Digital Media in Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia has a fast-growing internet population which of which highly adaptive and mobile youth are making up an increasing proportion. While its digital media scene has to contend with government censorship, it also provides platforms to overcome social barriers, and is set to represent significant growth in GDP contribution. Online commercial efforts in Saudi Arabia, however, require a highly adapted approach given the unique cultural landscape. Growth of digital media in Saudi Arabia also depends on development of support infrastructure and a need for government community engagement through integrated channels.

Country Background

Saudi Arabia, officially known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, commonly known as Saudi Arabia (in British English as i/ˌsaʊdi əˈreɪbiʌ/ or in American English as i/ˌsɔːdiː əˈreɪbiːʌ/) is the largest state in Western Asia by land area, constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula, and the second-largest in the Arab world, after Algeria. Saudi Arabia occupies four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered to the northwest by Jordan, to the north by Iraq and Kuwait, to the west by the Red sea and to the east Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and to the south by Yemen.Saudi Arabia has an area of approximately 2,250,000 km2 (870,000 sq mi), and it has an estimated population of 27 million, of which 8.8 million are registered foreign expatriates and an estimated 1.5 million are illegal immigrants. Saudi nationals comprise an estimated 16 million people.

Digital Literacy in Saudi Arabia

Internet Penetration

Internet Penetration
  • The internet was made available to Saudi Arabians in 1998 with a large increase of broadband subscriptions in 2009 by about 60%[1]
  • As of December 2011, 49.7% of the Saudi population are on the internet [2]

Mobile Penetration

  • According to the International Telecommunication Union, Saudi Arabia’s mobile penetration ranks third in the world at 188%. Mobile subscriptions increased a whopping 15% to 56.1mil[3]

Traditional Media


  • Saudi Arabia has a total of 15 daily newspapers with a total daily circulation of approximate 1.9mil.
  • As with the decline of circulation and advertising revenues internationally, Saudi Arabian Print companies have also been experiencing this trend but to a lesser extent [4].

List of newspapers in Saudi Arabia according to region:

    • Dammam: Al-Yaum, Arab News (English)
    • Jeddah: Okaz, Al-Bilad (Oldest Arabic Daily), Al-Hayat, Al-Madina Al-Awsat, Al-Nadwah Al-Awsat, Al-Riyadeyyah, Arab News (English), Asharq Al-Awsat, Saudi Gazette (English) and Shams
    • Riyadh: Al-Jazira, Al-Riyadh, Al-Watan, Arab News (English),
    • Mecca: Shams
  • Okaz (250,000 circulations) and Al-Hayat (270,000) are the most popular newspapers in Saudi.
  • Nonetheless, structural changes to this industry can be seen in the shifting of Al Majalla from print to pure online editions in part to explore a new Arab journalism style and also in response to the print crisis.
  • However, while other markets are struggling to maintain print circulation, Saudi Arabia expects circulation of daily newspapers to grow by 2.3% in the next 5 years.
  • Magazines also remain a popular choice of print media in Saudi with the top three being Sayidati, Zahrat Al Khaleej and Laha, which are all pan-Arab women’s magazines.


  • MBC has been the sole private radio broadcaster in Saudi Arabia since 1994.
  • As of 2009, 30 radio stations are awaiting operating licenses from the Saudi government [5]


  • Saudi’s total TV penetration is 91% of the entire population.
  • Satellite dishes have officially been banned in Saudi since 1990 but satellite TV penetration accounts for 95% of the total [6]
  • Two of the largest pan-Arab satellite TV broadcasters, Middle East Broadcasting Company (MBC) and Rotana are Saudi owned [7]
  • There are no licenses for private TV channels in Saudi hence many Saudi owned satellite channels operate from the free media zones in the region.
  • The penetration for PayTV stands at 9%.

Digital Media

Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing a wave of social media revolution which consists of 54.6% of Internet users.[8] This new generation of social media users are primarily using it to express themselves, interact, all in a bid to shape the society and the world around them. Lately, it has been seen as a valuable tool in making history in the political arena, by “giving them a voice that didnt exist before”.

However, Simon Kemp, Managing Director of We Are Social[9] Singapore comments that “One big challenge is balancing public expression on social media with existing cultural norms. It’s not just just about 'censorship'; every community - even an online one - needs some kind of rules to maintain harmony.”


The blogosphere has become an alternative source of news and opinions for the kingdom. However since Jan 1, 2011, the Saudi government has implemented guidelines for the electronic media, including bloggers. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the regulations are alarmingly restrictive. [10] All users are encouraged to register with the government and the new rules, in effect since Jan. 1, prohibit criticism of Islam or anything that compromises public order. According to a 2009 study done by the CPJ, Saudi Arabia is ranked as the 5th amongst the 10 Worst Countries to be a Blogger. [11]

"I believe this is an ugly tactic of censoring freedom of expression," said Mohammed Qatani, the head of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association.

Microblogging (Twitter)

The mircroblogging sphere has exploded since 2009 with Twitter being at the forefront of attention. While Saudi Arabia can still control its domestic media, it is harder to block out constant updates on blogs and Twitter feeds. Moreover, with Twitter now available in Arabic, usage is surely on the upward trend in times to come. Tweets went up by 400% in just one year as compared to the world wide average of just 90%.

