Digital Marketing Is on the Rise in MENA… But Not Without Challenges

Social Media in Middle East


The link between marketing, data analytics, and business growth is slowly becoming clear in the Middle East – North Africa (MENA) region. The region has extremely low expenditure on Research and Development (R&D)[1], barring the minor exception of the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), and has policy institutes aligned with universities or government interests, that is, that do not undertake marketing or social development[2].

  • MENA = 405 think-tanks
  • USA= 1835
  • Europe: 1770 think-tanks
  • Asia: 1262

Within marketing, digital marketing and data analytics are a slowly emerging field now, at least in the GCC. Bayt and Akhtaboot are beginning to show more openings in them—but this change is in its infancy. The firms on the supplier side offer mostly basic, not advanced, services, and the ones on the client side commonly do not implement advanced, complex marketing campaigns or A/B testing. One factor behind this is the budget. Corporate clients, predominately in Saudi Arabia and UAE, have the budgets for a multi-page, advanced website with regular updates and social media campaigns—such clients aredigitally mature.” Entrepreneurs or Small-and-Medium Enterprises (SMEs), on the other hand, have limited budgets in the 1st place, let alone for digital marketing or even advanced websites, limiting their digital marketing adoption and uptake. So, this push-and-pull has become a symbiotic relationship.

Underpinning this is a collective shortage in human resources, companies, budgets, and marketing expertise in MENA, including the GCC. Many firms, on both the supplier and client sides, are still embarking on the adoption curve. One reason behind that, not the only one, is that approximately 50% of the job market in MENA is concentrated in the Science-Technology-Engineering-Medicine (STEM) fields[3], mainly engineering and medicine. This means that such job functions as marketing, data analytics, consulting, and research are disproportionately under-developed– and very needed.

Thus, there is now in most MENA countries a sharp schism between university graduates and the evolving job market. There apparently are not many people who are immersed in digital marketing. The labor pool in MENA, to different degrees, comprises people who are self-Schismemployed, work in family businesses, or work in unregistered firms[4]. Marketing is simply not a common job function. Clearly, not many people are immersed in digital marketing. Universities in the region also focus on and promote the STEM fields, thereby neglecting marketing or social sciences; they also teach marketing from a mostly theoretical point.

Marketing and social sciences (the former being a subset of the latter) in MENA also have a heavily gendered market, again barring the GCC. “Most students in sociology and generally Arts faculty classes are women, at a ratio of 96 or 97 to 3 women to men,” a Professor of Sociology in a Jordan university opined. Marketing also does not have the organizational maturity that exists in the United States or the United Kingdom. Some marketers may earn certificates (such as from Udemy) in marketing and that would be it.

Furthermore, the predominate language on Facebook in MENA is Arabic, not English. Companies, thus, need to create Arabic content and that resonates locally, such as using local celebrities and Arabic slang, as two quick examples. It is not enough to simply launch websites with a professional who looks Arabic or has darker complexion, or to upload pictures on Instagram– it is crucial to have content about Arab culture, consumer products, and society. Men on social media channels also, especially Facebook, outnumber women 3 to 1.



Yet another factor behind the slow growth of digital media and marketing has been its ethnic dimension. The Lebanese people have been the crux of the field and especially in Dubai, as one informed source said, so the nationalization drive in Saudi Arabia is quickly providing disincentive to expatriates, including Lebanese people, and their employers to remain in the country. Many sectors in the GCC follow ethnic lines. So with the current labor market in Saudi Arabia evolving, the digital media and marketing terrain is likely to change, opening new doors and shutting old or traditional ones. The nationalization drive in Saudi Arabia and the UAE can introduce other nationalities to it but cultural preferences would linger for longer than this.

The flip-side is that marketing and social media are a colossal growth opportunity in the region. Such fields as data analytics, marketing, human resource management, social media, and others have huge potential. For example, many engineering and other firms, in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, now post jobs in social media and marketing but keep marketing expenses to a minimum and their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for marketing are too basic. Marketing companies also have sprung up, offering everything from website design, logo design, to SEO campaigns. The below delineates digital media penetration in the GCC[5]:


  • The UAE is #1, Kuwait is #2, Qatar shifts within the top 5; Lebanon and Jordan occupy the remaining spots.
  • Egypt and Saudi Arabia produce the most Tweets in the Arab region
  • Users upload an average of one hour of You Tube video per minute


What this means is that marketing is slowly becoming a streamlined and needed industry, especially in the GCC, even if the necessary human resources for it are still not abundant or “mature” and if the budgets are not available. This growth in marketing has been overwhelmingly in the GCC, much more than the Levant (Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria). So, companies’ budgets are now steadily shifting to digital marketing, away from traditional marketing. The UAE has also launched many initiatives to officially support Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups, indicating government recognition of marketing, financing, and entrepreneurship in the county. This is not confined to digital media and marketing but encompasses building the ecosystem for entrepreneurship—incubators, investors, venture capital.

Furthermore, the GCC are still in the early stage of digital media adoption. “Digital media and marketing are a young field [in the GCC]; GCC is becoming advanced gradually; the industry average is more on the novice side; companies that undertake complex operations are too few. The client side and supplier side are too young and not advanced, so they reinforce each other,” Mr. Mazen Aloul said, the CEO of SEO, a Dubai-based boutique SEO services company.

This growth of digital marketing may send waves in the market that firms need to regularly allocate budgets to digital marketing, and begin to flip the coin so that even the “accomplished” job-seekers may start pursuing marketing and business development, instead of STEM. The traditional majors are becoming out-dated or no longer the leading ones; business functions are emerging and many fields have had over-saturation of supply of labour. Thus, three steps are necessary to fully harness digital marketing and media:

Digital Media Institutionalization


Accordingly, this growth of marketing should directly and clearly affect firms’ bottom line. It also can cause the predominant careers to cede the way to business expertise and functions. Historically, high-achieving students pursued the STEM fields, relegating those with less achievement to “other” fields, a factor that has impoverished the business fields and generated a vicious cycle.

The private sector, especially corporations, is harnessing digital media and marketing faster than the public one. Even though the UAE have the talent and expertise, Saudi Arabia has the deep pockets. Dubai has access to huge databases and networks of talent, and has the multi-national corporations that would harness digital media and marketing. The Levant does not have such advantage.

While such statistics definitely portend a prosperous future for e-commerce, they do not underline that both the client and supplier sides need to embrace social media much more aggressively. Social media are tools in the business toolkit, not an appendage. Corporations, brand-name businesses, and family ones are now realizing that digital marketing is integral to business, not an afterthought. In the long-term, audience segmentation, smart-phone applications, A/B Testing, and other advanced functions will become needed. Marketing and social sciences will affect the very bottom line of businesses.


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[1] Beyond BRICS: Building a High Impact Research Ecosystem in the GCC

[2] James McGann. “2015 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report”. University of Pennsylvania

[3] “The Future of Jobs and Skills in the Middle East and North Africa” (2017). World Economic Forum.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Arab Social Media Report, Dubai School of Government, UAE