Saudi Arabia Internet Usage
Saudi Arabia has undergone dramatic changes since discovering oil in the 1930s, transforming from a poor, largely nomadic country to the top 10 percentile of wealth in the world. As a result of rapid development, the internet has become a vital part of everyday life. Saudis are using social media at unprecedented levels, frequently operating popular search engines, and purchasing products online from around the world. Because so many Saudis are using the internet in several different ways, there is an immense amount of potential to market to users in KSA in both Arabic and English. With plenty of emerging markets and domestic wealth it is important to ask where exactly are Saudi residents spending their time online and how does that affect international businesses?
General Online Activity
Of Saudi Arabia’s 32.3 million residents, 20.8 million are active internet users. The bulk of users are between the ages of 16-35, a generation that is rapidly growing, as 51% of the country is under the age of 21. Many users reside in urban areas, where there is significantly more wealth and internet access both in the home and in public spaces such as cafes and offices. Most users hold at least a high school diploma, with many earning university degrees as well. Like the rest of the world, the internet is being used for several different purposes in KSA. The bulk of day-to-day searches include the latest football results, news stories, and viral videos. The most popular websites are used for social media, news, business, entertainment, shopping, and search inquiries.
Easily the most popular form of online entertainment, Saudi YouTube is home to some of the most-watched web shows in the Arab world. Saudis account for 90 million views per day from a global total of four billion, making KSA is the world’s most avid YouTube user. The website offers a plethora of videos for Saudis that they cannot access elsewhere, including international news, television shows, music, viral hits, and others. YouTube is the only form of such entertainment in the kingdom that is not censored, grounds for its significant popularity. This unprecedented freedom allows Saudis to watch a variety of videos which include content not available from other sources, not to mention most material is free.
The most popular videos revolve around social commentary, politics, religion, and sports. The most popular channels provide social commentary through a comedic lense to discuss everyday life, political topics, and culture in a constructive and simultaneously sarcastic way. The Saudi shows that have done this most successfully are EyshElly (ايش اللي), Sa7i (صاحي), and 3al6ayer (على الطاير). With more than four million subscribers and 500 million views collectively, these programs have gained widespread popularity around the Kingdom and abroad. These channels have put KSA on the YouTube map, distinguishing them as both major consumers and contributors.
YouTube popularity soared in KSA during the Arab Spring, when citizen journalism became the most reliable sources to follow conflicts throughout the Arab world. YouTube has been Saudis’ main source of such news, providing otherwise unreachable content. Subject matter considered against the kingdom’s ideology remains blocked on most other websites and nonexistent on television and radio. Furthermore, content that may be blocked by parents can be accessed by children after a simple search. In a country that is one of the most restrictive in the world, an uncensored source of entertainment is unquestionably appealing.
Desktop vs. Mobile Usage in
After the invention of the internet, technology continued to develop at an unprecedented speed, giving people several different options of where and how to access the web. Simplifying access has not only added convenience to users’ lives but has presented opportunity for businesses to advertise and build brand awareness. Desktop computers account for 46% of internet usage in the kingdom but 31% of Saudis use three devices or more. More often than not, desktops are used for business while mobile devices are used for entertainment, an important observation when choosing where to market your product. When it comes to online shopping, Saudis are most likely to use their mobile devices to research a product (about 80% of mobile users) but are more likely to make the purchase from their desktop. In a one-month period, 25% of internet users used their PC to buy something while 15% bought something from a mobile device, therefore advertising on both would be strategic. Apple products are outstandingly popular, with iPhones accounting for 53% of mobile usage while iPads rank second with 9.8% of total mobile usage. Samsung Galaxy models account for almost all of the remaining mobile devices. The type of devices Saudis are using influences which apps and advertisements they have access to.
Mobile Devices Used in KSA
The mobile device usage data above is the aggregate percentages collected across a variety of IstiZada client websites in different industries. In some industries IstiZada has seen mobile traffic percentages as high as 85%.
