Saudi Arabia set to outpace Egypt, UAE in gaming market growth
Al-Monitor Pro Members
Middle East Researcher and Analyst
May 17, 2023
The fast-growing Middle East gaming market is drawing the attention of policymakers and investors, and nowhere is this more evident than in Saudi Arabia. The country's Public Investment Fund (PIF) recently pledged $38 billion to develop the local gaming industry. Just this week, it increased its stake in American gaming company Electronic Arts (EA) by 55%. Earlier this month, PIF-backed Savvy Games Group announced a flurry of partnerships and acquisitions, including a $265 million investment in Chinese esports company VSPO and buying US-based game studio Scopely for $4.9 billion. The kingdom is seeking to become a global hub for the gaming industry by 2030. Saudi Arabia’s large youth population and high levels of digital access make it an attractive investment destination for gaming and esports companies. As the industry experiences high levels of growth in the coming years, it should play an increasingly important role in the kingdom’s development strategy even in the face of regional competition from the UAE and Egypt.
- Saudi Arabia is the largest gaming market in the region in terms of games revenue. The kingdom has a large youth population (young people aged 15-34 make up 36.7% of the total population) fueling overall interest in gaming and esports. There are 23.5 million gamers, equivalent to 67% of the national population, and 48% of game players are women.
- There are 36.31 million internet users in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the world at nearly 99%, allowing easy access to gaming platforms.
- Mobile gaming is popular in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s iOS App store recorded 194 million mobile game downloads in 2022, the 10th highest number in the world.
- The gaming and esports industries are incentivized by the government. Last year, the PIF launched Savvy Games Group, a games and esports company, with the aim to become a leader in the global gaming industry. The PIF aims to establish 250 gaming companies in Saudi Arabia and create 39,000 jobs by 2030.
- Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled the National Gaming and Esports Strategy last September with the goal of making the kingdom a global gaming center by 2030.
- Saudi leaders are not strictly focused on the local industry but also on bolstering its market position internationally. For instance, the PIF is currently the largest outside shareholder of gaming giant Nintendo with an 8.3% stake.
- The kingdom is particularly interested in esports as it seeks to use sports as a pathway to alternative development and gain global influence. Revenue in the Saudi eSports market is projected to reach $8.62 million in 2023.
- Egypt and the UAE are the main regional competitors to Saudi Arabia. Combined, these countries are sometimes referred to as the MENA-3 in industry circles and are forecast to generate $3.1 billion in total gaming revenue by 2025.
- One of the more attractive options to the Saudis that the gaming industry presents is the ability to host large-scale events and tournaments, seeking to leverage new entertainment sites being built. After inaugural editions in 2022, the Gamers8 festival and Next World Forum will return later this year.
- The outlook for the gaming and esports market in Saudi Arabia is positive. Gaming consumption in the kingdom is projected to hit $6.8 billion by 2030, growing at a compound annual rate of 22%.
Scenario 1: The Saudi gaming industry fizzles out and the PIF does not receive a return on investment; consumers lose interest and gaming participation declines.
Although the Saudi gaming industry faces regional competition, it is not likely to stagger in the coming decade. The PIF is pouring massive investments into developing the local industry and the kingdom will host several gaming tournaments this year. There is already high consumer appetite for gaming, and as technology progresses such as gaming in the metaverse, popularity should only increase.
Developing the gaming industry is attractive to the kingdom because it fits into the stated goal of boosting non-traditional sectors. There are also social elements at play that make the industry attractive. If the kingdom becomes a global player in gaming and esports, it is vindication of the Crown Prince’s strategy to introduce social reforms and more entertainment options in the kingdom. Moreover, nearly half of all gamers in Saudi Arabia are women. Given the kingdom’s goal of boosting the female participation rate in the workforce, the gaming industry could be an option for this policy goal. All these factors mean that the gaming market is not likely to fizzle out and the PIF will not abandon subsidies in the near-term.
Scenario 2: The push to develop the Saudi gaming industry eclipses other Vision 2030 priorities and is pushed to the forefront of Saudi development aims.
The gaming and esports industry is not likely to eclipse other development objectives for the Saudis. The gaming industry is more niche and fits neatly into the larger goal of developing entertainment, tourism and sports. Moreover, the gaming industry does not have an underlying strategic value compared to other sectors, such as AI, cloud computing or even renewable energy. It is possible that if the Saudis do not receive a return on investment in the coming years, they will shift resources to more strategic industries under Vision 2030. The kingdom will continue to prioritize the mega cities and infrastructure projects that may well end up hosting gaming and esports tournaments.
The Saudi gaming and esports market continues to grow this decade and it solidifies itself as the regional leader. As the kingdom hosts several large international events, Saudi officials view the industry as a success story in its push to develop “unconventional” sectors.
The Saudi gaming and esports market should continue its high-growth path. The conditions are ripe for a thriving market: sovereign investment, consumer interest that cuts across age and gender demographics and foreign investor interest. More and more esports and gaming festivals are taking place in the kingdom, and some will become annual occurrences. This will dovetail with the new mega cities and sites that may host tournaments and distinguish the sector internationally.
Although the kingdom faces stiff market competition with the UAE and Egypt, what sets Saudi Arabia apart is the massive PIF investment in developing the local industry. The UAE and Egypt also have a strong consumer base and will grow this decade, but continued strong levels of government support should be enough for the kingdom to remain regional market leader. The kingdom also outpaces other rivals in terms of esports, a growing sub-sector within the overall gaming market. The extent to which Saudi female gaming market develops will be interesting to watch and will offer clues on the ongoing social transformations in the kingdom.
Matthew Gardell is a researcher and analyst who focuses on the Middle East. He was previously an Information Analyst at Dentons and contributed articles on business issues for the firm’s risk publication “Flashpoint.” He also held a position with Orient News’ Washington, DC bureau. He holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern studies from SOAS, University of London.
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