Top 10 Twitter Users in Saudi Arabia, 2010

  • @Azizshalan[12]: He is based in Jeddah, has more than 12,000 followers.
  • @TurkiAldakhil[13]: Turki al-Dakhil hosts a popular weekly talk show on Al Arabiya channel, owns Al-Misbar research center in Dubai, and writes a daily column for Al Watan newspaper. He uses Twitter to express his thoughts and opinions.
  • @RayeD_X[14]: He is apparently an engineering student at Umm Al-Qura University, and he ranks #2 on the world in Killzone, which is a first-person shooter video game.
  • @essamz[15]: A relatively distant fourth, Essam Al-Zamil is an entrepreneur and blogger from the Eastern Province. He focuses on economics, especially issues related to real estate and unemployment in Saudi Arabia.
  • @alfarhan[16]: Fouad al-Farhan is the most well-known Saudi blogger and tweets about politics, society, and entrepreneurship.
  • @Nejer[17]: Cartoonist Malik Nejer uses Twitter to share his latest work and comment on social and political issues.
  • @ahmed[18]: Ahmed Al Omran aims to provide news, commentary, and personal views on political and social issues in Saudi Arabia, with a special focus on freedom of expression, human rights and women’s rights.
  • @alzaid[19]: Saleh Alzaid is not merely a Twitter user. As the founder of TwitEmail and the owner of TwtBase, this programmer has made his mark on the Twitter community not just in Saudi Arabia but around the world.
  • @ibrahemsu: Ibrahem AlSuhaibani blogs in Arabic about marketing, branding, and corporate identity. This kind of content is severely lacking and much needed in the Arab speaking internet.
  • @Bandar[20]: Bandar Raffah is a graphic designer whose Twitter stream is a mixture of distinctive ranting with occasional links.[21]
  • Special mention: @azizkhoja: With 123 tweets only, Abdulaziz Khoja is the Saudi minister of information and culture. His presence as a senior government official on this social network is welcoming as more Saudi ministers embrace Twitter [22]

Social Networks (Facebook)

Facebook ranked 5 out of 100 on the list of Most Popular Internet Sites in Saudi Arabia and has currently over 5 million users.[23] Most of the users are males of the younger generation, with age ranging from 18-34. Although the numbers paint a bright picture, it is still without its share of problems.

Facebook was banned in November, 2010 due to it not conforming to the kingdom’s conservative values. An official stated that Facebook’s content had “crossed a line” which hence led to a temporary ban. [24] Also, a young Saudi Arabian woman was murdered by her father for chatting with a man on Facebook.[25]

Expert Opinion


The revolution in Tunisia began with one street vendor who set himself on fire out of despair and anger. Many young Tunisians first heard of his story on the Internet, and they then used social media to communicate and organize around their cause. Tunisia has been called the first successful Twitter revolution. What does this imply for other middle east nations and in particular, Saudi Arabia? While social media activists are taking notes so too are Arab governments. NPR's[26] Deborah Amos has an interesting podcast from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.[27]


What you need to know to tackle the Saudi Arabia market via digital media [28]

Bassam Khaiwi is the Founder and Managing Director of Saudi-based Digital Metrix-360. The company provides full 360 degrees digital experience.

Highlights of the interview: - Fast growth of digital media in Saudi Arabia is attracting attention of major local brands regarding benefits of online advertising to overall ROI - Forums and social media websites rank higher on usage and time spent. These are seen as information and entertainment sources. - Obstacles include lack of digital media education of agencies and clients. The need for engagement is often overlooked, and it is common to only use the clickthrough rate (CTR) metric. - Agencies targeting the Saudi Market should have local presence before setting out a strategy as the market is unique and cannot be lumped together with the region.

Case Studies


Strict media regulations on social media sites prove to be a point of contention in Saudi Arabia because of the juxtaposition of her conservative culture and the freedom of expression presented by social networking sites. Twitter has caused more than one too many Saudi Arabians to face trials against the Saudi government due to controversial tweets. Saudi Journalist and blogger, Hamza Kashgari was recently deported from Malaysia, where he had fled to escape the backlash of his blasphemous tweet on Prophet Mohammed. [29]His tweet elicited 30,000 responses, death threats included and a Facebook page titled “The Saudi People Demand The Execution of Hamza Kashgari” [30] with over 13,000 fans. [31] He now faces a potential death penalty if convicted [32] Hot on the heels of Hamza Kashgari is Mohammed Salama who has been accused of committing apostasy on twitter [33] Hundred of twitter users are now demanding his arrest after Salama blasphemously tweeted “If God gives chances but does not forget, then why He forgot Israel and did not give chances to Gaddafi."[34]


On 19th December 2011, the Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal purchased a $300million stake in Twitter.[35] This represents 3% of the social media company, which was valued at 8 billion in the summer of 2011. His firm, Kingdom Holdings Ltd., expects that Twitter will capture and monetize the positive trend of social media in the media industry landscape. This rising trend of social media in e-commerce is boosting belief in the internet economy, and experts are expecting a 4-times increase in consumption to boost its contribution to the country's GDP to 29 billion in 2016 from the 10 billion in 2010.


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