In Saudi Arabia, more than 70% of the population is under the age of 35. And these days they are growing up reading manga (comics), watching anime films and TV shows, and playing video games. It’s the perfect workforce for Manga Productions, a Riyadh company that is in all of those businesses.
Saudi kids are very engaged with this kind of content, which is largely created in Japan and other parts of Asia. And because they have grown up with this content, they have a fighting chance to create it on the world stage. Much of the content could be consumed in Saudi Arabia, but the biggest dreamers in the country want to export Saudi manga, anime and games to the rest of the world.
Certainly, they have a chance. While the Saudi Arabian market is small by global standards, it is a wealthy one, and the Saudis have a lot of money to invest in companies like Manga that are creating a home-grown talent base. By contrast, its clear many Western companies don’t have enough cash, as they’re laying off people by the hundreds.
I visited Saudi Arabia last month and got to meet the leaders at places such as Manga Productions and talk to young people who are pursuing their passion for art. I attended a rare graduation ceremony that Manga Productions and the government threw for a class of 50 art interns. They were the cream of the crop of more than 500 applicants who applied for the internships. They trained for a month and worked under Japanese teachers from companies such as Toei Animation.
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While much attention has focused on Savvy Gaming Group, a division of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund that is investing billions in video games, Manga is a lower-profile company that is also very busy making comics, anime films and video games including original content for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The company is opting for organic growth — creating jobs the hard way.
Manga Productions has been around for six years, and it launched the anime film The Journey, which focuses on ancient Arabic lore. It is making an anime series dubbed Grendizer U, named after a 40-year-old Japanese series Grendizer, for which Manga acquired the rights. It’s also making a Grendizer game.
Manga also signed a publishing deal with Microids to distribute the Smurfs Kart video game based on the Smurfs franchise in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The game debuted in the region on August 22. The company is also working on Flashback 2 under another deal with Microids. It will publish, distribute and localize the game in the MENA region for the consoles and PC.
The graduation ceremony was held at Manga’s future headquarters in Misk City, a new city being built by Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. I was fascinated by the conflict between modernization and tradition. Right now, modernization is winning, with women getting the right to drive cars six years ago, and there is a lot of emphasis on creating careers for women.
Besides investing in this modernization, the Saudis have ambitions to build brand new cities and they see games and esports being an integral part of that.
I interviewed Manga’s CEO Essam Bukhary and Abdulaziz Alnaghmoosh, director of marketing and business development, at Manga’s headquarters in the guarded diplomatic quarter in Riyadh. Bukhary is one of the people trying to make the change happen faster. Manga Productions worked with universities to create a contest for students.
“It’s our mission at Manga Productions to inspire the heroes of tomorrow,” Bukhary said. “We’re not making manga or anime or video games. We’re making the next generation in Saudi Arabia and the region, and of course around the world.”
Market researcher Niko Partners estimates there are 67.4 million gamers in the Middle East North Africa (MENA, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Egypt) market and revenues of $1.8 billion. Within the next five years, that could grow to 87.3 million gamers and $2.8 billion, said Lisa Cosmas Hanson, president of Niko Partners, in an interview with GamesBeat.
Saudi Arabia is the largest market in the MENA by games revenue, with growth driven by mobile gaming as well as public and private sector investment and esports. About 76% of gamers in the MENA-3 region are under the age of 35. About 73% of gamers in the region engage with esports in some way.
Yet they have many challenges. Many outsiders don’t trust the Saudis and their human rights record. The crown prince is alleged to have played a role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist who was killed by Saudi security forces at an embassy in Turkey. Whatever people think of this horrendous murder, it is interesting to see how much people admire 38-year-old MBS for defunding the religious police and changing the country so rapidly.
MBS, said in a recent Fox interview that he is a gamer, and he spends hours playing. Since a kid, he was a gamer and he enjoyed disconnecting from reality. He noted how esports is growing and some streamers are beating Hollywood with billions of views. As such, he identifies more with the new generation.
As still another challenge, the Saudis have to also decide how they view content, and whether they want to control it like China does or let game creators and fans govern themselves. Their culture has not completely changed. Many women wear veils, even as they pass by the Victoria’s Secret store at the local mall.
These matters of politics and societal challenges weren’t so evident at the graduation ceremony, where half of the graduating class was women.
“I think it’s really good to see the company culture of Manga Production and it serves as inspiration for us all in the video game industry. Not only they incorporated women, gave them leading roles and also have them able to achieve greatness as some won very distinctive prizes for their art, or their Japanese speaking skills,” said Sebastien Borget, cofounder of The Sandbox, a metaverse company. “Talent attracts more talent in both tech, creative and content industries. And this kind of empowerment is definitely an example to follow in a company that bridges Arabic and Japanese cultures.”
