Open the Snapchat app and zoom out to enter the world map. The usual culprits, like Times Square, Disney World and the Louvre, are covered in red-and-orange blurs, a heat map showing where people are taking the most Snaps. But head over to the Middle East, and you’ll see a blazing-red hot spot for Snapchat enthusiasts — the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, a gleaming plateau overlooking the Arabian Desert.
The app’s popularity has led to the emergence of a particular trend: the Saudi Snapchat celebrity, from travel-porn artist Alanoud Badr to tell-it-like-it-is fashionista Lama al-Akeel, and from the wildcard style musings of Mahmoud Sidani to the glamorous sister duo Thana and Sakhaa Abdul.
Today there are 9 million active daily users in a kingdom of 32 million, according to Snap, an increase of nearly 30 percent since last year. And those users are more active than most. Residents of Riyadh and Jeddah used the camera, on average, 40 times a day while spending 35 minutes a day surfing snaps, according to local reports, compared with Snapchat’s global average of 25 times a day and half an hour. When an independent firm, Ampere Analysis, conducted a survey earlier this year of 16 countries — including Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Japan and the United States — they asked internet users how often they tapped into the image- and video-sharing app and found that:
More than a third of Saudi respondents say they use Snapchat video, making it the highest market adoption of Snapchat by any major nation.
Despite human rights violations and an ongoing military conflict in Yemen, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — known colloquially as MBS — has traveled to Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., Paris and Madrid in the past year, attempting to project a newly liberalized age for Saudi Arabia to Western power players. The 32-year-old has disrupted the state apparatus, taking apart a government filled with royal family nepotism in order to establish “a populist type of politics, where he’s trying to remove everyone between the people and him,” as Russell Lucas, an international relations professor at Michigan State University, puts it. One example: When MBS visited London in March, the nation’s public relations arm purchased a special filter that allowed users to post images beside the crown prince.
Critics of Saudi Arabian policies deadpanned that one could now “face swap with a warlord.” But it was another example of the marked shift between Crown Prince Mohammed and the “state-run TV” tactics of his predecessors, says Lucas. The architect of a social and economic reform plan to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy, the crown prince has sought to woo the technology industry — including Snap, which is reportedly in talks to open a new office in Saudia Arabia and enter a content partnership deal with MBS’ youth empowerment MiSK Foundation.
The fact that it is more ephemeral is probably comforting to people who live in a country where censorship is quite strict.
Tony Maroulis, researcher, Ampere Analysis
The mutual interest is no fluke. For the crown prince, the app is a way to reach a nation where the average age is under 25. For Snap, the shift toward Riyadh allows them to zig as other tech companies zag. And after a series of domestic gaffes, including a disastrous app redesign and a critical Kylie Jenner tweet that sent Snap stocks plummeting, Snap may have seen an opportunity to start afresh with a new scene.
While others look to the population-rich Asia-Pacific market, Snap was already a first mover into the Middle East, opening its Dubai headquarters eight months ahead of Facebook, in February 2017. A year later, Snap reported a blockbuster growth rate of 5 percent — in part thanks to a shift toward the developing world that included improving its Android app, and a decision to eschew salespeople for its self-serve ads manager in the Middle East, which led to the region becoming “our top contributor to overall revenue growth,” Chief Strategy Officer Imran Khan said at the time.
For Saudi citizens, Snapchat may provide a feeling of security that isn’t felt in more public apps such as Facebook or Twitter (Snapchat servers delete all opened snaps immediately and unopened ones within a month). While WhatsApp’s encryption security offers some privacy, a Saudi ban on the voice messaging and text app was only lifted in September 2017, limiting its popularity. “The fact that it is more ephemeral is probably comforting to people who live in a country where censorship is quite strict,” says Tony Maroulis, a researcher at Ampere Analysis. In a country that often imprisons dissenters, sometimes you just want to go where nobody has to know your name.
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