When the internet was eventually introduced in the region in the 1990s, primarily as an aid to commercial and economic development, many were sceptical.
One Iraqi newspaper, al-Jamhuriyya, in 1997 went as far as denouncing it as "an American means to enter every house in the world … and the end of civilisations, cultures, interest and ethics".
Today, the Arab world accounts for about 4 per cent of the world’s internet population and its users are some of the most active, particularly on social media websites. In fact, the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region is among the fastest-growing market for the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
As of the end of last year, Twitter had some 240 million active monthly users, of which 6 per cent are in Mena. According to Statista, Saudi Arabia ranks top globally in terms of active users on Twitter, followed by Indonesia, Spain and Venezuela. Thirty-three per cent of all internet users in Saudi are active users of Twitter, accounting for 4.1 per cent of the social network's global user database.
Of the 500 million tweets posted daily worldwide, about 10 million are from the Arab World according to the Arab Social Media Report and almost of them originate from Saudi Arabia.
Across the Arab world, there are more than 55 million Facebook users. The UAE has the highest Facebook penetration rate in the region at 42 per cent, followed by Jordan, Lebanon and Qatar, while Egyptian users are the most active.
In some traditionally conservative societies, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, there is censorship of mainstream media and online content. So it may come as a surprise that Saudi Arabians are tweeting ferociously, while Egyptians are “poking” one another and organising rallies via the network.
“Social media has grown into a multi-faceted platform and therefore getting more entrenched into day-to-day lives,” says Paul Black, the director of telecoms and media at International Data Corporation (IDC) Middle East, Turkey and Africa.
“Typically in societies such as [Saudi Arabia], there are limited avenues for entertainment,” he says.
“Hence, social media has been filling the gaps. The growing reliance on social media for expressing views, finding jobs and accessing public information has resulted in a phenomenal growth of social media platforms in the region.”
With a high youth population that is tech-savvy and willing to spend money on the latest gadgets, social media applications have thrived in this part of the world.
Before the explosion of social media, lovelorn teenagers across the Middle East would turn to satellite music channels to text in their messages declaring their feelings. Today, such messages are exchanged on Facebook and Whatsapp, in a more private setting – an important consideration in countries where social taboos regarding relationships between men and women still remain.
Whatsapp is an instant messaging application bought by Facebook for $19 billion this month. Globally, 16-to-19 year-olds account for 25 per cent of Whatsapp’s 450 million users, of those 69 per cent are in the Middle East and Africa and 62 per cent in Latin America.
But it is not just teenage gossip that is fuelling the rise of social media. While Facebook has become a platform for relationship-building, Twitter is the place to acquire information. About 28 per cent of the region’s internet users access Twitter to source news.
“People are social animals, we are hardwired biologically to connect with one another,” says Pamela Rutledge, the director at Media Psychology Research Centre.
“Twitter is a place where people can experiment with identities, in the sense of putting forward information and ideas and entering conversations that are topical but not about relationship-building necessarily. The anonymity of the internet [enables] people to experiment with those ideas.”
It is also a way to express support for – or dissatisfaction with – specific events or initiatives.
When Saudi Arabia announced an initiative to provide affordable housing last month, thousands took to Twitter to voice criticism against the housing ministry. Some Saudi women are using the platform to highlight their plight. One group, which included the activist Manal Al Sharif, started the #women2drive hashtag in 2011 to encourage others to take the wheel and hit the roads in protest at the driving ban imposed on women.
“Twitter has been wonderful especially for people who are more progressive thinkers. It’s the only place where we can exchange informations and ideas. We do not have civil society or public places where we can meet and talk with an exchange of ideas,” says Madeha Al Ajroush, a Saudi-based psychotherapist and activist on Twitter. “The women movement has used Twitter for campaigns and spreading out ideas and it’s the only or it is the best and successful way to communicate. Social media has opened up for the younger generation, they are opened to different point of view not only locally but internationally.”
The anonymity of the internet and the openness to express views has made it a viable mode of communication not just among the public. Political figures have signed up to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in a bid to connect with their citizens and openly address their concerns. Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the Crown Prince of Dubai, has more than 660,000 followers on Instagram, while Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has more than 2.59 million followers on Twitter.
But it is not just political figures who are signing up. These platforms have become a vital tool for companies to interact with their customers and advertise their brands.
“Social and business figures are mainly on Twitter, we have noticed this by practice and managing clients,” says Imad Lahad, the director of digital strategy of the Arab region at Apco Worldwide, where part of his job is to identify key figures within the “Twittersphere” known as “influencers”.
From bloggers, fashionistas and entertainers, companies and brands approach these influencers help to raise awareness of a particular issue, service or product. Some influencers such as Joelle Mardinian, a make-up artist and TV presenter who is also the creative director at Max Factor, become official brand ambassadors, relaying the benefits of a product they have been sponsored to promote.
“Outreach programmes should be done to engage rather than being financially rewarded,” says Mr Lahad.
“In the fashion and beauty industry we see a lot of fashionistas and they are the brand themselves. They use different products to showcase, this is what they do for a living and their business. They endorse brands instead of the company going to TV or someone else.”
And there are sound business reasons to take to the twittersphere and suchlike. It is not only cheaper than traditional advertising but can be more effective in targeting the right demographic with just a few tweets and likes.
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