Overview: Media Use in the Middle East, 2016

Digital divides in the Middle East are narrowing, not only between the Gulf countries and their neighbors, but also between generations and social classes within countries. The results of the increasing ubiquity of internet use, combined with growth in other infrastructure and economic areas including satellite television and physical cinemas, are that more people are gaining access to a wider variety of media than ever before.

Results of this study suggest that increased access to content from around the world has not necessarily led to the abandonment of media from one’s own nation or region. In fact, contrary to the notion of a zero-sum trade-off between traditional and global culture, we see some evidence of increased use of media specific to one’s own identity alongside the expanding availability of international content.

Below are key findings from this study, which are explored in detail in the chapters that follow.

Cultural Attitudes

  • Large majorities of respondents in the six surveyed countries support both preservation of culture and integration with the modern world, while many question the possibility of doing both.
  • A majority of nationals in all six countries want more entertainment media based on their culture and history, ranging from 52% of Tunisians to 80% of Qataris.
  • Use of entertainment media in Arabic is widespread, but use of English is much lower and—in some countries—declining. Only about four in 10 nationals watch films or access the internet in English. Majorities of nationals consume entertainment content from Arab countries, while consumption of film, TV, and music from the U.S. decreased since 2014.
  • Most nationals say their country is headed in the right direction, except for just 9% of Lebanese. Officials in Egypt did not permit the fielding of this question.

Censorship & Regulation

  • Most Egyptians and Qataris feel it is the responsibility of government to block objectionable content, whereas majorities of Lebanese, Tunisians, and Emiratis believe individuals should be able to choose to avoid such content.
  • Three in 10 internet users worry about governments checking their online activity, a slight decline from 2013 and 2015. More Saudis than other nationals are worried about government surveillance.
  • Though few internet users across the region report, or perhaps admit, using a VPN, those who use one express greater concern about online surveillance by governments.
  • A majority of nationals supports the freedom to express ideas online even if they are unpopular (54%). Support for free speech online increased in Egypt and Tunisia from a year ago, but remained relatively stable elsewhere, except Saudi Arabia, where support declined.

Online & Social Media

  • From 2013 to 2016, internet penetration rose in all six countries surveyed, but most dramatically in Egypt, as well as Lebanon. Internet penetration in Tunisia stagnated over the past few years and is the lowest among countries surveyed. Nearly all nationals in Arab Gulf countries use the internet.
  • About eight in 10 national internet users in the region use Facebook and WhatsApp, the dominant social media platforms. However, only one in five Qataris use Facebook, and significantly more use Instagram and Snapchat. Only 3% of Tunisians use WhatsApp, but all Tunisian internet users say they use Facebook. Across the region, Twitter penetration fell significantly since 2013, while Instagram penetration quintupled in the same period.                          
  • Three in 10 nationals who use the internet worry about governments checking what they do online. However, the share of nationals region-wide expressing concern about companies checking their online activity is greater than for governments and rose steadily from 33% in 2013 to 42% in 2016. Nearly seven in 10 national internet users changed how they use social media due to privacy concerns.
  • Large majorities across all countries access the internet in Arabic. The share of respondents who access the internet in English fell since 2013 in Qatar, Lebanon, and Egypt. Fewer than one in five internet users in Egypt and Saudi Arabia use the internet in English, compared to nearly half of internet users in the other countries surveyed.
  • Few nationals who use the internet are willing to pay for any content online (26%), and even fewer nationals have paid for online content in the past year (17%).

Film

  • Television remains the most popular medium for watching films, followed by the internet. Twice as many people watched films on TV in the past six months than those who watched online (84% to 39%). Qatar stands out as an exception, where equal numbers watched film on television, online, and in the cinema (36% television, 38% online, 36% cinema).
  • Despite the growing popularity of watching films online, only 5% of internet users paid to watch films online in the past year.
  • Young people ages 18 to 24 years-old watch far more American films than do people over 45 years-old (47% vs. 18%), but this does not appear to be a cultural trade-off. Young people are just as likely to watch Arab films as the 45+ cohort, in fact slightly more likely (56% to 50%).
  • More people associate positive moral influences with film and TV content from their own country than from the broader Arab world. Half of nationals say that films and TV from their own country are good for morality, while only 39% say the same about content from the Arab world in general. Tunisia is an exception; only 29% of Tunisians say that Tunisian film and TV is good for morality, while 36% say this about content from the Arab world.