Saudi Arabia is home to 14.7 million mobile users, a number that makes their rate of mobile phone penetration the highest in the world. Mobile devices account for a majority of the kingdom’s internet usage at 48% and they are the most popular place for search inquiries, a rate that is growing at 200%. Search trends in KSA are not drastically different than other nations, with most people looking for news, sports, politics, and redirection to specific websites. What is significant is the rates in which Saudis are using search engines, as they are the highest in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region. These observations are helpful when deciding when and where to advertise, revealing the potential with using both PPC and SEO methods.
Saudis leave their greatest digital footprint in a collection of social media websites, with penetration rates significantly higher than most other nations. Regardless of various obstacles Saudis face in content access, the country is highly connected. Averaging seven social media accounts per user, Saudis are ranked seventh globally for such usage. In order of popularity, Saudis most frequently use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and LinkedIn while the most popular mobile apps are WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype and Snapchat. With 12 million users of Facebook alone, social media is becoming more popular everyday.
Similar to YouTube, social media gained popularity during the Arab uprisings, with Twitter as a standout. Saudis joined the site to follow conflicts in neighboring Arab nations but also had a cyber revolution of their own, taking to the popular site to express concerns with their government and monarchy. Since this critical time, Twitter has become the 5th most visited website in the kingdom with users averaging five Tweets per day. Today, one-third of internet users in KSA are active on Twitter, ranking them first worldwide in Twitter penetration. In the past five years, Twitter and YouTube have become such integral aspects of modern Saudi society that there is now a bi-weekly YouTube program to report what Saudis are Tweeting about. Regardless of various restrictions, Saudis remain connected through several forms of social media, sharing news, photos, opinions, and more.
Language used online in Saudi Arabia
Though many Saudis are proficient in English, Arabic remains the dominant language used on the internet. About 60% of Saudi Facebook users choose to navigate the website in Arabic. Saudis are using Arabic more than other countries in the MENA region. Between 70-80% of search inquiries coming from the kingdom are in Arabic while 66% of searches from the whole region are in English. Most Saudis who regularly access the internet are highly educated, therefore most speak English but choose to use their native language while on the web. Though Saudis use Arabic for obvious reasons, it is significantly limiting their online experiences.
Compared to English, there is a minute amount of Arabic content on the internet. This doesn’t affect some users who are solely looking for Saudi-related content, as most domestic and regional news is offered in Arabic but Saudis looking for outside news, services, and products will be considerably limited in their attempts, as Arabic content accounts for just 1.5% of total online content. This lack of access not only puts Saudis at a disadvantage, but is a missed opportunity for international companies who do not offer Arabic websites, services, and advertisements to this large, accessible market.
Usage by Expatriates in Saudi
While there is a lack of data on the difference between Saudi native and expatriate/migrant worker online activity, we are able to make some conclusions from existing studies. As there are 9.2 million expatriates living in KSA, this is a significant population to study. Within this large group, there is a wide range of workers from laborers earning exceptionally low wages to (mostly) Western and Arab employees living in comfortable wealth. Workers earning higher wages are much more likely to access the internet and therefore use social media, do business online, and make online purchases. Because of the diversity of workers and range of wealth, it is extremely difficult to make assumptions about online activity by specific groups. With 86% of foreigners earning less than 2,000 Saudi Riyal per month (about $530 USD), we can assume that the majority of foreign workers cannot afford to access the internet like those with higher wages can but we do not assume that all migrant workers in lower paying positions do not have any internet access.
A study published by the South African Computer Journal found that expatriate internet activity largely reflects efforts to adjusting to life in Saudi Arabia, with communication with loved ones being the top online activity. The internet has been used as an aid for adjustment, not only through communication but also by offering a source of information on the kingdom, where foreigners can become more familiar with Saudi culture, customs, laws and moral standards. Much as the internet is used to keep Saudis connected with one another, it keeps foreigners connected with their own circles, offering an alternative social life, as interaction with natives among expatriates is typically low. E-commerce is also popular among foreigners, as they cannot purchase many products locally that they have become accustomed to in their home countries. Online shopping has become particularly common among female expatriates, who have more difficulty moving about due to Saudi travel laws.
