WAMDA‘s Thought Leadership on 30 July, 2020 produced an essay on The audiobook opportunity in education as could be generalised in the MENA region as off its east end of the Gulf.

Image courtesy of Kitab Sawti

UAE-based audiobook platform Kitab Sawti was recently acquired by Storytel. In this exclusive piece for Wamda, Kitab Sawti’s founder Sebastian Bond outlines the opportunity for audiobooks in the Middle East

Literacy has and will always be a key indicator of progress for nations around the world. It impacts the quality of labour, and therefore the quality of the economy and its resilience as well improving gender equality and industry, innovation, and infrastructure, all of which are Sustainable Development Goals agreed upon by global nations in the UN.

Quality education is not just about schools and formal education, nations strive to make education more accessible, entertaining, and sought after by youth and adults alike. We now live in a world where education is a constant requirement for professionals to stay competitive and keep their skills sharp for a fast-evolving job market too.   

Efforts to increase the adoption of long-life learning as a lifestyle has been ongoing across the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, with efforts such as the Knowledge 4 All by United Nations Development Programme &  Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Knowledge Foundation, focused on publishing reports on the status of the knowledge and readiness for the future by nations, as well as encouraging reading through competitions like the Arab Reading Challenge.

A key challenge we hear in our community is reading and learning can be hard to fit into a busy day with responsibilities, it can also feel like a chore. It is no secret that education and publishing still lag behind in technology adoption and maximisation in the region, however, this is exactly where the opportunity lies.


Physical books still represent 60 per cent of all publications sold globally, and while e-books have gained significant market share, it is the audiobook category that witnessed consistent growing quarter-on-quarter since 2012. 

Today, there are more than 500 million audiobook consumers around the world according to Deloitte, which predicts that the global audiobooks market will be valued at $3.3 billion by the end of 2020 at its current annual growth rate of 25 per cent.

It, therefore, is no surprise that major publishers are investing heavily in increasing production. More than 60,300 new titles were produced in 2019, an 18 per cent increase from the previous year according to the Good e-Reader Global Audiobook Report 2019. This has already translated into an increase in ad-spend for mobile audio-platforms of 25.3 per cent last year according to iAB’s Annual Internet Advertising Revenue Report.

Dominating the space is Amazon and its subsidiary Audible, the latter captures 27.8 per cent of the global audiobook market, while the former has 16.73 per cent of the market. That’s almost 45 per cent of the global audiobook market controlled by one company.

The global audiobook platforms are still busy capturing and nurturing the market in their key territories, Arabic is not considered a key language, nor are many Asian and African languages, and there lies the opportunity.


While the market numbers are all focused and available for developed markets, the opportunity in emerging markets is massive. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Audiobooks are much lighter on internet bandwidth and usually do not require continuous streaming, therefore they are very compatible for low bandwidth communities.
  • Audiobooks provide a friendly reading experience for individuals with learning disabilities or deficiencies, allowing them to access knowledge without the limitations of literacy.
  • Audiobooks are digital products and can reach the most rural areas without being stifled by last-mile delivery limitations or by being exposed to vulnerable supply chains.
  • Audio content statistics show that consumption is higher in countries with longer commute hours like Egypt and the UAE; a blessing in disguise.

This verifies our mission and excites our team at Kitab Sawti. Archaic copyright & publishing laws are in favour of localisation and segmentation, which is an advantage to emerging markets. We have over the past few years developed, and now host the biggest library of Arabic audiobooks globally.


According to the Arab Reading Index in 2016, adults in Mena read 17 books a year, lower than their counterparts in emerging markets, but a significant number nonetheless.

While we do not have a recent index to compare, we may consider book fair footfall as an indicator: Riyadh’s International book fair attracted over 1 million visitors in December 2019, while Jeddah’s attracted over 400,000 visitors. Muscat hosted its last book fair just before the global lockdowns in March 2020 and attracted over 770,000 visitors.

Given the impact of the pandemic, it is unlikely that fairs of such a scale will be held in the near future, and so digital and audiobooks are ideally fitted for the “new normal”. The Mena region stands in good stead to take advantage of this with a 64 per cent mobile penetration rate and 57 per cent smartphone penetration rate.

If podcasts can be a precedent or parallel for audiobook consumption in Mena, the future is very bright. According to markettiers Mena 2019 survey, there are approximately 1.3 million regular podcast listeners in the UAE alone.

Online (and mobile) payment is now the last piece of the puzzle to be solved for frictionless conversion. That is a challenge the region has long struggled with but is today the key focus of the public and private sectors in light of recent events.


As the world started shutting down due to Covid-19 it became evident that access to the internet is crucial for our survival both in connecting us while physically separated, helping us access information and keeping businesses running.

Online media consumption is up, and so is consumer confidence in digital products and payments. At Kitab Sawti, we have seen the impact of these changes in consumer behaviour first-hand. Our paid subscribers increased by 204 per cent between February and May 2020.

With the efforts of the governments to empower youth, reskill and upskill talent, and improve financial technology adoption, the question is not “will audiobooks grow in Mena”, but “when consumers come asking for it, will you be ready?”.