For the fifth time, Northwestern University in Qatar takes stock of media use in an ambitious number of Middle Eastern countries, this year seven. Our survey also calibrates again the state of freedom of expression and other aspects of the media’s interplay with society and culture. This longitudinal study is the only one of its kind in the region and one of the few such efforts in the world. It offers extensive and valuable intelligence about the media that people adopt, use, and prefer as well as their attitudes and opinions about the role, impact, and importance of mediated communication in their lives and the lives of others across the Middle East region. Since 2013, we have tracked:

  • Media use by platform, comparing traditional and digital outlets;
  • News consumption and preference patterns for specific sources of news and information;
  • Internet use patterns and their consequences—with an emphasis on the rise and interplay of social media;
  • The relevance of mobile media; as well as
  • Perceptions of and opinions about free speech, online privacy, and bias and credibility across media types.

At its inception, and continuing to the present, Media Use in the Middle East has been an effort to better understand the evolving and transformative media and communication platforms that not only link the people within the Middle East region but also connect them with the global community. From the get-go, we have provided our data to the expansive World Internet Project at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, which regularly assesses the use of media and communication in more than 20 countries. 

After investigating eight countries in the first survey, in 2014 we settled on six representative nation states that together best reflect the pulse of the MENA region. From 2013 through 2016, we included Egypt because of its importance not only as the largest country in the region but also because of its contrast as a relatively media-poor society compared with the wealthier, more media-rich countries of the Gulf region. This year, we initially were unable to clear bureaucratic hurdles in Egypt. We substituted it with Jordan—one of our original eight countries in 2013. Subsequently, however, we did get permission to conduct our research in Egypt, but too late to include in our cross-country analysis. We have presented this data in its own chapter in this report.

Our survey is rigorous, drawing on interviews with over 7,000 subjects. Samples are drawn to reflect the different regions and often ethnicities of the countries studied. But the study is also conducted with dispatch during the same academic year. It involves negotiations with seven different countries. It intentionally includes interviews with citizens and resident nationals as well as expatriates—very significant in the Middle East where expats often greatly outnumber citizens. Interviews are conducted in Arabic, English, and French.

So, what have we learned in five years of probing use of and opinions about media and communication in the region? Just after the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012, we began searching out the nuances of what audiences do and what they think in a dynamic and disruptive environment. Baselines were established for the role of traditional media such as television, newspapers, magazines, and film as well as for the fruits of the digital revolution—social media and mobile media. In crafting our portrait, in odd years (2013, 2015, and 2017) we focused on news and information. In even years (2014, 2016) we looked more closely at entertainment media. Thus, we capture the multiple functionality of media to inform, persuade, entertain, and provide a marketplace for goods and services. In 2015, we also conducted a major companion study, Media Industries in the Middle East. For the first time, it offered extensive insights into the “supply side” of what audiences in MENA use and prefer—the institutions that create, produce, and disseminate messages. 

Not surprisingly, the findings which follow in these pages report a rise in internet penetration in every country in the region with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar reaching near saturation levels between 91 and 99% while Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia—which had lagged—reveal impressive gains. Across the region, legacy media (TV, radio, and newspapers) remain important but saw declines in their use.

The relative volatility of social media seems to reflect both fads in use as well as the differing personalities of each of these distinctive and idiosyncratic platforms. Social media platforms were once dominated by Facebook. It had claimed 90% penetration among internet users in 2013 but is now down to 74%. Even Twitter fell from 47% to 24%. Their rival, WhatsApp, however, maintains its prominence having started with 77% in 2015, the year it first appeared, and remaining at 80% in 2017. Instagram, on the other hand, grew from 6% to 39% penetration among internet users.

Interestingly, the digital revolution with its interactive and addressable capacity has not led to instantaneous or overwhelming support for freedom of expression. Tolerance for speech that criticizes government policies is robust only in Lebanon and Tunisia (66% and 48%, respectively). Among Qataris and Emiratis, supporting such free speech registers as low as 21% and 14%, respectively. Similarly, tolerance for speech offending one’s religion is low as most nationals feel the government should be able to prevent such speech—the highest rate in Lebanon (89%) and the lowest rate in Tunisia (69%).

These results suggest that while social media may provide an avenue for more freedom of expression, many remain reluctant to fully embrace that opportunity. A siege mentality may, in part, explain this hesitation: increasingly more Middle Eastern nationals (except in Saudi Arabia) express the perception that international news outlets are biased against the Arab world—a shift from the earlier days of our study when opinions about the news coverage of the Arab world were more sanguine. Still, it should be mentioned that seeds of the Arab Spring are evident in social media use, disputing claims that its imprint is long gone and forgotten.

