Why smartphone saturation in the Middle East matters

First published on the BBC College of Journalism website.

I have written before about the high levels of mobile phone penetration found across large parts of the Middle East, where some countries – including Saudi Arabia – have more than two active phones (or live SIM cards) for every person who lives there.

Even in many less affluent countries such as Egypt mobile penetration levels are above 100%. Now new data compiled by Statista (shown below), from the results of Google’s Our Mobile Planet survey, reports that in some Middle East countries smartphone penetration is rapidly approaching those numbers too.

This presents some interesting opportunities for content creators and also suggests huge potential for citizen media and journalism.

Smartphone penetration in 15 countriesNearly three-quarters of people in the UAE own a smartphone

Globally, the United Arab Emirates is home to the highest levels of smartphone penetration in the world (73.8%), ahead of countries like South Korea in second place (73%) and Singapore in fourth (71.7%), which are perhaps better known for their technophile sensibilities. According to the survey, Saudi Arabia came third with 72.8% smartphone penetration, more than 10% points higher than the UK, in ninth place, and considerably ahead of the USA and Canada, both on 56.4%.

So what are Middle Eastern smartphone owners doing with their phones?

Although the region is culturally different from Europe and North America, the cross-cutting nature of this technology is such that the user experience is surprisingly common.

In countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (admittedly a much smaller smartphone market) smartphone owners typically spend around an hour a day on their device. And, just like their Western counterparts, traditional telephonic functions such as talking or texting account for less than half of their daily mobile use.

Wi-fi offloading 

The comparatively higher cost of data packages, however, means most users undertake this activity at home rather than on the move, with wi-fi offloading helping to keep bills down. Again this trend is not unique to the Middle East.

Cisco has suggested that globally 46% of smartphone traffic will be offloaded from smartphones by 2017, removing pressure on mobile networks and potentially offering consumers more reliable connections. As the demand for bandwidth and data-hungry applications only continues to increase, so will our need for reliable and robust data service.

Media spend versus reach

Alongside social networking, gaming and email, media consumption is a popular activity amongst MENA (Middle East and North Africa) mobile owners. Ipsos reported that 25% of mobile owners in the UAE, Saudi, Lebanon and Egypt consume media content via their mobile every day. This is the second-highest media platform after TV.

Yet in terms of advertising spend this continues to be dominated by television and daily newspapers, with the printed press still attracting 21% of advertising spend even though only 8% of people in these markets read a paper every day.

Similarly, internet and radio advertising only account for 3% of the advertising pie despite the fact that nearly one in five people consume these media channels on a daily basis. It will be interesting to see if this balance is redressed over time as advertising markets mature and ad houses become more comfortable with harnessing digital platforms to get their message across.

What does this mean for content creators?

These findings suggest media players need to ensure they have a strong mobile offering with content that works across mobile platforms. Tablets, smartphones and feature phones enjoy different levels of take up across the region, and all offer a different user experience. It can be easy to forget that.

A further consideration for journalists and other content creators is how they use these high levels of mobile connectivity for story-gathering. Networks such as Global Voices offer great examples of citizen media being created in the region, much of it via mobile. Similarly organisations like Storyful are using social media to access and verify content in ways which traditional media players cannot always do. Its Syria coverage is a good example of this.

With Ericsson forecasting that by 2016 global smartphone subscriptions will surpass those of feature phones, regions such as the Middle East will only see an increase in their levels of smartphone adoption. As prices fall and cheaper handsets continue to come on to the market, countries such as Egypt – home to 80 million people – will be able to embrace the benefits of smartphone technology as never before.

The next phase of the mobile revolution has begun and we all need to be thinking about the implications of this for content creation and distribution.

Read more regional insights in Damian Radcliffe’s Middle East Digital Digest Q3 2013 (Arabic version).

Other College of Journalism blogs by Damian Radcliffe

College of Journalism’s Arabic website

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