The Future of Saudi Arabia: the role of tradition in an age of transformation

As technology continues to play an increasing role in the daily lives of Saudi residents, the importance of traditions and cultural values has not diminished. That’s one of the many findings of our consumer insights study, The Future of Saudi Arabia, which examined the effects of increasing modernization on the traditional way of life in the Kingdom.

One of the most interesting findings to come out of the study is that 59% of Saudi residents put “cheaper Internet access” at the top of their list for factors that would increase happiness in the Kingdom. That’s ahead of factors like safety and security, free universal healthcare (top factor in the Future of Ireland study), free education and freedom of choice (top factor in the Future of the UAE study). This is indicative of the central role the internet now plays in their daily lives, further evidenced in the Kingdom’s prolific smartphone penetration, YouTube viewing and social media consumption rates.  In congruence with these developments is the fact that 69% believe technology will play a larger role in schools’ curricula in the future.

However, “respect for traditions” was the second most-given response, by 53% of respondents – a minimal difference of 6% from the top-cited answer. This indicates that Saudis place almost equal importance on access to modern technologies (by way of the Internet) as they do on their cultural traditions, reflecting their view that the two can in fact co-exist.

Furthermore, when respondents were asked to design their ideal high street, the majority placed a local mosque first, followed by a shisha café – both of which are significant representations of their cultural values and heritage. Interestingly, the same exercise in the UAE edition of the study produced “bank” as the top-ranking priority, followed by a chain-coffee shop. This is further validation that consumers in the GCC have different values and outlooks, and that a one-size-fits-all marketing solution isn’t always the answer.

Nevertheless, with technology and Internet access serving as an enabler, modernity continues to sweep through the Kingdom and challenge certain perceptions, even if the role of traditions remains intact. OMD’s study also revealed the general belief that women will play an increasing role in the workforce, with Saudi males being the most optimistic about this change. Furthermore, 69% agreed that should be more recreational activities in the Kingdom, including cinemas, game centers and entertainment parks – a sentiment that the government shares in its Vision 2030 strategy for economic reform. In fact, 2017 has already witnessed several concerts and entertainment conferences take place in the Kingdom, and plans are underway to develop cinemas and a Six Flags theme park in the near future.

In light of these contrasting views, brands will need to learn how to strike the right balance between tradition and modernity in their communications and business strategies going forwards. They can certainly challenge the status quo and create brand value by offering utility in this new environment, particularly through innovative and cutting-edge solutions. For example, companies like Uber and Careem have been heralded as solutions to women’s mobility in the Kingdom, which could be one of the reasons why Saudi’s Public Investment Fund acquired stakes in both last year. However, tradition will remain an important part of their identity and should be respected as such.

Brands that understand these intricacies and reflect them in their business strategies will stand out the most during this transformational period. Take Nike’s sports hijab, for example, or Dolce and Gabbana’s abaya line. By demonstrating cultural sensitivities to the values being upheld, and even creating bespoke products that are in alignment with them, businesses will be able to forge deeper and more meaningful relationships with the evolving Saudi consumer.

Image source: NidalM Photography

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Faisal Shams

As managing director of OMD Arabia, Faisal leverages his unique talent in turning communications into effective business solutions. Always aiming higher, he is now transforming the approach of both OMD and its clients, fast-tracking their digital transformation.

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