Online privacy is a concern in some MENA countries but less so in others, according to the preliminary findings of the sixth annual survey of media use and public opinion in the Middle East by Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q).

The survey, the full results of which will be released next year, explores changes in media consumption patterns, attitudes and content preferences in six MENA countries including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia.

NUQ SurveyAmong its initial insights, more internet users in Saudi Arabia and the UAE are worried about corporate and government surveillance of their online activities, compared to those surveyed in other nations.

The MENA region is by no means monolithic, either in terms of geopolitics or culture, according to Everette E  Dennis, Dean and CEO of NU-Q.

We therefore offer these initial survey findings as impartial data to enable a more informed discussion and better understanding of the rapidly changing media environment.’

The sixth annual media use survey was conducted face-to-face (through phone calls in Qatar) among 6,575 respondents across six countries. The survey was conducted by The Harris Poll from 14 July to 9 October this year. These are the initial key findings from the 2018 study:

  • More Saudi and Emirati internet users worry about online surveillance, either by companies (62%, 61%) or government (58%, 47%), compared to others. For example, only 16% of Qatari internet users are concerned about either online corporate or government surveillance.
  • The percentage of VPN (Virtual Private Network) users spiked in Qatar (from 6% in 2016 to 39% in 2018) and Saudi Arabia (7% in 2016 to 54% in 2018), among internet users. In Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia, that figure remains at 10% or less.
  • Among social media and messaging apps, 31% of nationals said WhatsApp provides the most privacy, although one in four (24%) said no platform affords privacy.
  • Smartphone ownership rates are among the highest in the world, with ownership percentages higher in almost all surveyed countries than in the United States. Nearly 100% of nationals in Qatar and UAE own a smartphone, as do more than nine in ten in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.
  • Although most Arab nationals watch television, nationals across the region reported a decline in daily viewing (68% in 2014 down to 51% in 2018).
  • And more are watching TV online, with Saudi Arabia home to the highest percentage of online viewers (51%). Majority of people surveyed in the Gulf countries use streaming services – followed by Netflix.
  • Binge-watching is also on the rise, with the most dramatic increase in Qatar where 54% report doing so in 2018, compared to only 24% in 2016.
  • Soccer/football is by far the most popular sport to watch on TV or online. Two thirds of nationals reported watching soccer in the last 12 months (64%), likely influenced by the 2018 FIFA World Cup (watched by 64% of nationals).

NU-Q’s annual media use survey – Media Use in the Middle East – is the only one of its kind in the region and one of the few such efforts in the world. It offers extensive and valuable intelligence about the media that people adopt, use, and prefer as well as their attitudes and opinions about the role, impact, and importance of mediated communication in their lives and the lives of others across the Middle East region.

The project receives funding from Qatar National Research Fund and the Doha Film Institute.