely than those with less education to engage in online activities daily such as checking news, listening to music, and watching video content (news: 44% university vs. 29% primary, music: 36% university vs. 20% primary, video: 46% university vs. 32% primary).

Across the region, four in 10 nationals who access music, news, and films do so online. Emiratis are most likely to access music and films online (64% and 57%). While fewer nationals access TV online, Emiratis and Saudis are the most likely to do so (23% overall vs. 29% each Emiratis and Saudis). More Qataris than other nationals access news online (56%). Tunisians are least likely to access a variety of media online (38% music, 34% news, 17% TV). Only one-third of Egyptians access films online. Broadband limitations may play a role in Tunisia and Egypt.

Approximately three to four times as many respondents ages 18 to 24 access music, news, films, and TV programs online than those 45 years and older. Only 8% with a primary education or less access music online compared to 28% of those with intermediate, 51% with secondary, and 62% with university educations. The pattern is similar for accessing both news and film online. More than 10 times as many university-educated nationals access TV programs online as those with the lowest education (34% vs. 3%).

Large majorities in all countries access the internet in Arabic, from 99% in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to 94% in Qatar, 81% in Lebanon, and 68% in Tunisia. A majority of internet users in Lebanon use English online (62%), as do about four in 10 internet users from Tunisia, Qatar, and the UAE (44% Tunisia, 41% Qatar, 37% UAE). A majority of Tunisians access the internet in French (84%), compared to few or none in other countries. English use online varies by country, but from 2013 to 2016 declined in Lebanon, Qatar, and marginally in Egypt (Lebanon: 79% vs. 62%, Qatar: 56% vs. 41%, Egypt: 24% vs. 18%). English use remains low in Saudi Arabia (11% 2013 vs. 13% 2016). Accessing English on the internet is on an upward trend in the UAE (26% in 2013 vs. 37% in 2016).

Forty-three percent of internet users ages 18 to 24 years-old access the internet in English, compared to 24% of those 45 years and older. Those with at least a secondary education are more likely to access the internet in English than the least-educated respondents (46% university or higher and 30% secondary vs. 24% intermediate and 16% primary or less).

Comedy, news, and music were respondents’ three favorite online video genres in both 2014 and 2016. Compared to 2014, more respondents in 2016 list comedy as one of their three favorite genres in Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (Lebanon: 30% to 59%, Egypt: 48% to 56%, KSA: 43% to 56%, UAE: 38% to 52%). The popularity of music videos remained steady everywhere except Tunisia and the UAE where they grew in popularity between 2014 and 2016 (Tunisia: 32% to 51%, UAE: 19% to 30%). Favor for news dropped in Egypt, but increased in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia over the same two years (Egypt: 41% to 25% vs. KSA: 17% to 31% and Tunisia: 30% to 38%).

More men than women cite sports, news, and documentaries as favorite online video genres (sports: 37% vs. 5%, news: 32% vs. 24%, documentaries: 22% vs. 18%). Women more frequently than men list drama, fashion, and children/family-oriented content as favorite online videos (drama 26% vs. 20%, fashion: 24% vs. 5%, children/family: 12% vs. 7%).

More cultural conservatives than progressives favor news and religious/spiritual programming (news: 31% vs. 23%, religious/spiritual: 20% vs. 11%). However, more progressives than conservatives cite online comedy and music videos among their favorite content (comedy: 57% vs. 50%, music: 36% vs. 28%).

Nationals who believe their country is headed in the right direction are more likely to report religious/spiritual programming among their three favorite online video genres (20% vs. 8% wrong track), whereas more of those who say their country is on the wrong track prefer documentaries (25% vs. 19% right track). However, both groups are equally likely to cite comedy, music, and news as their top three favorite online video genres.

Of the video content national internet users access online, 53% is related to entertainment compared to 38% related to news and information, according to respondents’ best estimates. Qataris are the only nationals to say they watch more news than entertainment online (49% news/informational vs. 46% entertainment). Qatari, Saudi, and Tunisian internet users report small increases from 2014 to 2016 in estimates of the portions of their online video diets filled by entertainment (Qataris: 37% to 46%, Saudis: 53% to 56%, Tunisians: 47% to 51%). Between 2014 and 2016, the proportion of time spent watching news/informational videos decreased among Lebanese, Saudis, Tunisians, and Emiratis (Lebanese: 41% to 34%, Saudis: 37% to 34%, Tunisians: 46% to 39%, Emiratis: 45% to 41%).

Watching entertainment videos online is more common among 18 to 24 year-olds than those 45 years and older (59% vs. 45%). The oldest respondents (45+) watch more news and information videos than any other age group (43% vs. 41% of 35 to 44 year-olds, 38% of 25 to 34 year-olds, 34% of 18 to 24 year-olds).

Few nationals are willing to pay for any content online and even fewer said they have paid for online content in the past year (willing to pay: 26% and have paid: 17%). More Emiratis are willing to pay for online content than other nationals (47%). More men than women are both willing to pay for and have paid for online sports content in the past year (men willing: 15% and men paid: 10% vs. women: 2% either willing to or have paid).

Eighteen to 24 year-old national internet users are much more willing than those 45 years and older to pay for films, video games, and music online (films: 14% vs. 4%, games: 11% vs. 4%, music: 11% vs. 2%). While more of the youngest adults (18-24) have paid for digital content than older respondents, the proportions remain low: 6% to 9% of 18 to 24 year-olds have paid for music, sports, and video games in the past year, compared to 2% to 4% of those over 45 years-old.