Eventually, Manga Productions hopes to hire its interns after they earn more work experience. The company has 70 people now and more than half of them are women. The Japanese ambassador to Saudi Arabia attended the event. I interviewed some of the graduates about their hopes and dreams. You can read those interviews below.
Noura Alzahrani grew up reading manga since around the age of 12 and now she’s 26 years old. She had never had any formal animation training before, but she did have a background in drawing. She loves manga.
“I have background in art and I want to do something related to animation,” she said.
She believe that it’s an interesting time for opportunities for women now, with studios like Manga Productions have more women in the company than men. She is excited about the opportunities available for women.
“We want to change,” she said.
Alzahrani enjoyed doing the internship and learning from the Japanese teachers, who the class called senseis. Sometimes she needed a translator, but there were others at Manga who understood Japanese. Now that she did the internship, she wants to study anime and digital art more, and perhaps go to Japan one day.
Nada Almaghrabi is 26 years old. She was working in the healthcare industry but heard about the internship program and decided to apply.
“Since my childhood, I was always interested in drawing, and also in watching anime and cartoons. So that passion grew with me. And I have had this opportunity to learn more, and to practice to learn more about how to do my job,” she said in an interview with GamesBeat.
She applied to the course and was accepted. Her favorite anime is Detective Conan, and she likes watching Grendizer and Captain Tsubasa. She also watched a lot of sports anime.
Almaghrabi enjoyed drawing people characters since she was around nine or ten. While young, she wanted to grow up to be an artist, but she strayed from that dream.
“Sometimes when you grow up, you lose your passion about many things because you get busy with life. But I believe I should stick to my passion,” she said. “So why not. I will do it full time.”
She did a month of training in an internship for Manga productions. She said the animation software was good to use and the professional training from the Japanese senseis was great. They learned the basics of how to draw characters and their expressions.
“You can say I started from zero to hero,” she said. “We learned how to ink your characters or a scene properly and how to divide the panels, how to add sound effects and other tricks.”
She said she felt lucky to get accepted, as there were only 50 out of 500 who were accepted. She said she would love the opportunity work more on her drawing and learn more from the Japanese. Asked if there are job opportunities in Saudi Arabia, she said there are lots of opportunities.
“I’m very lucky,” she said.
She has to work on getting more practice drawing. For her dream job, she wants to create her own manga and publish it. She wants to create comics, and then move on to animation for anime, and perhaps do video games one day. I asked if there will be a lot of manga jobs in Saudi Arabia.
“This is a new field,” she said. “I believe there are lots of opportunities.”
Rakan Alobaid is 18 years old and he’s in his first year at King Saud University. He applied to the program within the first hour of its posting because he has been drawing as long as he can remember.
“I don’t even remember when I started. But as part of that program, I was very interested in Minecraft production. He has tried to do formal training in art but hasn’t had any luck with that.
The internship at Manga Productions gave him training in animation for a month.
“I loved it so much,” he said of the internship program. “It was so much fun. I met amazing people and I learned a lot. I hope I can do something like that again, in the future.”
He added, “It makes me so happy. Like, I don’t have fun like this in doing anything other than drawing. I’ve never been in a place where I had classmates who draw. To be in a place with 49 people who draw was so much fun. I got to know them and make connections.”
His favorite anime is JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Hirohiko Araki.
“I love looking at manga so much,” he said.
He said he would love to try working in Japan. He likes reading manga about Saudi people living in Saudi Arabia. And he likes it when the storyline is modern, as opposed to historic.
“I love stories like this, about normal people,” he said. “I don’t think that every project about Saudis has to be about history.”
I said that it feels like this is important work for the country.
“Really?” he replied. “Nothing makes me happier than this. I don’t want to work in engineering. I want to study how to draw.”
I noted that the opportunities are so new, just a couple of years old.
He said, “Yeah. That’s why I’m trying to make the most out of them.
Almas Ahmad created a manga comic during her month as an intern.
“I challenged myself,” she said. “I usually draw illustrations. I draw manga, but I don’t show it to people. Because I’m insecure about it at this point. But in this program, I really came to appreciate how good I am. And I appreciated the advice they gave.”
She’s 20 years old and is an art major studying multimedia design and she wants to be a digital artist. She enjoys working on the last stage of animation for anime.
“That’s my dream job,” she said. “All the digital part. That’s what I want to do.”
She grew up watching anime on her smartphone or iPad or TV. Her favorite was Shoujo anime about young girls and Ojamajo Doremi. She hopes to work in London or Japan.
“I really like drawing manga,” she said.
I asked whether she could pursue a career like this five years ago.
“Yeah, it wasn’t an option. I was really lucky to have this chance,” she said.
Disclosure: Manga Productions paid my way to Riyadh.
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