DUBAI: Spending by Muslims on media and recreation reached $231 billion in 2021 and is forecast to grow to $308 billion by 2025, according to the “State of the Global Islamic Economy 2022” report. It also revealed that Saudi Arabia ranks fourth in the sector among Muslim consumer markets.
As the industry grows, streaming service Qalbox aims to be at the forefront among Islamic audiences. Launched in October 2022, it is a subscription-based video-on-demand service offering Muslim-friendly content for viewers of all ages.
Part of the popular Muslim Pro app, the Qalbox library includes documentaries such as “A157” and “Imad’s Childhood,” feature films such as “Sheida” and “Dayan,” as well as TV shows and Qur’an recitations and supplications.
Content for children is an important part of the service, and bosses say they are investing in it through the provision of educational shows such “Animal Stories from the Qur’an” and “Let’s Make Peace,” as well as the original series “Islam for Kids.”
“Our platform isn’t just for entertainment that fits the lifestyle of a Muslim,” Nafees Khundker, the managing director of Qalbox and Muslim Pro’s parent company, Bitsmedia, told Arab News.
“It’s a celebration of the diversity and creativity within the Muslim world, aiming to connect people with their heritage and each other in a meaningful way.”
Qalbox said its top market in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, followed by the UAE, Qatar, Lebanon and Kuwait. It also reports a consistent rise in subscriptions and engagement since launch, as a result of which it has expanded its content library by 268 percent.
Khundker said that in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, the Qalbox audience is predominantly made up of young adults between the ages of 25 and 34 with a “growing appetite for content that blends traditional narratives with contemporary storytelling.”
He added: “Consistent with the extensive smartphone usage and high-speed internet access in these regions, an impressive 92 percent of our users in the UAE and Saudi Arabia engage with Qalbox content through our mobile app.”
Users often watch content on the app close to daily prayers, which suggests they “are integrating the service into their daily religious practices,” he said.
The company reports a significant surge in demand for educational and spiritually enriching content, with faith-based content emerging as the most popular genre in 2023, especially during more-religious months, such as Ramadan.
Viewing habits shift during the holy month, with greater engagement on both Muslim Pro and Qalbox, said Khundker. As a result, Qalbox is developing a wider array of faith-based programming for Ramadan. This includes educational content to deepen the understanding of faith and spirituality, as well as resources focusing on mental health and well-being, in keeping with the reflective nature of the holy month.
Qalbox also plans to host community sessions during the month, and offer content in other formats such as podcasts, webinars and animations.
“Our aim is to provide a holistic and immersive experience that resonates with the spiritual and communal aspects of Ramadan, making Qalbox a companion in our viewers’ journey through this holy month,” said Khundker.
Of course, Muslim audiences in the Middle East are not only interested in Islamic content. Hollywood blockbusters and Turkish dramas are also particularly popular in the region. For example, director Christopher Nolan’s film “Oppenheimer” set a record for the number of advance cinema tickets sold in the country during 2023.
Popularity therefore “guides our content curation,” said Khundker. “We strive to offer a wide range of content that appeals to these diverse interests, while also staying true to our core mission of providing Muslim-centric entertainment.”
The platform is nevertheless mindful of offering “not only mainstream genres but also niche content” that resonates with its audience, he added.
Less than 10 percent of the 200 top-grossing films released between 2017 and 2019 featured a Muslim character, according to the 2021 report “Missing and Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies.”
It also found that although Muslims account for about 24 percent of the global population, only 1 percent of characters on TV shows are Muslim.
The study prompted the launch of the “Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion,” developed by British Muslim actor Riz Ahmed in partnership with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, the Ford Foundation and the Pillars Fund. Initiatives such as this, and the growth of streaming platforms such as Qalbox, could help to address this lack of Muslim representation in the entertainment industry.
“What sets Qalbox apart is our commitment to nurturing and showcasing Muslim filmmakers and artists through its originals,” Khundker said.