Snapchat – the app that is looking to dominate the Middle East’s social media scene

Clarence Digital

21/07/16

As globalisation makes the world an ever smaller and closer place, the rise in social media apps means that people from all across the globe can connect with each other from the convenience of their phone or laptop. With sites such as Facebook and Twitter boasting more than 1.5 billion and 320 million global users respectively, the last 10 years has seen the explosion of the social media phenomenon.

Such widespread connectivity has not skipped the Middle East and North Africa either, with the region a hotbed for users of various forms. As internet availability becomes more common and more citizens are able to gain access to smartphones, it has become far easier for the average person in the region to get connected with at least one social media site or app.

As with the rest of the globe, Facebook is leading the way in the region. Indeed, figures from a report conducted by The Conversation found that there are over 80 million registered user accounts in the Middle East and North Africa, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq leading the way. Social media has been able to shape the way people view the world in the region and this is becoming even more prevalent with the rise of the newest major app on the market; Snapchat. 

What is Snapchat and how does it work?

Snapchat was launched in September 2011 as an image messaging and multimedia application which allows users to send photos or videos to their friends, as well as post publicly. The unique selling point of Snapchat however is that these images will be deleted within a certain time limit, set by the sender. This could be after just ten seconds, meaning the sender is safe in the knowledge that the image will not be seen by anyone else.

Users can also edit images with captions and text, as well as add emojis and ‘filters’ to alter the picture. Snapchat recently launched it’s ‘stories’ function; allowing users to post photos or videos for a full 24 hours and add to it, developing a so-called ‘story’. The app has proven to be hugely popular worldwide, with Business Insider reported that almost 9,000 images or videos are sent per second around the globe. Indeed, the company is now worth around $20 billion, according to Forbes.

Before the age of Snapchat - how Facebook and Twitter lost their momentum

Prior to the emergence of Snapchat, Middle Eastern users found themselves split between the traditional powerhouses of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. As to be expected, the former dominated the social media scene and continues to do so, despite Snapchat’s gains. Facebook is an all-conquering platform that has touched every corner of the globe, with the Middle East no exception.

According to a report conducted by Professor Damian Radcliffe of the University of Oregon, 87% of social media users within the region have a presence on Facebook, with 89% of them using it on a daily basis. However, Gulf News has reported a decrease in the number of female Facebook users over the last two years, at least in the United Arab Emirates. This has played a significant role in the rise of Snapchat. The experts are predicting a sustained decline in the number of people continuing to engage actively on Facebook, particularly in the wealthier and more advanced areas of the region. with Gulf News reporting that the number of young users in the UAE has dropped by 5% over the last twelve months.

Beyond Facebook however, it has been fair game for competitors. Twitter has often been cited as the most important tool for young people to get their voices out there. Yet, surprisingly, Twitter has suffered a sharp decline in the number of users in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed, the San Francisco-based giant has seen the biggest drop in numbers of any major social media site in the region. Between 2013 and 2016, usage has dropped by 17%, with a 12% drop in the last year alone, according to a study conducted by the Northwestern University in Qatar.

MediAvataar claims that Twitter penetration in the UAE is at just 17%, with the platform described as too rigid and lacking the privacy that is so often key in the more authoritarian states of the region. 

How prevalent has Snapchat become in the MENA region?

Snapchat has seen a rapid growth in the Middle East and North Africa over the last few years, with the app showing a 9% annual increase between 2014 and 2015, reports Arab News. The platform has grown at a much quicker rate than any of its competitors and is already rivalling Twitter as the second biggest social media app after Facebook.

Indeed, 2015 was deemed the ‘tipping point’ year for Snapchat in the way that the year before was for Instagram. Ipsos MENA found that 12% of all smartphone users in the UAE were using Snapchat in just December 2014 alone. By July of the following year, that number was pushing 20%. Meanwhile, 14% of Qataris use Snapchat regularly.

It is a similar story in Saudi Arabia, which trails only the Republic of Ireland in terms of number of users across the entire globe. According to Global Index, 9% of all internet users in the Kingdom are on Snapchat, not only those who own a smartphone, making it the second biggest hotbed for Snapchatters in the world. Live ‘stories’ conducted from Riyadh, Dubai and most significantly. the holy city of Mecca, were instrumental in building the popularity in the region.

The driving forces behind the increased number of Snapchat users

Snapchat’s growth has come from users enjoying the services on offer and the fun and easy way to send images and videos to friends quickly. But the app has benefited hugely from the failings of it’s main competitors, with many preconceptions bringing the reputation of the likes of Facebook and Twitter into question, and thus drawing customers away.

The biggest concern for many social media users in the Middle East is security and privacy. In a region known for a number of authoritarian governments, it is natural that many people take this extremely seriously. 

Northwestern University suggest that the more traditional forms of social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, are being rejected in favour of the privacy afforded by direct messaging platforms such as Snapchat. Indeed, a key finding from the report conducted was that more internet users in Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the UAE were concerned about corporate and government surveillance of their online activity. 

According to Tahani Karrar-Lewsley, CEO and founder of Dubai-based Menar Media, these worries have played a genuine role in more younger people turning away from Facebook. “Young people are increasingly concerned about what they share on Facebook and how advertisers may use their information. They are moving into newer platforms and platforms such as Snapchat offer a sense of excitement and novelty,” she claimed.

However, it is not only intrusion from the government that users are worried about. In the conservative societies of the Middle East, many young people are moving to more direct messaging platforms to escape their parents.

Farrukh Naeem, a digital strategist and social media consultant based in the UAE has insisted that younger people now have a wider range of options, whilst the older generation may be more comfortable sticking with traditional platforms such as Facebook. This has led to teenagers in particular looking to use social media away from the less ‘cool’ areas where parents might be.

“Now, there is Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope, and many more. Young people like to hang out in places that are new, fun, and one that isn’t yet frequented by their mum and dad,” he told Gulf News.

“The element of greater privacy, ease of being anonymous and no risk of permanent archiving of content are attracting youth away from social platforms that do not have a very good record with privacy concerns.”

Snapchat has also proven to be a big hit with female users who have wanted to be able to enjoy social media in peace, without unwanted attention or even harassment from male users. The number of women on Facebook in the UAE has shown a gradual decline since 2012, whilst a number of female users have even gone so far as to change their gender status and profile picture to that of a man in order to escape harassment from male users. Many have simply abandoned the platform altogether after seeing their photos saved and taken by others.

The potential for Snapchat on the region’s businesses

With Snapchat’s reputation as a cool and trendy platform, it has already proven to be an enticing proposition for a number of companies in the Middle East. The ability to share relevant information and get a message out there quickly and in an interesting way means Snapchat can become a vital tool in building a brand amongst a new wave of young people. Attracting this millennial audience can make a huge difference for a business looking to beat the competition, with the potential of social media advertising and engagement huge.

This concept has already been taken on board by Al Hilal Bank in Abu Dhabi, who used Snapchat to connect with customers and provide them with the latest updates and news of events and services.

MediaAvatar suggests that Snapchat has forced businesses to become more creative and when they advertise, which in turn has increased the amount of engagement from consumers.

With social media becoming an ever more prevalent part of people’s lives across the world, but especially in the Middle East and North Africa, Snapchat may well have found the winning formula in attracting fans and consumers. Although it should be wary of following the paths of Facebook and Twitter, who have suffered declines after huge spells of popularity, Snapchat’s ability to offer a secure, private, and fun way to interact with others is a combination that has seen people in the region flock to the app. It is only expected to grow in the coming months and years and could well be the driving force in the future.