This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
In the Gulf Arab states, many people do not know what a podcast is, and of those who do, many have never listened to one themselves. Yet, podcasting culture is rapidly spreading across the Gulf, with Saudis currently producing hundreds of shows – the most in the region. However, podcasting still has a long way to go before it catches on with the masses in the Gulf states.
The term “podcast” was coined in 2004 as a combination of the words “iPod” and “broadcast.” These predominantly audio programs are available on the Internet and are downloadable. Podcasts have taken off in the United States and other Western countries over the past decade, becoming a booming new media with lucrative business prospects.
More and more youths in the Gulf region have been delving into podcasting and talk about themes varying from films and video games to philosophy and health. Some shows focus on just one theme while others cover several topics.
A Simple and Unregulated Medium
Podcasting in the Gulf region is free from government regulation. Podcasters don’t need to buy a license and there is no need for expensive recording studios or bureaucratic distribution channels. The vast majority of content creators record their shows from their homes. Podcasts are relatively inexpensive to produce and distribute and are broadly accessible on mobile devices. This simplicity is one of the reasons why many khaleejis have turned to podcasting. Khalid al-Araifi, a co-host of the “Shuffle Cast” podcast said, “I record from Jeddah and my friend Mohammed Alarfaj records from Dammam. We host the show together, but we have never recorded a single episode together in the same place.” He added: “Podcasting allowed us to address our ideas quickly and in a direct way.” He additionally noted the broad accessibility of “premium content,” much of which is available for free, unlike with more subscription-driven entertainment platforms such as Netflix.
Podcasts are easy to consume, as people are able to listen to them while doing something else, like working out, cooking, or driving. Podcast Arabic, an online platform for Arabic podcasts, conducted a survey on Twitter in December 2018 about podcast listening behaviors in Arab countries. According to the survey, 53 percent of the 404 respondents said they listen to podcasts in the car while 35 percent listen at home. People in the Gulf depend highly on cars for long commutes on crowded highways. Many drivers pass the hours by listening to podcasts. Nawaf al-Naghmoosh, a content writer and a host of the “Saudi Gamer” podcast said: “Podcast content is entertaining, light, and does not require much focus. It replaced the radio channels and their archaic, repetitive, and monotonous content that does not match the interests of the majority of listeners.”
“Podcasts have easily entered people’s lives and listening to them has become a daily practice for many,” said Shahad al-Tukhiam, who started the podcast “Ghaimah” (A Cloud) with her friend Noura al-Shubaily in Saudi Arabia discussing issues related to psychology. “The audio content makes the host more spontaneous than he or she would be with visual content,” Noura noted. With audio, hosts can develop in-depth content as the listeners tend to be more focused and not distracted by visuals, according to Turki al-Balushi, an Omani journalist who started the podcast “al-Sekka” (the Road).
Podcasting became another medium for self-expression for many youths in the Gulf states. Turki said: “We discuss issues that are not usually raised in the traditional media with the goal of opening up untraditional dialogues.” Ammar al-Sabban, a Saudi puppeteer and writer, described the content of the podcast “Mstdfr” (Nerdsters) that he started with Rami Taibah: “It is the kind of conversation one would have with his or her friends – the same intimate atmosphere. We talk about the topics we love and care about using the local colloquial language.” He added: “Only a few of the people in our social circles liked to discuss topics other than sports and religion. We wanted to discuss topics of our interest like technology, sexual harassment, movies, and many others. So, we decided to start a podcast.”
Behind the scenes of the “Mstdfr” podcast (Ammar al-Sabban)
Fowzi Mahsoon started the podcast “House Zofi” in Jeddah. “A group of my friends and I have a passion for video games, board games, anime, and the Japanese manga. We decided to post our conversations about these topics in the form of a short video on Snapchat. But we have a lot to say and this small application was not a good fit for our content. A friend of mine suggested using podcasts to record our discussions. We can talk for hours now. Most of our episodes exceed two hours.”
“We felt we were alone,” said Abdulrahman al-Omran, describing his first production experience. “When I started producing the podcast ‘Tayyar’ [Current] with my friends in Saudi in 2017, there was no podcast community around us to exchange experiences and ideas. There was no guidance of any sort on how and where to buy the recording equipment. We did not even know if anybody would listen to our podcast and how to market it. We were self-taught.”
At the end of 2017, to help new podcasters overcome such challenges, he established the online platform Podcast Arabic, to develop a community for Arab podcasters to share ideas and collaborate with each other. “We also created a free and fully equipped studio in Riyadh for anyone wishing to record a podcast. We have become a major center for Arab podcasters.” Noura al-Shubaily said, “Podcast Arabic helped us to start the podcast ‘Ghaimah.’ It provided us with technical advice to start podcasting and improve the quality of our podcast, as well as how to market it to the Arab audience.”
A number of similar initiatives started to develop like The Arabic Podcast, an index of Arabic podcast content. “The Arabic Podcast serves as a guide to the Arabic content, while with Podcast Arabic we focus on developing a community through social media,” said Abdulrahman al-Omran.
