Posted on December 09, 2019

The way Qataris view the media and how they spend their time has shifted since a blockade of the country was imposed by its neighbors, according to a new survey which shows marked differences between their attitudes and those of nationals elsewhere in the Gulf.

Northwestern University in Qatar’s seventh annual Media Use in the Middle East survey, published today, has provided fresh insight into what Qataris want from the media: fairness, transparency, and wisdom, rather than bias and opaqueness. And it shows that a significant portion of Qatari nationals don’t feel their media is delivering this to them.

The latest edition of the Qatar Foundation partner university’s survey – which polled 7,303 people in Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the UAE – found that, in Qatar, levels of trust in the national news media have dropped from 74 percent in 2017 to 62 percent in 2019. Contrastingly, 92 percent of Emiratis trust their country’s newspapers and TV and radio stations. And while the share of Qataris who trust Western mass media rose by 10 percent between 2017 and 2019, in Qatar - which has been the subject of fake news claims since the imposition of the blockade - just 28 percent of nationals believe there are benefits in consuming foreign news, exactly half the figure of four years ago.

Greater tolerance

The survey paints a wider picture of how people across the Middle East use and perceive media, with some of its key findings and identified trends being pinpointed by Justin D. Martin, Associate Professor in Residence at NU-Q. “In 2019, more Arab nationals say people should be permitted to criticize governments and say offensive things about religions and minority groups compared to 2017,” he explained, “though it’s worth pointing out that both Egypt and Jordan barred these questions from being asked. “In countries where the ruling government lets citizens consider the questions, at least, there appears to be more tolerance of potentially controversial ideas.

“The reach of social media influencers in many Arab countries exceeds that of some legacy media; more Arab nationals – three in 10 – view influencers’ Instagram posts or stories every day than check email every day. “And more nationals in four countries – Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and the UAE – get news from social media influencers every day than get news from a newspaper every day. This demonstrates an apparent, ongoing shift from getting news from prominent institutions to getting news from prominent individuals.”

Healthy skepticism

The figures surrounding trust in the media can be viewed as a positive for Qatar, as skepticism has the potential to improve the news media literacy of young adults. There is a correlation between media skepticism and media literacy, which translates into the ability to discern false narratives in the news. A healthy degree of media skepticism is most prevalent in countries with high levels of education, as skeptics are more likely to seek additional information to confirm or disconfirm media claims, and are less likely to believe slanted or biased news.

Meanwhile, the survey also found that, compared to 2017, Qataris are spending 21 hours a week less online, 32 hours a week less with family, and seven hours a week less with friends, while support within the country for regulating the internet has dropped by 11 percent in the same period. And one of the most telling findings from the survey is the divide between those that value the status quo in their countries and those that wish to disrupt it, with Qatar supporting the former and countries like Lebanon representing the latter. Large majorities of Arab Gulf nationals say their country is headed in the right direction: 94 percent in the UAE, 89 percent in Saudi Arabia, and 76 percent in Qatar.

Qatar’s level of satisfaction with the direction of public policy closely mirrors that of the citizens of Scandinavian and Nordic countries. The trust that Qataris have in their government’s policies runs parallel with that seen in Finland, where 80 percent of Finns feel their country is on the right track, whereas only 38 percent of Americans and 21 percent of British believe their nations is heading in the right direction.

Conservative vs progressive

Compared to 2015, fewer Qatari nationals now see themselves as culturally conservative, and more of them identify as being among the culturally progressive. Qatar saw a dramatic drop in those who said they regard themselves as culturally conservative – 44 percent, down from 75 percent in 2015. Countries that are viewed as culturally progressive include Finland, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Austria. 

And in what is perhaps a symptom of the wave of patriotism that has swept the country since the blockade began in June 2017, the survey discovered that only 26 percent of Qataris think people should be allowed to criticize governments online. Put in context, while the figure in the UAE is 24 percent, this has doubled since 2017. In Lebanon, 74 percent of respondents said online government criticism should be allowed, while the figure is 59 percent in Saudi Arabia – a 10 percent increase – and 49 percent in Jordan.

Arab Gulf nationals are just as keen on using social media as the rest of the world, although the NU-Q survey revealed once again that preferred platforms are changing on an annual basis. At least half of Arab nationals in each surveyed country look at posts from social media influencers, with at least one in every five people doing so every day. Additionally, more of them are turning to social media influencers for product and service recommendations (36 percent in the UAE, and 24 percent in both Saudi Arabia and Qatar) rather than to adopt their political, religious, or cultural views (18 percent of Saudis, 17 percent of Emiratis, and just nine percent of Qataris).

In most cases, more Arab nationals say they get news every day from social media influencers than from newspapers, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia being the exceptions. Among nationals who use all social media platforms, Instagram (30 percent) is the most popular for following social media influencers, followed by Facebook (24 percent) and Snapchat (20 percent).

Sporting preferences

Sport is another area that has seen dramatic shifts over the past decade, with one of the possible reasons behind this being the aggressive international marketing of English Premier League football clubs and its consequent effect on support for local clubs and leagues.

When given the choice of attending a nearby professional sporting event or watching it live on TV or digitally, the preference in all countries except the UAE is to enjoy it on a screen rather than attend. And contrary to some perceptions that on-screen or online viewing is more popular among the younger generation, the survey showed that a preference for actually attending sporting events was stronger among those aged 18-24 (39 percent) and 25-34 (34 percent) than it is among older age groups – something that is not only the case in the Middle East, but also in China and parts of Asia.

As Arabic content has increased exponentially on the internet, users in the Middle East are increasingly less likely to view content in English. The number of nationals who use the internet in Arabic increased by about 30 percent between 2013 and 2019; meanwhile, the level of English-only internet use increased by just 10 percent. “NU-Q’s Media Use in the Middle East 2019 reveals a dynamic MENA media environment, one reflecting rapid development in technology, as well as the considerable impact of geopolitics on information consumption patterns and preferences,” said Everette E. Dennis, dean and CEO of NU-Q.

“We’ve uncovered significant – and in some cases surprising – shifts in attitudes about free expression online, trust in news sources, culture, and media habits. These findings should be of great interest to scholars, businesses, governments and other thought leaders focused on the region.”