Variety partnered with U.K.-based consultancy Ampere Analysis to delve into the top local and regional ad-supported and pay TV services that are competing with behemoths like Netflix and Amazon. For more, click here

In mid-January, Saudi-owned  MBC Group, the Middle East’s largest free-to-air broadcaster, held a lavish launch of its revamped Shahid SVOD streaming service at the Dubai Opera, where the slogan “It’s Our Time” lit up the emirate’s iconic Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower.

The pharaonic gala, attended by Saudi and UAE royals, Arab celebs and Middle East TV heavyweights, was peppered with proclamations. “Here is where we will begin,” declared MBC Group chairman Waleed Al-Ibrahim as he unveiled what he called “an advanced digital platform that is on par with the best in the world.”

Cut to seven months later, and a combination of coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, Ramadan — which even under normal circumstances is peak TV season for Arab audiences — and MBC’s ramped-up efforts to produce high-end Arabic
originals have indeed prompted a phenomenal leap in the “all-new” Shahid’s customer base.

The rebranded Shahid VIP went from 100,000 subscribers in January to a current 1.4 million paying customers, MBC claims.

“That is a phenomenal rate of growth,” says Ampere Analysis research director Guy Bisson, who cautions that MBC’s numbers may be artificially boosted by the platform’s free trial period. However, Marc Antoine d’Halluin, who was appointed MBC CEO in December, stands by the figure and says the goal is now to reach 5 million subs by 2024.

Even though the real number of Shahid VIP subscribers may currently be closer to 1 million, according to a source, that’s still a decent base. The recent leap will likely see Shahid overtake Netflix, according to Bisson, citing Netflix subscriber estimates of 157,000 in Saudi Arabia; 242,000 in the UAE; and 396,000 in Egypt. MBC declined to provide a territory-by-territory breakdown of its subs.

Bisson points out that the Middle East “is and should be a strong market for streaming because it has a very young-skewing population.” Owing to the region’s demographics, 70% of content watched on Shahid VIP is via mobile devices. 

At the Dubai presentation, ex-Hulu executive Johannes Larcher, who had been Shahid managing director for about a year, pointed to the quality of the platform’s premium content and its diversity — as well as partnerships with Disney, Fox and Spotify — as key factors distinguishing the service’s new offering. Larcher abruptly left Shahid in early July to become head of HBO Max Intl. In April, former Viaplay and NENT Studios exec Jakob Mejlhede Andersen was hired as Shahid’s chief content officer, overseeing original productions.

Shahid VIP’s key differentiator versus Netflix is that 42% of its content is local, whereas the percentage of Arabic content on Netflix in the region is a mere 1% in Egypt and 1% in Saudi Arabia, according to Ampere data. Hollywood content accounts for 29% of Shahid VIP’s offer in Egypt and in the UAE, and 24% in Saudi Arabia. The bulk of this programming is more than 3,000 hours of Disney’s and Fox’s back catalog and a Cartoon Network channel that marks the latest addition to Shahid’s lineup. Hollywood content on Netflix in Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia accounts for 49% of the total offering. 

The monthly rate for Shahid VIP is $5 in Saudi Arabia and the UAE; Netflix runs $8-$15 per month in those territories, depending on the type of plan.

D’Halluin says MBC is “seeing very positive early results from [its] transition to a dual-revenue model” combining advertising and subscriptions. Besides being able to leverage cross-promotions, he points to Shahid’s premium Arab shows as a key driver. Recent hits include social drama “Umm Haroun,” which explores historic ties of Jewish people living in the Arab Gulf region and has sparked debate on “normalization” between Saudi Arabia and Israel; and Arabic crime series “Blood Oath,” written by U.K. scribe Tony Jordan. More shows are being bankrolled by deep-pocketed MBC Studios.

Netflix has a larger offering than Shahid — at least in Saudi Arabia, where Netflix subscribers can choose from 21,813 hours of content versus 16,354 hours of content on Shahid VIP, according to Ampere. But until the global giant moves into Arabic originals with greater urgency — there are currently only three Arabic Netflix originals out of Egypt, and one from Jordan — Shahid seems best positioned to rule in the region.