A Deep Dive Into Saudi Culture


Saudi Arabia has a vibrant internet community.  

In 2014 Saudi Telecom Company (STC) had identified the need for a new service that better met the needs of "the Saudi youth", whose attention and Riyals were increasingly drawn to their competitors. As the incumbent state operator, they decided to build a new company from the ground up, one that was digital first, and brought Studio D in to help them find their north star.

The new service Jawwy, was launched in May 2016.

Working directly with the CEO and the Chief Brand Officer, their ask for Studio D was:

  • Help us understand what it means to be a "Saudi Youth".
  • Identify current behaviours, patterns of use, pain points in the current mobile offerings, and opportunities for innovation. 
  • Challenge existing assumptions around what the new service should offer and why. 
  • Find the unique voice of Saudi youth culture, and help extrapolate this into what the brand should stand for, and why. 
  • Build out a community that would become the earliest adopters of the service.

These were not trivial asks. The STC team was a mixture of locals and expats, whose lives and mobile experiences were fundamentally different to those of their target customers. Furthermore, many of the vendors that they would be working with to bring the service to life, would have little or no direct experience of the Saudi market. There was a significant gulf in understanding.

As is common in Saudi Arabia, their entire project team was male. The core Studio D team was Founder Jan, Design Director Lauren , and local fixer, Saman, one male, two females.

Studio D specialises in pioneering research, and difficult to reach demographics. Beyond the normal high-pressure corporate project environment, the Saudi market presents some unique operational challenges including: 

  • Many expats living in the Kingdom can spend years there without ever having stepped into a the home of a local. We needed full access to a range of homes, and otherwise private spaces within days.
  • In order to obtain access to a wide variety of contexts, we'd need the freedom to operate independently in male, female and mixed gender teams.
  • Field research is a highly collaborative activity requiring male and female team members working side by side to discuss findings and iterate the next days's research. The religious police, the Mutawa, can break-up, detain or arrest unmarried people working or hanging out in the same space. 
  • The term "Saudi" spans a wide variety of ethnicities. We needed to collect meaningful and representative data from each.
  • Our international female team member, Lauren required permission from a local Mahram (male guardian) to travel in the country. 
  • Some of the client's team didn't have visas, pushing us to attend debrief meetings in UAE, further squeezing an already tight deadline.
  • The client's team operated in English, whereas the research was conducted in Arabic, Urdu and English.
  • The combination of a car-centric culture, urban planning that indexes on privacy, and closures during prayer times required an additional level of planning, consideration and flexibility.  
  • We needed to collect data from private contexts—in a culture where the distinction between private and public is stark, and the consequences of failure are high.
  • We were operating as the official guest's of a local company, but recognise that a number of activities that we needed to experience and document wouldn't obey the local letter of the law. 

Field work always presents unpredictable challenges. It is never immediately clear how we can pull off a project ask like this to ensure the deliverable is exceptional. However, we trust in our process, our extensive experience and our ability to adapt to changes on the ground. 

There is an undeniable tension between the presence of Western brands, large western corporations and the modesty, privacy and other beliefs of Islam and traditional Saudi culture. As a team we negotiate these nuances, in such a way that enables meaningful conversations, and draws unique grounded insights into the culture, its people, their behaviours and their use of technology.




We identified three markets to run research: Riyadh (conservative); Al Khobar (cosmopolitan, oil town); and Jeddah (laid back by Saudi standards, beach town).

The Studio D team immediately starting building out our network in the Kingdom, leveraging The Fixer List and in the space of a week had identified and hired a local team of seven fixers and guides to work alongside our Studio D staff

Whether we are working in Somaliland the United States, Myanmar or Japan, we are only as good as our local crew. There's an art and science to building a meaningful, trusted relationship that pervades every social interaction. The cornerstone of this approach is running Popup Studios.

All of our work starts with the respect of our participants. We've worked with some of the world's wealthiest individuals through to some of the poorest, and the fundamentals of the process are identical for both.

"On this project our team needed to be fluent in arabic, street, brand, design and business strategy."

To the casual observer we are brought in to translate local culture. The reality is that we sit in-between what is happening on the ground (often travelling to different countries on a single study) and the client's organisation. On this project our team needed to be fluent in arabic, street, brand, design and business strategy. We bring a perspective that includes a deep cross-cultural experience coupled with domain expertise in: mobile; data; media consumption; and social media use.

The project included an inordinate amount of pressure - with our core team working four weeks straight (three weeks on the ground) to deliver a meaningful foundational understanding of the market to drive imminent brand strategy work and other early-stage product and service development activity. The work would not have been possible without an unwavering trust between us and our client.

We declined changed orders i.e. a chance to make more money.



After an intensive research program, we delivered the research findings at an STC executive workshop in UAE and were able to pinpoint exactly where the current mobile experience fell short and how it could be addressed. The full report became the foundation of the service and brand. 

To take one example. Field research provides rich stimulus material for generating ideas (when this is the focus, we call these ideative projects). The trick is have a prioritised understanding of which are a good fit and why. Jawwy launched with a SIM card delivery service, overcoming the hurdle that many females face in becoming customers, in a country where they are not allowed to drive.

As with every project, we start out by asking whether our contribution can be meaningful, and what the likely outcomes will be when the service goes live. We believe that access to the internet can be a force for good, but that this is not a given. The assumptions of any client team can be baked into the service offering in such a way that, unintentionally or otherwise, it reinforces existing power structures and norms. 


Studio D ran a number of projects for the Jawwy team, including evaluating the final design.

Jawwy is now live. It is a pioneering digital first service for the region, that we believe, through affordable convenient connectivity, can disproportionately benefit women in the Kingdom.

Every consultancy likes to think that they had a disproportionate impact on their client’s work, and to be sure, we played our part. But really it’s the Jawwy team that deserve the credit, for pushing through all the way to market.

Thanks also to our full local team: Saman, Bothaina, Huda, Abdullah, Ayesha, Tasneem, Haseeb, Saleh, Sana and Yusef, and of course all our participants.

Related: Interview with Jessi Hempel, Backchannel on the research process