Television

  • Television remains an important source of entertainment in the region, but is losing ground to the internet.
  • All nationals who watch TV watch in Arabic (99%). Only one-tenth of nationals watch TV in English (11%), down from 18% in 2014.
  • One-third of nationals are “binge-watching” TV content, defined as watching multiple episodes of a program in close succession. This trend is seen in all countries, with Emiratis by far the most likely to report binge-watching.
  • Comedy continues to be the favorite TV genre, followed by drama and news. A notable exception is Qatar, where news, documentaries, and drama are the three favorite genres. Religious programming gained popularity since 2014 in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, but its popularity declined in Qatar.

Music

  • Televised music videos are highly popular in Arab countries. TV is the most common platform for listening to music across the region; three in four nationals access music as music videos.
  • Nearly all nationals listen to Arabic music. Western music is not highly popular. Less than one in five nationals listen to music from either Europe or the U.S.
  • Most internet users stream music online. Three-quarters of internet users listen to music online in 2016 (78%) and 31% listen to online music daily.
  • Most nationals listen to music for entertainment (85%). Far fewer Qataris—barely half—listen to music.

Games

  • Nearly four in 10 nationals in the region play video games (36%).
  • Thirteen percent of nationals in the region say they play video games every day.
  • Six in 10 nationals who own a smartphone play games on their phone (59%).
  • Emiratis report spending more time than other nationals playing video games each week, with a median of 14 hours compared to only seven hours for other nationals.
  • Sixty-two percent of male internet users play video games, but nearly as many women, 56%, play as well.

Sports

  • Sports is reported as a top-three favorite TV genre by 22% of respondents, behind only comedy, drama, and news.
  • While nationals enjoy watching sports, they are not inclined to pay to access sports online.
  • Nationals who self-identify as more culturally progressive than culturally conservative tend to be sports fans. Far more progressives than conservatives enjoy attending sporting events or watching sports on TV/online (attend: 62% vs. 43%, watch TV/online: 64% vs. 44%).

News

  • More respondents in all countries access news on TV than online, except in Qatar.
  • More Emiratis and Saudis read newspapers than other nationals surveyed.
  • In Egypt, the popularity of news as a favorite TV and online video genre dropped significantly.

Children’s Media

  • According to adult respondents, 45% of children 0 to 6 years-old in their households play games on a phone at least once a week; one in six spend time online every day.
  • Saudi Arabia is the only country where children make more independent entertainment choices than have their entertainment chosen or approved for them by an adult.
  • Respondents estimate that more of the entertainment media consumed by girls in their households is chosen by adults than is the entertainment consumed by boys.
  • Three-fourths of respondents want government to do more to protect children in their household from certain content, down slightly from 2014 (80% in 2014 vs. 73% in 2016).

A Focus on Qatar

  • Qataris consume less entertainment media than nationals in all other countries; they are the least likely to watch TV programs, films on TV, or any online video, and to listen to music in general or online, and to play games on a phone.
  • Qataris are the least likely nationals to share—specifically send or post—online content. Only 36% shared online in the last month, whereas seven in 10 or more nationals in other countries shared online recently.
  • Just one in five Qataris use Facebook, while majorities use Snapchat and Instagram.
  • Qataris are less likely than other nationals to say privacy concerns led them to change how they use social media (46% of Qataris vs. 70% of other nationals).
  • More Qataris list news as one of their favorite TV genres than any other type of programming, including comedy, which is the most popular TV genre in the region.
  • Qatar is also the only country where nationals are more likely to watch TV content on-demand or otherwise at a time different than when it is broadcast.
  • More Qataris watch TV and films from the U.S. than nationals in other countries, and more Qataris watch TV in English than other nationals.
  • Qataris estimate that 49% of the videos they view online are for news and information and 46% are for pure entertainment, making them the only nationals surveyed who consume more news than entertainment online.