Outside the United States and Western Europe and parts of Asia, mobile advertisers are just beginning to find their legs. Smartphone sales are popping internationally, and that is beginning to create entire new industries and market segments to be sliced and diced for analysis. In particular, mobile usage is rising dramatically in the Middle East. How are people using their smartphones in the cradle of civilization?

In the United States, advertisers have been using data to digest consumer behavior for decades. With the rise of mobile, an entirely new platform that advertising could be sent to had to be investigated, and the data junkies have gone to work in various places. In the Middle East, an ad company called Plus7 (owned by Clique Media) surveyed several thousand people across seven countries in the region to determine how they are using their mobile devices to access news and information.

The survey included six countries from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Egypt. The six GCC countries included the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman. Many regions in these countries are extremely affluent, with wealth generated from oil production; these regions are ripe for mobile growth and the subsequent advertising that comes with it.

Some key takeaways from Plus7’s survey:

  • The top uses of mobile in the Middle East were for access to news, information, social networks and email. 
  • More than half of respondents across the entire survey access mobile websites or apps once daily.
  • The United Arab Emirates leads with the most app downloads, with more than 50% of respondents having more than 10 apps. About 49% of UAE respondents have no paid apps, with 27% having between one and five paid apps. 
  • More than half of respondents preferred to use cash on delivery as opposed to mobile phones tied to credit cards to make purchases. 

In the largest and richest country in the region, Saudi Arabia, 47% of survey respondents had a mobile data plan. 53% of male respondents had a data plan, against 39% of women. Unlike the U.S., where mobile usage tends to spike in younger demographics, it was the older segments in Saudi Arabia that seem to be using mobile most, with 56% of 36- to 50-year-olds and 52% of respondents who were 51 or older having data plans. 

In Saudi Arabia, 42% of respondents used mobile browsers for news and information, followed by 29% for applications. Fifty-three percent of respondents accessed mobile sites or apps “many times a day,” with usage again spiking in the eldest two age demographics. News and information was the primary use among respondents in Saudi Arabia, with 46% of men saying that was their most frequent destination. Women used social networking the most in Saudi Arabia, at 38% (against 34% for news). Sixty percent of respondents had downloaded more than 10 applications, with 65% of 25- to 35-year-olds leading the way.

We focus on Saudi Arabia because it is the bellwether for the region, as well as the country with the most survey respondents (1,692). Egypt had the next-largest group of respondents at 1,570 (see chart above).

More Egyptians have mobile data packages than Saudis, according to the survey. Fifty-seven percent of respondents had a data package, with plans spiking in the 25-35 years of age (60%) and 36-50 years of age (63%) demographics. Thirty-two percent of Egyptian respondents use applications against 45% who use mobile browsers, with 61% accessing either multiple times a day. News and information was by far the leading usage segment at 57%, followed by social networks (43%) and search (42%).

In the United Arab Emirates, the financial center of the Middle East and home to one of the richest cities in the world in Dubai, 56% of respondents had data packages. Access to the packages is broad: All age demographics from 19 years old and up were above 50%, with the 51+ segment leading the way at 64%. About 47% of respondents access apps or mobile websites multiple times a day, with news and information (45%), email (44%) and social networking (39%) leading the way. 

The depth of data decreases with the other countries in the survey because of fewer respondents. The trend of older users having the most data plans is reversed in Oman, with 56% of the 19-24 age bracket against just 34% in the 36-50 segment. Fifty-five percent of respondents in Kuwait have a data package, also skewed towards the 19-24 demographic (78%) and heavily male (61%). Fewer people in Qatar have data packages (49%) with the 36- to 50-year-old demographic the highest at 59%. Bahrain’s data is likely irrelevant given the sample size (just 65 responses), but 57% of those did not have a data package, with 68% of women (out of 25 responses) owning one. 

For those who do not have data packages, pre-paid mobile plans are the most likely method of accessing mobile websites and apps from a device. Pre-paid is not the norm in the United States and Western Europe, but much of the rest of the world's mobile use centers around pre-paid plans. The ability to have a data package and a carrier contract is seen as a sign of market penetration and financial strength in a region. 

In the U.S., we see surveys and data analysis like this all the time. Mobile marketing and advertising firms such as Apkudo and Millennial Media issue monthly reports about user trends and consumer behavior. As smartphone use grows in the Middle East, we will likely see much more rich behavioral data come from the region as mobile advertisers and analytics services mature.

It is important to note that the sample size for this survey was small, and respondents were found through advertising on mobile websites, applications and other means. 

Lead image courtesy of Wikipedia. All other charts and images from Plus7 survey.