Spending on local Arabic series is growing and demand is increasing from streamers and consumers alike. Omdia’s Daoud Jackson explores the potential of this increasingly lucrative market by focusing on the operations of key regional operator StarzPlay.
Investment in local Arabic content is crucial for OTT media in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). StarzPlay Arabia’s new series uses Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) talent to compete with Netflix original content, such as Dubai Bling. The aim is to appeal to Millennials and Gen-Z consumers in Saudi Arabi and the UAE.
StarzPlay started this move on 9 February by launching its first-ever Arabic-language original series, Kaboos (translated as Nightmare), a horror anthology series drawing on several traditional folktales from the Arabic-speaking world.
Kaboos represents a further attempt on the part of Emirates-based Starzplay to increase the role of GCC countries on both sides of the camera
The series’ production underlines a few key trends in over-the top-(OTT) content in the Arabic-speaking world and provides a guide for how StarzPlay is seeking to compete in an increasingly crowded MENA OTT market.
Market share moves
Producing original content is an important step for pay-TV providers seeking to gain market share, especially as it often plays a key role in platform advertising, but it comes with financial risks and substantial capital costs. That makes the decision about what content to invest in both commercially significant and highly instructive about the company’s overall direction.
The importance of local-language content in the Arab world is unquestionable, and StarzPlay Arabia has portrayed its entry into original Arabic content as a matter of timing. StarzPlay Arabia CEO Maaz Sheikh argued in an interview with TBI that this move was partly a consequence of previously collected data, arguing that “we had enough data to give us confidence in the type of content we should invest in.”
Sheikh has also highlighted that both Kaboos and StarzPlay’s upcoming second Arabic-language original – an Emirati version of Million Dollar Listing, which will be its first unscripted original – will provide a way to engage the key 17–35-year-old demographic.
In pursuit of that goal, StarzPlay has also invested in sports content, launching StarzPlay Sports in 2022, which has rights to EuroLeague basketball, Serie A football, and a variety of cricket content. The platform will also continue to have access to some Lionsgate programming, having avoided the rebrand to Lionsgate+, which took place in many markets in late 2022.
Evolving content play
Kaboos also underlines the changing center of gravity in terms of both production and audiences in the Middle East. Currently, the core of Starzplay’s Arabic-language offering is scripted Egyptian content, most of which is provided through a partnership with WATCH IT, which includes sharing content across platforms and future co-production.
This content exists alongside a handful of dubbed, epic-Turkish programming and a few more recent productions from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, alongside films from Lebanon and Syria.
Kaboos represents a further attempt on the part of Emirates-based StarzPlay to increase the role of GCC countries on both sides of the camera. Associated talent behind the camera includes Emiratis Majid Al Ansari and Hana Kazim, Bahraini director Hala Matar, and Egyptian Ahmed Khaled.
The choice of horror as the genre for Starzplay’s first Arabic-language original reflects both the growing importance of the genre for MENA consumers and a conscious choice to move beyond comedy, soap opera and historical epic genres
In front of the camera, the cast is similarly international, led by Egyptians Passant Shawky and Khaled Anwar, Iraqis Abrar Al Hamad and Kady Al Qaisi, Jordanian Rakeen Saad, and Emirati Ahmad Al Saeed.
The 2022 purchase of StarzPlay by E-Vision, the entertainment division of e& (formerly Etisalat), and ADQ, an Abu Dhabi–based company, is likely to help further this emphasis on Emirati-led production. Given the current economic challenges faced by traditional production centers in Egypt and Lebanon, more content will be produced in the Gulf going forward.
The multinational nature of Kaboos on the screen also mirrors Shahid’s new series Slave Market, which traces slavery stories from across the globe. Setting these shows in multiple countries highlights a desire to speak to a regional audience rather than just one in a particular nation and provides a way to emphasize higher production budgets to the audience.
StarzPlay has suggested that its original content in 2023 was costing between $40,000 and $200,000 per episode, which reflects an overall desire to produce high-quality content that can also form the crux of future advertising in the region.
Kaboos also reflects an attempt to utilise talent, which has helped to provide Netflix with success in the Arabic-speaking world. One of the show’s directors, Majid Al Ansari, had directed Netflix’s first Egyptian series, the hit horror-thriller Supernatural, and actress Rakeen Saad was in AlRawabi School for Girls, a Jordanian hit for Netflix.
The choice of an Emirati version of Million Dollar Listing for another original series is a fitting response to the success of Netflix’s Dubai Bling, which was one of the most watched Netflix shows in 4Q22 in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, according to Omdia research.
Furthermore, the choice of horror as the genre for StarzPlay’s first Arabic-language original reflects both the growing importance of the genre for MENA consumers, and a conscious choice to move beyond the comedy, soap opera, or historical epic genres.
Smaller gulf markets such as Kuwait and Qatar also bring with them higher ARPUs than larger markets
OSN+ recently trumpeted the success of the post-apocalyptic video game adaptation The Last of Us in driving subscribers, and Netflix has recently released Şahmaran, a Turkish original series based on a snake creature that appears in folktales from southeastern Turkey.
The horror genre does present risks, as Netflix found out following a backlash to the content of their 2019 Jordanian supernatural series Jinn. Still, it’s clear that the genre broadly is an area of focus for content creators and represents a differentiating point from traditional broadcast TV’s offering.
Pivot to Gulf markets
Finally, an added emphasis on Gulf content also represents a changing audience and revenue basis for StarzPlay. StarzPlay Arabia currently has 27% of its subscriptions in Maghreb countries (Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia), but this region only contributes 16% of total online video subscriptions in the Arab world generally.
These countries also only produce 9.6% of StarzPlay’s overall revenue in the Arab world, having constituted around 11.2% in 2019 when Kaboos was commissioned. In Egypt, ARPU for online video has decreased since 2015, while in Saudi Arabia, it has effectively doubled. Currently, StarzPlay is the fourth-largest online video company by subscribers in Saudi Arabia (behind Shahid, Netflix, and Jawwy), so producing quality Gulf content is a strategy to help improve its position in this key market.
Smaller gulf markets such as Kuwait and Qatar also bring with them higher ARPUs than larger markets. Netflix’s recent trailer for its first Kuwaiti series, The Exchange, a show about women breaking into the country’s stock market, also demonstrates that it is aware of the importance of female-led and Gulf content in attracting subscriptions in the region.
The article above was originally published on Omdia’s website here. It was written by Daoud Jackson, Omdia’s senior analyst for media and entertainment. Omdia, like TBI, is part of Informa.