One-third of the Arab population used VPNs in 2022

Edward G. | March 06, 2023

Arab nations are governed by hereditary rulers who wield the majority of administrative, legislative, and judicial power. Civil rights of both citizens and noncitizens are severely restricted.

To overcome some of those limitations, residents search for tools that could help them regain their liberties. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are one of the primary tools people in Arab countries utilize to increase their freedom of expression and access restricted content.

According to the latest release of the VPN Adoption Index by Atlas VPN, Virtual Private Network downloads reached 353 million in 2022. Once again, Arab countries dominate the top of the table as the highest VPN adopters globally. 

United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia take four out of the top five spots on the list, with Kuwait in ninth place. On average, VPNs penetrated 31% of the market in these five countries last year.

Atlas VPN research team analyzed and ranked 85 countries in terms of VPN usage in 2020, 2021, and 2022. The VPN download data was extracted from Google Play Store and Apple App Store using Sensor Tower and AppTweak services. Download data includes the 45 biggest VPN providers.  

VPN adoption or penetration refers to the percentage of the country's population that downloaded VPN applications during the selected timeframe.

The leading country in terms of VPN adoption in 2022 was the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with a 43.18% penetration rate. Close to 4.27 million downloads originated from the country. 

Please click here to see the complete VPN Adoption Index list by Atlas VPN.

Stringent internet and freedom of speech restrictions are the primary cause behind the high virtual private network usage in the UAE.

The UAE’s two biggest ISPs prohibit any content that violates Islamic moral norms, with gambling sites, adult websites, and dating apps, including Tinder, as the primary focus. 

VoIP services, such as WhatsApp, Skype, FaceTime, Snapchat, Viber, and Facebook Messenger, are banned and unavailable in the United Arab Emirates. This is one of the main reasons why expatriates turn to VPNs.

On top of that, authorities restrict politically sensitive topics, particularly those that criticize the government.

In the past, peaceful political reformists in the United Arab Emirates were convicted of conspiring to overthrow the government and sentenced to jail sentences ranging from 7 to 15 years.

While the use of VPNs in itself is not illegal in the United Arab Emirates, committing a crime whilst connected to a VPN will result in a hefty fine and, possibly, prison time.

Article 1 of the Amended UAE Cyber Law states the following:

“A punishment of temporary imprisonment and a fine of not less than AED 500,000 and not more than AED 2,000,000, or either of these two penalties, shall be imposed on whoever uses a fraudulent computer network protocol address by using a false address or a third-party address or by any other means for the purpose of committing a crime or preventing its discovery.”

Qatar reached second place in the rankings with a VPN penetration rate of 39.2% and 1.13 million downloads during the year. Qatar is another Gulf country with substantial internet restrictions, similar to those in the UAE.

Journalists in Qatar exercise self-censorship as press violations and defamation can result in jail time. Both print and broadcast media are influenced and censored by the state. 

The fourth place goes to Saudi Arabia. People in Saudi Arabia downloaded VPN applications 9.42 million times, which resulted in a 27.06% VPN penetration rate in 2022. 

Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy limits nearly all political and civil liberties and is one of the most restrictive countries globally.

The Saudi government is ruthless in its censorship of information, limiting access to a wide range of media, including newspapers, books, television, films, and all internet content.

Journalists can be imprisoned for a wide range of vaguely defined offenses. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 14 journalists were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia in 2021.

Oman is fifth on the list, with 1.36 million downloads and a 26.54% adoption rate last year. 

Atop restrictions closely resembling those in the UAE, the Oman nation also strictly monitors its citizens. Authorities monitor conversations on mobile phones, e-mail, and internet chat groups.

In recent years, an increase in the frequency of arrests, interrogations, and jail sentences for criticizing the government on social media has fostered self-censorship among regular residents. 

Moreover, in the 2018 criminal code, the maximum penalties for defamation of the sultan and blasphemy were increased to seven and ten years in prison, while under the previous code, the maximum sentence was three years.

Gaming and streaming spur VPN usage

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are the only nations in the Gulf region known to ban games for excessive nudity, violence, and other similar reasons. However, it is common to still find those games in video game stores due to the lack of government enforcement of bans. 

Mainly, gamers in the Gulf employ VPNs to change their IP address so they would get matched with players in other regions and to avoid bandwidth throttling. Also, VPNs are necessary for streamers to prevent DDoS attacks.

In 2021, the revenue generated in the video games market of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was 3.12 billion US dollars, representing a growth of 105% since 2017.

“More recently, gaming and streaming have become leading motivators for the use of VPNs, particularly as some countries reform and modernize. The gaming industry has become huge in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf. Bahrain, in particular, has become the MENA leader in gaming, with residents from all over the Arabic-speaking world flocking to the country. It is one of the top 5 industries there,” Irina Tsukerman, a human rights lawyer and national security and geopolitical analyst specializing in MENA and information warfare, comments. 

The video streaming market in the GCC region has generated over $354 million in 2021, a growth of nearly 170% over the $132 million earned in 2017. 

However, the libraries of Netflix and other streaming platforms are highly limited in Arab countries. For example, in the US, Netflix has around 6,000 titles available, while in the UAE, citizens can see less than 1,000 movies and TV series.

Consequently, those who want to enjoy some of the shows not available in the Gulf region turn to VPNs. 

Closing remarks

Internet freedom in Arab countries remained severely limited in 2022, resulting in high VPN adoption.

Arab regimes utilize their full authority to restrict people’s internet activities and to gain access to their personal information. Censorship and high-tech surveillance technologies are still in use. 

Activists and journalists residing in the Gulf area face strict constraints on their freedom of expression, including the inability to criticize the government. 

Authorities in Arab countries continue to detain and imprison anyone they believe has crossed a boundary in their internet activities.

Finally, the gaming and streaming industries have given VPN adoption yet another spur, which should continue for the foreseeable future.

Edward G.

Edward G.

Cybersecurity Researcher and Publisher at Atlas VPN. My mission is to scan the ever-evolving cybercrime landscape to inform the public about the latest threats.

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