E-commerce in Saudi Arabia
As both Saudi wealth and internet access have increased significantly in recent years, online shopping has become a customary pastime among Saudi residents of varying demographics. As a result of the heat and other difficulties of traveling, many Saudis turn to e-commerce for not only luxury items but also daily needs such as groceries. On average, Saudis also have much more free time than other nations. The combination of these factors has resulted in a “shopping as entertainment” culture in KSA. While going to the local mall is very popular, many Saudis take to the web for their shopping entertainment. Even those who choose the mall primarily use the web during their in-person shopping experiences. In 2014, 90% of mobile internet users used their devices while shopping to check prices, reviews, and other product information. Of this group, 81% have stopped a purchase as a result.
Surprisingly, Saudi natives make up just 32% of online buyers, with 59% non-Arab immigrants holding the majority. The greatest group of buyers are between the ages of 25-34 and are predominantly male, with men outnumbering women threefold. Though there isn’t significant data studying each of these demographics to make specific claims, investing in marketing to these groups who most frequently shop online will likely turn a sizeable profit, as online shopping is growing in popularity. In 2020, revenue from online shopping is estimated to reach 10.86 million USD, which would nearly double the amount earned in 2015.
The motivations behind both natives and foreigners to make purchases online vary depending on the customer’s needs but certain factors appeal to all customers, such as convenience and competitive pricing. Furthermore, Saudi residents and natives alike are drawn to cross-border shopping to get products that aren’t offered locally through safe ways to pay, free shipping offers, and other incentives offered to internationals. Of active internet users, 44% have made an overseas purchase online. If companies consider both the demographics of the target audience and what motivates them to buy, an investment in marketing here is expected to be highly profitable.
Online Censorship in Saudi
Saudi Arabia’s conservative reputation is largely due to various laws and regulations putting several restraints on both residents and visitors. The same is true in online activity. All internet traffic within the kingdom is filtered through a sophisticated system which determines what is deemed appropriate or not. The system, run at King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh, runs a complex content filter not only to keep Saudis from accessing inappropriate content, but also to find previously unregistered content and thereby add it to the system. Though many users have been able to use proxies to get around these restrictions, such activity is not accessible to all users and is still risky. Particularly with the 2007 addition of the Anti-Cybercrime Law, blasphemy is the most common charge against Saudi residents and natives alike (mostly as a result of online activity). With such a strict system, users need to be extremely mindful of how they’re navigating the internet.
As of 2014, 400,000 websites were completely blocked in the Kingdom. Most blocked websites include pornography, anti-government sentiments, gambling, drug use, and other activities that contrast with the kingdom’s conservative Islamic values. The advanced filtering system designed by Saudis allows censorship to go much further than simply blocking choice websites, as certain content and website features to be unavailable to users in the Kingdom, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and LINE phone calls. Though still up and running, the government threatened to shut down Skype and WhatsApp completely due to their encryption features. Though it is government-run programs that both control and find forbidden content, a great amount of material is reported by Saudi individuals. With such extreme content filtering on almost every website in addition to television and radio, many Saudis turn to YouTube for unrestricted access to videos from around the world.
Marketing in KSA
With a fast-growing population about to enter the main age group of internet users, Saudi online activity is bound to continue to increase rapidly in the near future. With a thriving economy and high rates of internet usage, great opportunity exists for companies to marketing and sell their product in KSA. International businesses should take advantage of this market by using both PPC and SEO marketing tactics to reach customers in KSA. Advertising in both Arabic and English will be most beneficial, as to reach the widest possible audience in the diverse kingdom. Using the internet in many different ways, Saudis have created a great amount of space for businesses to advertise in, anywhere from direct Google Adwords campaigns for Saudis looking for a specific product, to advertisements on YouTube’s latest viral video. Considering the popularity of YouTube in the kingdom, businesses should even consider making videos themselves that will introduce Saudis to their name and product. Regardless of various restrictions, Saudis have managed to become one of the most active users of internet worldwide. Their relative wealth and active participation in e-commerce make for a large window of opportunity for international businesses of all kinds.