Nahlah Ayed: Why Saudi Arabia is the world's top YouTube nation

There are several reasons, Nahlah Ayed reports. A big one is that YouTube gives Saudis access to material on their smartphones that they might not have easy access to in a conservative society, like comedy.

Partly it's because of what you can't watch at home

The Saudi comedy show '3al6ayer' ('As it goes') is a YouTube sensation in the Middle East. This eight-minute segment had 1.8 million viewers. (CBC)

A quick scan of the headlines this past week, and you might think Saudi Arabia has declared war on the internet age.

Not only did the country's top religious cleric dismiss Twitter users as a "council of jokesters." But the government also threatened to shut down modern communications tools like Skype and WhatsApp because of their encryption, which protects the information that users transmit.

What such headlines mask is the extraordinary extent to which Saudi citizens are wired, which may explain why the authorities occasionally get nervous.

Despite significant restrictions on information, both online and offline, Saudis are among the most connected people in the world.

Case in point: they are the world's top per capita users of YouTube, according to Google.

"Twitter and YouTube have become so relevant to the public discourse in Saudi Arabia, that there is now a bi-weekly YouTube show solely dedicated to what Saudi users of Twitter are talking about," notes Ahmed al Omran, who writes and produces Riyadh Bureau, a Saudi online news blog.

In numbers, Saudis account for an astounding 190 million YouTube views each day — that's a rough average of more than six views per citizen per day.

According to those in the know, Saudi YouTube watchers are largely seeking out entertainment, but also politics, religion and sports.

Don't watch this at home

A unique confluence of circumstances contributes to Saudi's distinction as the world's top YouTube nation.

Saudi comedian Omar Hussein has a big social media following. One of the stars of the UTurn comedy group, he has over 380,000 Twitter followers. (Reuters)

Some of the most often cited: the exceptionally young population (about 70 per cent of the relatively affluent Saudi population is under 30), and a highly connected country.

The availability and widespread use of the internet in Saudi Arabia is the highest in the Middle East, according to Cairo-based HaisamYehia, YouTube's business development manager for the region.

Saudi is also "the highest country in terms of mobile phone and smartphone penetration in the world," Yehia said in an interview.

And that's relevant because "50 per cent of the views coming from Saudi are coming from smartphones."

The huge – and growing — interest in YouTube may also have something to do with the fact that Saudi is a place where venues for entertainment are scarce. Even movie theatres are non-existent.

"YouTube offers Saudi's young population entertainment choices not available on mainstream television, including locally produced content made by young Saudis who know how to speak to that audience, and who have more freedom to tackle their issues compared to mainstream TV where the field is full of red lines," Al Omran of Riyadh Bureau told CBC in an email.

A study conducted two months ago on Saudi internet use by N2V, one of the largest internet holding groups in the Arab world, confirms that assessment, noting that YouTube makes up for the restrictions that are common in a conservative society. 

For example, "YouTube offers content that Saudi families banned from the reach of their youth by blocking certain TV channels at home," says Amman-based Nibal Jarrar, the senior business development officer at N2V who conducted the study.

"YouTube [gives] Saudis a place to watch everything they want, anywhere they want."

Free time

Jarrar also cites the relatively large amounts of free time available to the average Saudi — especially for women, many of whom are unemployed due to conservative views on women working.

As for content, YouTube's Yehia says Saudis like to watch shows that are produced locally in a young, fast-growing industry that has no television rival.

Commentary and comedic shows are in demand, including the hugely popular EyshElly, a social commentary program produced by UTurn Entertainment, one of several increasingly prolific companies that produce content exclusively for YouTube.

Still, most of the content Saudis watch is made in the region's long-time information and entertainment hub: Egypt, where YouTube use is also high. In fact, Egypt is the second highest YouTube consumer in the Middle East.

In Egypt, users like to search for old movies and songs, says Yehia, but they also search for exclusive content and original reporting.

YouTube news and citizen journalism are "actually becoming very popular," Yehia says, "especially after the revolution with people becoming more politically engaged."

Hungry for data

The Arab Spring has played a significant role in YouTube use throughout the region.

The site has been the preferred venue for citizen journalists covering crackdowns and conflicts in places like Syria. As a result, it's also become a favourite source for such videos, for others in the Middle East and for international media reporting on these events.

"In the MiddeEast, before the Arab Spring, politics and news used to be three per cent of content uploaded," said Yehia. "It jumped to 15 per cent in 2011, and I think in 2012 we are around something like 25 to 28 per cent."

Both production and use are growing hand in hand, and now the entire region has some 285 million YouTube views every day, making the Middle East the second highest in views worldwide after the U.S., says Yehia.

But N2V's Jarrar points out a major difference between the Arab region and the West, which might be helping drive the demand.

In developed countries, the progression for accessing video followed an established route: from antenna, to satellite and cable TV, then on to the internet and eventually to smartphones.

"In Arab countries, we've jumped from antenna and satellite to smartphones, which made us hungry for data."


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.