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Mobile gaming comes of age in the Middle East

February 17, 2022

Group of islamic girls using smart phone

Jonathan Kriegel

CEO

The Middle East is home to a vibrant computer gaming community that generates significant amounts of money for developers, many of which are also incubated locally. And the combination of high smartphone penetration and superfast network connection speeds means many of the region’s consumers increasingly use their mobile devices to access, view, and pay for games and games-related content and services.

Saudi Arabia is the single biggest market in the region, according to calculations from research firm Statista, having generated US$680m of revenue in 2020. But perhaps more surprising is the fact that Statista puts Iran in second place, with players in the country collectively spending US$431m on games in the same period. Gamers in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were reckoned to have spent US$280m and those in Iraq US$105m, ahead of their counterparts in Lebanon (US$102m), Qatar (US$85m), and Kuwait (US$80m).

Newzoo forecasts suggest that Saudis maintained their pre-eminence as the region’s biggest spending gamers into 2021, with smartphone titles top of the pile. The company estimates that the country’s mobile games market alone generated more than US$520m in consumer spending during 2021, with revenue from console and PC titles adding another US$426m.

Another gaming market in the Middle East that Newzoo tracks are the UAE estimated to have generated revenue of US$344m in 2020 and where around 72% of the urban online population play mobile games specifically. Elsewhere Niko Partners has forecast that the games market across Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt was worth US$1.8bn combined in 2021.[i]

Smartphones device of choice for spectators and participants

The high penetration of smartphones in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries is one reason behind a growing preference for mobile games. Almost the entire adult population (94% of people aged 16 to 64) of Saudi Arabia access the Internet via their mobile phones, according to GWI statistics compiled in the third quarter of 2021, and 92% of them do it using a smartphone specifically. It’s a similar story in the UAE, where 91% of adults access the Internet using a smartphone (in Israel, it’s 88%), and where median mobile download speeds are some of the fastest in the world at 136Mbit/s according to Ookla speed tests conducted in November 2021. Saudi Arabia is not far behind at 91Mbit/s though Israel lags on 25Mbit/s.

GWI statistics compiled in the third quarter of 2021 suggest gaming was the 12th most popular reason for using the Internet amongst adults in Saudi Arabia, cited by 37% of those aged 16 and 64 at the time (and 30% of those in the UAE). Just over 90% of Saudis and those from the UAE reported playing video games on one device or another, as did 75% of Israelis. Newzoo also estimates that 72% of the UAE’s urban online population plays mobile games.

Nor is participation limited just to playing – many gamers like to watch other people participate in competitions and tournaments, learn tips or tricks or engage in fan-orientated activities. Separate statistics from Newzoo suggest that as many as 68% of the UAE’s urban online population watch game-related video content. GWI estimates that around 77% of Internet users aged between 16 and 64 in Saudi Arabia and the UAE used their smartphones to play video games in the third quarter of 2021 and 64% of their counterparts in Israel. But 27% of those adults in the UAE also watched a gaming video, alongside 20% in Saudi Arabia and 7% in Israel.

Local gaming start-ups proliferate

The enthusiasm for computer gaming in the Middle East has led to the foundation of multiple start-ups dedicated to creating new titles tailored for the region’s players and customizing existing games with local language content. Lebanon is home to gaming start-ups, including Falafel Games, Game Cooks, and Wixel Studios, for example, while Jordan has Maysalward, QuirKat, and Wizards Productions.

Kuwait and the UAE. Tahadi Games – which publishes Arabic versions of titles including Runes of Magic and Ragnarok – has operations in Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Founded in 2013, another Jordanian mobile games publisher, Tamatem, has launched 50 titles, including Battle of Kings, and employs 50 people in three offices across the region.

The Middle East also features high-profile gaming events. IGN Con was first held in Oman in 2013 and has since taken place in various other cities. The Middle East Games Con has been held every year in Dubai since 2017, with the city also hosting the annual Dubai World Game Expo.

eSports and cloud gaming see growing popularity

Electronic sports (eSports) are also growing in popularity. Saudi Arabia was chosen as the country to host the region’s most prominent global gaming tournament, the PUBG Mobile Star Challenge World Cup, in 2019. The Dubai Media Office and TECOM Group have since unveiled joint plans to build the first eSports stadium in the Middle East, dubbed the Dubai X-Stadium project, designed to establish the Saudi city as a global hub for video gaming events. A dedicated eSports events company – Gamers Hub Middle East (GHME) – also holds regular tournaments for the region’s players involving games like Fortnite, Fifa21, PUBG, Dota2, and Clash of Clans.

Having regional data centers available to ensure the smooth performance of online gaming by reducing latency and lag is key to holding successful electronic sports (eSports) tournaments in the Middle East. The same is true for cloud gaming platforms that allow players to access the latest high specification titles using basic hardware, including smartphones, rather than expensive consoles of PCs.

Commercial partnerships with local telcos are now helping cloud gaming platforms reach new players in the Middle East. NVIDIA’s GeForce is available to those in Israel and Saudi Arabia via servers operated in collaboration with regional telcos such as Zain and StarHub, for example. Etisalat unveiled its cloud gaming service in partnership with Gamestream in 2019, later introducing Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming service into the region.

In the continued absence of other global services like Google Stadia, the Middle East has also seen a small number of local cloud gaming services spring up. Playkey.me launched in September 2021, with its UAE-hosted servers offering millions of gamers in the GCC region access to titles offering high resolutions, fast frame rates, and low latencies under hourly or monthly subscription plans. Iranian start-up PlayPod is also currently building a cloud gaming platform for eSports. Amazon also launched its Prime Gaming service in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as recently as September 2021.

Sources suggest that the Middle East represented around 3.2% (US$4.8bn) of the global video games market (US$151bn) in 2019. If it accounted for the same percentage of the total in 2021 (US$176bn), it could have been worth US$5.6bn last year and will grow further to deliver US$7bn of revenue in 2024. That’s an enticing prospect for games developers, distributors, app stores, telcos, and other stakeholders. And it is an opportunity that they can maximize by offering flexible, mobile payment options. Ease of payments will make it quicker and easier for Middle Eastern consumers to purchase the games, cloud subscriptions, tournament tickets, merchandise, and other game-related content they want to buy.


[i] Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt expected to generate $3.1 billion in games revenue by 2025, PC Magazine, 11th January 2022

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