As the podcast community has grown, it has become more advanced. The “Mstdfr” producers developed the first Arabic podcast network – The Mstdfr Network – which produces about 15 different podcasts. “When we found that there were so many Saudis interested in podcasting, we decided to make our studio available for rent.” This studio is where Fowzi Mahsoon started “House Zofi” in 2016. He said, “I rented their studio and after learning the production techniques, I bought my own recording equipment and used a room in my house to create a studio for my team.” Now Fowzi offers this studio space for free to other podcasters and provides the venue to host small events. In 2018, the podcast team of “Alaab” (Games) from Saudi Arabia, “Root Quest” from the United Arab Emirates, and “Lucky Gen Gamers” from Kuwait recorded a collaborative episode in Fowzi’s studio.
Monetizing the Medium
As the industry is still in its infancy in the Gulf, most of the content creators continue to fund their own programs. The low cost of creating podcasts helps. In addition to being amateur, many khaleeji podcasters do not know the monetizing potential of this industry and did not develop a business model for their shows. According to Turki al-Balushi, the lack of professionalism may stand in the way of competing with other online content. “The biggest challenge podcasters face is to produce content that is more attractive than visual content and with high sound quality that competes with radio content.”
Globally, podcasts’ greatest source of revenue is from advertisements. Yet advertising companies in the Gulf have not recognized podcasts and their audience as commercially attractive to advertise to. Podcast listeners are captive and attentive and demonstrate higher levels of engagement with the material in comparison to other media like television or film. They are a “loyal audience” as Khalid al-Araifi described them. They listen to their favorite shows for hours to explore their favorite topics. Sultan al-Harbi, the chief operating officer of the Saudi podcast and network “HMWP Horooj Almosaraa” (the Wrestling Talks Podcast), said the podcast audiences are “sophisticated” and look for critical content. According to the Podcast Arabic survey, 41 percent of the 428 respondents prefer to listen to an episode that is 20 to 40 minutes long, and 36 percent of them prefer an episode that is longer than 40 minutes. Such engagement with the content gives podcasts more potential for monetization.
The Saudi podcast market in particular has high potential. “Saudi Gamers” is one of the most popular podcasts among its peers in entertainment and video gaming in the Middle East. Abdullah Al-Rashed with his friend Abdul Aziz al-Muaygil and two others started the podcast “Alkora M3na” (Football with Us). According to Abdul Aziz: “Although the Saudi podcast industry is still developing, we are surprised by the large number of listeners we have. According to listens and iTunes top charts our show is one of the most popular Arab sports podcasts.” “The podcast world surprised us,” said Noura al-Shubaily. “’Ghaimah’ received tens of thousands of listens. We did not expect to get even a quarter of this number. What is more interesting is the audience interactions with our content through various social media platforms. Many psychiatrists have been interested in our content. Also, lots of students and parents have benefited from our content. We receive feedback from listeners from Oman, Egypt, and Algeria. We did not expect all this.” Turki al-Balushi noted that after Oman, most of the listeners of “al-Sekka” live in Saudi Arabia.
One of the most important questions for Gulf advertisers is how many listeners a podcast gets. However, compiling analytics for podcasts is particularly difficult. According to Abdulrahman al-Omran, listening and download numbers are not concentrated with one streaming service. Furthermore, the criteria for listens is different from one hosting company to another, which makes it difficult to collect accurate numbers. Thus, many podcasters would like more granular audience metrics to better attract advertising money. Having some direct control over their data to demonstrate tangible business outcomes will therefore be key.
However, Ammar al-Sabban stressed that “in the podcast industry, the focus should be on the quality of the listener, not on the number.” The podcast “al-Jabl” (The Mountain) was started by Saud al-Badeea, a bachelor student at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals. “’Al-Jabl’ is a show specialized in KFUPM-student affairs in particular, and other university students in general,” according to Saud. “My audience is limited to university students. Therefore, the listening numbers “al-Jabl” gets is not high, but it is a good number compared to the total number of KFUPM students, which is approximately 10,000, and this is our target audience.”
Despite all these challenges some khaleeji podcasters have developed their monetizing strategies. Abdulrahman Abumalih founded the production company Thmanyah (Eight) and became a full-time content producer. The company is based in Riyadh and produces a network of podcasts besides “Fnjan” (A Cup), it’s most famous show. The company invests in production and finances its programs, which ensures the continuity of the podcast. “Fnjan” has the highest listening numbers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region according to Abdulrahman; however, despite this success and popularity “convincing advertisers to sponsor our shows is still very difficult,” he said.
Turki al-Balushi founded the media production company that funds “al-Sekka.” He is also planning to have some sponsors advertise on the show. For now, and in order to minimize the production costs without affecting the show’s quality, he works with startup production companies in Oman to improve the sound quality of the show.
The podcasters’ experience with monetization varies. According to Joud al-Dajani, the founder and chief executive officer of the HMWP network: “The revenue is not limited to only local advertisements.”
“I think the podcast market needs more time to thrive and evolve to a stage of maturity that will attract advertisers’ attention just as the case was with the YouTube market in the kingdom. Saudi YouTube production began in 2010 through individual and voluntary efforts, and local advertisers did not notice the potential of this market until 2013. Now many companies allocate budgets for YouTube advertising. My philosophy is build it, and they will come,” said Abdulrahman al-Omran.
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