Social platforms eye Saudi Arabia as Snap looks to expand foothold

Saudi Arabia has the highest number of Twitter and Instagram users in the Middle East. Now Snapchat is considering opening an office in the Kingdom. (Reuters)
Updated 17 April 2018
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Social platforms eye Saudi Arabia as Snap looks to expand foothold

LONDON: Saudi millennials are in the sights of youth-focused social media giants with Snapchat becoming the latest big name to be linked with a move to the Kingdom.
CNBC this month reported that Snapchat’s parent company Snap was in advanced discussions to open an office in Saudi Arabia, and was also developing a content deal with the Misk Foundation.
Such a partnership, CNBC reported, would provide training to local Saudis in producing content for domestic audiences. Snap declined to comment on the reports.
The move to increase its presence in Saudi Arabia would be a no-brainer for Snap; the Kingdom is one of its 10 largest markets.
“There are nearly 13.5 million users of Snapchat in Saudi Arabia, and between 21-25 percent of the population use the service every day,” said Damian Radcliffe, journalism professor at the University of Oregon, citing research he co-authored last year.
“Given this, it is not surprising that Snapchat opened an office last year in Dubai and is already looking to expand in the region,” he said.
“Snapchat is popular throughout the world. In Saudi Arabia, it’s among the top five apps on Google Play Store and Apple App Store,” said Ahmed Al-Rawi, assistant professor, department of communication studies at Montreal’s Concordia University.
If Snapchat does open in Saudi Arabia, it would be one of the first social media companies to establish a physical presence in the Kingdom, with most social media and technology firms setting up a regional base solely in Dubai.
The anticipated expansion of Snapchat comes as Saudi Arabia pushes through reforms designed to liberalize the country and encourage investment in non-oil industries.
At the end of last year, the Kingdom said it would lift its 35-year ban on cinemas and plans to open 300 cinemas by 2030.
Saudi Arabia is the largest social media market in the Middle East, making it an attractive proposition for advertising agencies and social networks.
It has 2.6 million active Twitter users, the highest number in the Arab world, and accounting for
29 percent of all active users in the region, according to the 7th Arab Social Media Report 2017.
The Kingdom also has the highest share of Instagram users, with
30 percent of all active accounts in the Arab region, the research found.
Snap, which opened its first Middle East office in Dubai last February, is already working closely with the region’s advertisers.
The content aspect of Snap’s rumored deal will be key. After building up impressive user bases, services such as Snapchat, Twitter and Instagram are battling to offer compelling content that will increase user engagement. This, in turn, can be used to attract advertisers.
Brands operating in the Gulf are particularly keen to use online advertising, said Rabia Yasmeen, analyst at Euromonitor International.
“In the Middle East, foreign brands as well as home-grown brands find it difficult to advertise products and services on conventional media platforms such as TV and billboards, mainly due to higher costs of advertising on these platforms as well as lower return on investment.
Though a relative new player, Snapchat is already winning over advertisers, mainly due to its popularity with young people who are typically highly active users of the app.
“Snapchat is popular especially for its engaging features, which many other social media apps lack in terms of peer to peer engagement,” according to Yasmeen.
While Facebook remains the global dominant force in social media across all age groups, some younger people are ditching the network in favor of apps such as Snapchat.
Teenagers want a social networking app that their parents don’t understand how to use, said Bill Fisher, UK-based senior analyst at the market research company eMarketer.
“It’s quite good fun and that is the big appeal of Snapchat,” he said.
In the US, two-thirds of those aged between 12 and 17 years old are now active monthly users of Snapchat. Only 46 percent of teenagers are active on Facebook. Around 83 percent of 18-24 year olds in the US are active monthly users of Snapchat.
The US ad-spend on Snapchat is expected to surpass spending on Twitter this year, Fisher said, citing eMarketer forecasts.
“What is important to brands and advertisers is that people are on the platform and using it every day. It is a very visual platform and agencies and marketers are getting very excited about visual and video advertising and Snapchat just offers a really good opportunity to show off this,” Fisher said.
In an effort to win over advertisers, Twitter has already moved aggressively into the original and exclusive content space in recent years. It acquired rights to livestream 10 Thursday night NFL games in 2016 (which it subsequently lost last year after being outbid by Amazon).
The micro-blogging service has also been active in the local content space in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia one of its 10 largest markets as well.
Last year Twitter partnered with Sela Sports to live-stream 21 matches from the 2017 Arab Championship regional football tournament, its first live stream of a global football tournament.
Facebook meanwhile in October opened an expanded MENA headquarters in Dubai.
Google is also targeting expanded growth in Saudi Arabia with a focus on increasingly localized content.


Rewriting the future: Editor in Chief Faisal J. Abbas on Arab News’ new leaf

Updated 20 April 2018
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Rewriting the future: Editor in Chief Faisal J. Abbas on Arab News’ new leaf

  • As a journalist, I don’t think there is any place more interesting in the region than Saudi Arabia: Arab News Editor in Chief
  • Arab News will move away from being seen merely as a 'newspaper' to a whole array of new offerings

On April 1, a tweet went out from the Arab News account: “Arab News — as you know it — will no longer exist! #AprilFoolsDay #WhatChanged.” 

The message was a teaser building up to the  relaunch of the English-language daily following a comprehensive overhaul, described by Editor in Chief Faisal J. Abbas as “The biggest shake-up the paper has had throughout its 43-year history.”

On April 4, the relaunch issue hit the newsstands, with changes also reflected across the digital editions. While the new look and feel of the paper represent a bold departure, many of the shifts have materialized over the past year. In a wide-ranging interview with Communicate magazine, Abbas described the evolution of Arab News since he took the reins in September 2016. 

“We went back to our roots and took the paper back from being a local news outlet to its original positioning as the English voice of the region,” he told the magazine. 

To achieve this, Arab News, which is owned by the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), has opened bureaus in London, Dubai and Pakistan and has hired some of the best industry talent, made significant changes to its workflow structure and rewritten its editorial policy.

The changes are all part of a future plan entitled Arab News 2020 to coincide with the paper’s 45th anniversary that year. Key to this is a “digital-first” philosophy which is incorporating more video and social media to serve the title’s expanding demographic in the online sphere, though with print revenues at 90 percent, it won’t be killing its print editions any time soon.  

Instead, the focus is on expansion. “We are moving away from being recognized as merely a “newspaper” to a whole array of digital offerings, events and tailored products,” Abbas said. Examples include the Arab News partnership with YouGov, producing material that “quickly became a reference for the region,” on major events, including polls on lifting the ban on female drivers in Saudi Arabia and a 2017 survey on British attitudes toward the Arab world — cited in the UK Parliament. 

The paper’s metamorphosis coincides neatly with the transformation taking place in Saudi Arabia as the country embraces an ambitious reform program as part of the Vision 2030 which, among other things, is redefining the local media industry. “As a journalist, I don’t think there is any place more interesting in the region than Saudi Arabia,” Abbas said. “We are very lucky to be at the heart of (the) change.”