Foreign Policy Blogs

Social Media’s Economic Revolution in the Gulf



Physical mobility is one of the greatest challenges of market accessibility facing citizens in the Gulf region; however, new technologies flattened time and distance, offering unprecedented opportunities. There are over 82 million Arab users on social media, and mobile penetration is 110 percent in the Middle East and even higher in the Gulf States. The marriage between lack of access to major cities and cultural barriers that limit exposure, has encouraged social media to act as a force for promoting citizen participation and societal development.

A statistic that does not get as much attention as it should is the preferred language of the Gulf region’s social media. On Twitter, 88 percent of users in the UAE tweet in English, 87 percent in Qatar, 81 percent in Bahrain, 78 percent in Kuwait, 60 percent in both Oman and Saudi. All Gulf States have demonstrated an interest in tapping into the most internationally recognized language for trade and communications.

Speaking with Fadi Salem, Director and Fellow of Governance and Innovation at the Dubai School of Government, he shared in detail the powerful evolution of social media in the Gulf region.

“The region witnessed clear shifts in usage trends, from primarily being used for entertainment and social connections in 2010, to primarily being used for political activities in 2011 during the ‘Arab spring’. By 2012, another shift started and the region witnessed increased use of social media by businesses and entrepreneurs. More importantly, social entrepreneurs and the social enterprise gained most by the increased penetration of social media in the region, especially in the Gulf, which had the highest penetration rates and acceptance. In 2013, social media in the Gulf has been adopted in many sectors, and viable business models have emerged among entrepreneurs and the civil society.”

One inspiring story is of United Arab Emirate’s Ahmed Dawood, who pushed businesses to plug into social media after he observed the reluctance of established businesses, primarily led by the older generation, to move into the digital age. Determined for a solution, he created a marketing and PR company that alleviates their stresses in this digitalizing age, plugging old businesses into social media. His solution is now a major regional agency that boasts high-profile clients – a prime example of the growing application for social media in the region and its contribution to the economy. Skillfully, Dawood alleviated tension between the older and younger generation by marrying old businesses with a new application.

Dawood’s enterprise is critical to the well-being of all businesses and economies looking to be relevant today. His pursuit does not just illustrate his success, but captures that the older entrepreneurial generation is indeed moving in the right direction. Indeed, it should be used as a model for the broader Middle East.

Social media has become indispensible to individual and corporate success. Companies who have a Facebook page or a Twitter account are more likely to develop at faster rates. Consequently, if an institution posts a campaign on one of these platforms, they can they instantly receive feedback from users. Additionally, instead of making a trip to another country for an answer an organization may be seeking, one can find answers through a social platform without trekking miles.

However, there are still remaining barriers that handicap social media’s fullest capacity in the Gulf.

“The primary challenge is the drive for increased control, monitoring and censorship by authorities. The regulatory, legal and judicial systems introduced in response to the growth in use of technologies and social media are creating several barriers,” noted Salem.

Because of the Gulf’s wealth, the region is home to some of the most technologically advanced countries in the Middle East, and its technological capabilities will continue to grow. As they do, governments and stakeholders should reconsider opening barriers to entry in social media by limiting censorship and enhancing online freedoms. The region’s innovative services and businesses should be viewed as an export and service that ministries of economy can capitalize on in order to make their country indispensable beyond oil. It is the time to capitalize on creativity, minds, and innovation. In His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s words, “The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it, and execute it. It isn’t something you await, but rather create.”

I’ve written in past articles that the international community should take note of investing in this region and not reduce it down to its oil. Locals, too, should do their part in investing in fresh ideas and develop services, which can be provided through social platforms so they can maintain relevancy.

Fascinatingly, social media’s capacity to access the international community has mixed with fresh energy, inspiring the Gulf youth to pave new creative ideas.

Fadi Salem explains, “The Arab region here, including the Gulf, is lacking the traditional alternative channels which exist elsewhere, such as civil society structures, free media and representative governance systems. These factors have enabled more adoption of technology by society in the region, as well as by social entrepreneurs.”

They’re a people bursting with determination with promising success, in John Kerry’s words “a social equivalent of a bottle full of carbonated water just being shook and then opened.” On these platforms, Arabs are finding authentic creative means to wealth besides the family business, learning new hobbies and turning passions into profession. Women, for instance, have been making use of Instagram to provide fashion blogging with a deeper role of mentoring women, turning blogging into a story of women’s empowerment hemmed into stitches of their brands.

An analogous period in the United States is arguably the “roaring twenties.” This was a time of robust cultural innovation and economic prosperity, where the telephone, automobiles, art, cinema and electricity all experienced a strengthened demand by the public. This cultural revolution started with the introduction of basic inventions and technology, which stimulated human capital and led to unprecedented economic growth.

Today’s Gulf is experiencing a cultural revolution of its own. More youth and women are finding new ways to uniquely express themselves and establish their own individual identity. The region is experiencing a rise in cinema production, media, journalism, visual arts and museums. But what sets the Gulf apart is that its cultural revolution is fuelled by social media and exposure to international ideas from the beginning, which gives the region distinct advantage.

Governments in the Gulf should push innovation and fresh ideas by increasing budgets and investments in the technology sector as that is the foundation to what is inspiring the upcoming generation. It is also necessary to invest in successful social media platforms and personalities on them, as universally people are creating careers out of them.

Saudi Arabia watches the most YouTube in the entire world. In 2014 Google launched a campaign to foster collaboration between entrepreneurs and YouTube producers, creating thousands of companies in the region to obtain six figure profits annually. Investors should follow the potential profit found in social media as well, by investing in the creative ideas that social media personalities are openly sharing.

Furthermore, digitalization is reshaping and expanding economies by lowering barriers to entry, flattening informational hierarchies and raising accessibility. According to the findings in the Digitalization of Economic Growth and Job Creation Regional and Industry Perspective Report by Booz & Company, “Digitalization is changing how companies build brands and products, communicate, and provide service to their customers. Companies are increasingly relying on social media to build brands.”

It is estimated that digitalization has created over 400,000 extra jobs and rising in the broader Middle East region, amounting to a total GDP increase of $16.5 billion. As digitalization and social media continue to grow at unprecedented rates, economies will see a growth in their GDP to match, so long as governments in the Gulf region breakdown barriers for startups and allow for freedom of conscience. This energetically charged younger generation should have the ability to think boundlessly without being criticized and prevented to. Promoting freedom of conscience is not solely a task left to the government; rather, it’s a responsibility all citizens in whose interest it is to allow the youth to prosper. Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.

So let us implement curiosity. When we know very well that freedom of thought void of societal and governmental pressures will give rise to new ideas for more a sustainable and secure future, it would be irresponsible to allow such barriers to entry and pressures on free expression to persist.



Sarah Elzeini

Sarah recently returned from Qatar where she worked in the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS), contributing to multiple projects, from the Changing Security Dynamics of the Persian Gulf, Arab Youth, to Cyberspace and Digital Communication in the Middle East.

Sarah holds a BSFS in International Politics from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. She comes from a multi-cultural American family, which has led to her open understanding of Middle East Affairs and U.S. foreign policy. She is also a passionate supporter of international development and women and youth empowerment.

Additionally, she has worked as Coordinator of Cultural Affairs for a music organization based in NYC, branched in Doha, Qatar; bringing together East and West cultures and stressing the importance of the cultural narratives that art and music brings.

Follow her on Twitter @SarahElzeini