Once again, our study reinforces the value of longitudinal research. Even small gains or losses in media attention can significantly impact a competitive marketplace. In the last five years, our analyses, published as monographs and online in an interactive website, have gained currency in the region and internationally. They are used and cited by scholars and journalists as well as media entrepreneurs. Each year’s report is a gift that keeps on giving—not just in the attention it receives on release but in continuous references in media reports, marketing analyses, and even public speeches by regional leaders. Our findings appear in an impressive number of academic citations.

This use and utility of our study are gratifying and prove its worth—not only in providing useful and practical information for professionals and citizens alike, but also for igniting a continuing conversation about media, press freedom, censorship, and other topics. Our study also takes measure of how policies and practices differ across the seven countries we investigate—and what that means in public policy. For example, draconian cybercrime laws criminalizing some forms of expression on the internet were introduced by those countries whose low tolerance levels were reported earlier in our study.

This signature institutional project of Northwestern University in Qatar reinforces our belief that careful assessment and calibration year by year can produce the kind of intelligence necessary for media scholars, producers, and users themselves. As always, we welcome feedback and interaction helping us strengthen and improve our continuing work.

As Dean at NU-Q, I have had the privilege of launching these studies—of course, relying on gifted and talented colleagues and collaborators to carry them out. Co-authors Justin D. Martin, Robb Barton Wood, and Marium Saeed deserve credit for much of what appears in these pages. We also value the advice, counsel, and critique of Klaus Schoenbach, Senior Associate Dean at NU-Q. Fieldwork was expertly carried out by The Harris Poll with special thanks to David Krane and Kerry Hill among others. Special thanks also to Jeffrey Cole, Director and CEO of the World Internet Project, whose friendship, support, and annual visits are greatly valued.

Everette E. Dennis,                                                                

Dean and CEO, Northwestern University in Qatar               

Funding for this study comes in part from a grant from the Qatar National Research Fund with additional support from Doha Film Institute and Northwestern University in Qatar. Our gratitude extends to all who support this longitudinal study—their annual and continued funding for such an enterprise.

Cite this Study:

ADA: Dennis, E.E., Martin, J.D., & Wood, R. (2017). Middle use in the Middle East, 2017: A six-nation survey. Northwestern University in Qatar. Retrieved from www.mediaeastmedia.org/survey/2017.

MLA: Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Robb Wood (2017). Middle Use in the Middle East, 2017: A Six-Nation Survey. Northwestern University in Qatar, 2017. Web. <www.mediaeastmedia.org/survey/2017>.

Chicago: Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Robb Wood. “Middle Use in the Middle East, 2017: A Six-Nation Survey.” Northwestern University in Qatar. 2017. http://www.mediaeastmedia.org/survey/2017.

This publication was made possible in part by NPRP grant #7-1757-5-261 from the Qatar National Research Fund (a member of Qatar Foundation). The statements made herein are solely the responsibility of the authors.

For press enquiries related to this study, contact mideastmedia@qatar.northwestern.edu

This study was conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar and led by:

Everette E. Dennis is dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar. He has extensive international experience with media in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and East Asia as having had assignments in Africa, Russia and Western Europe. He is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has served as a trustee of the International Institute of Communications. He has held professorships at four US universities and is the author of some 45 books on media industries, media law, freedom of expression, journalistic practice and related topics. He was senior vice president of the Gannett and Freedom Forum foundations and is a past president of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication. He holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota and has advanced fellowships at Harvard, Stanford and the East-West Center.

Justin D. Martin is an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar who studies media and politics in the Arab world. A Fulbright scholar, he speaks multiple dialects of Arabic and has lived and worked in Jordan, Egypt and Qatar. He is a former columnist for Columbia Journalism Review, who reported on journalism and freedom of speech from the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Martin's PhD is from the journalism school at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  justin.martin@northwestern.edu, @Justin_D_Martin

Robb Wood is director of strategic partnerships at Northwestern University in Qatar. At NU-Q he builds partnerships between the university and leading private and public institutions, including research collaborations and strategy workshop programs with industry executives. He has managed and co-authored NU-Q’s Media Use in the Middle East as well as Media Industries in the Middle East. Wood was a University Fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, where he received his Master’s degree; he received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Religion from Middlebury College.  rwood@northwestern.edu@RobbWood


Dennis, E. E., Martin, J. D., & Wood, R. (2017). Media use in the Middle East, 2017: A seven-nation survey. Northwestern University in Qatar. Retrieved from www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2017.


Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Robb Wood. “Media Use in the Middle East, 2017: A Seven-Nation Survey.” Northwestern University in Qatar. 2017. http://mideastmedia.org/survey/2016


Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Robb Wood. Media Use in the Middle East, 2017: A Seven-Nation Survey. Northwestern University in Qatar, 2017. Web. <www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2016>.