Reaching out to Arab users

03 October 2011

The Middle East is seeing a rapid growth in Arab users online. More Arabic content needs to be generated to keep up with the demand

The Middle East & North Africa (Mena) region is experiencing the fastest-growth in internet usage in the world. Arab users now make up 5 per cent of the internet population and for most of these English is not their first language.

The lack of high quality Arabic content on the internet has long been recognised. The percentage of Arabic content online is disputed, with figures ranging from less than 1 per cent to 3 per cent.

Whatever the percentage, it is still low and various groups across the region are working towards increasing this amount.

Following this year’s Arab uprisings, interest in new technologies is rising in the region. The Egyptian revolution was a boost for technology and social media, and highlighted the power of the online world in helping to get a message across and even influencing political change.

Social media in the Middle East

“The region demonstrated the power of social media through different devices and through the Arabic language. The people are connected to social media and Arabic is very important,” says Jack Lee, corporate vice-president of Middle East & Africa at China-based PC manufacturer Lenovo.

The region demonstrated the power of social media through different devices

Jack Lee, Lenovo

It is not just online content that needs to be addressed. To enable Arab speakers with no grasp of English to use the internet and enter the digital world, they require a complete Arabic-based package, from keyboards to software compatible with the Arabic script.

Progress has been made over the years, which is slowly helping to bridge the digital divide, but more investment is required to create local content.

The leaders in this field are Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, centres traditionally associated with creativity and the arts.

“Content development is happening very fast. There are many projects in many countries to ensure that language is not an obstacle in the face of anyone who wants to create Arabic content,” says Takreem el-Tohamy, general manager, Middle East & Africa for US technology firm IBM.

Companies such as IBM provide the technology to support the development of Arabic content online. IBM has been in the region since the 1930s, opening its first office in Algeria. Since then, it has established offices in Egypt and Kuwait, where much of its national language support takes place.

The future is the internet and innovation. We will focus more on furthering … niches and games development

Abdelmajeed Shamlawi, Intaj

These two centres were key in helping to standardise Arabic in computers. In 1984, the Arabic Software Support Group was established in Cairo. The team helped develop the technology for the auto-shaping of letters in Arabising operating systems. In 1985, the firm developed the first Arabic search engine, which is still used today.

“The idea of the PC or desktop came in the 1980s with the thought that computers were for everyone and everyone would own a PC, so we needed to Arabise and standardise everything,” says El-Tohamy.

In the early days, national language support entailed a keyboard in Arabic. To make use of the Arabic language on a computer, each application would need to be written specifically to support the language, which was not sustainable. Now, IBM and other computing giants are working on real-time national language support to enable immediate translation in all applications.

Globalisation drive

“Prototypes are already available. Things are happening very fast, this is globalisation and it will benefit the Middle East,” says El-Tohamy.

Translation software is moving away from standard dictionary definitions towards more industry-orientated vocabulary aimed at health or energy to ensure language is no longer an obstacle in today’s world.

“The world is competitive. Such tools enable access to new technologies, research, services and industry applications in other countries. It will expose what is happening in the region to other countries,” says El-Tohamy.

Frequency of key online activities 
(Middle East and North Africa)Times a week
Online banking/bill payment2.02
Music and video downloads4.12
Listening to music online5.6
Accessing/uploading video clips on video-sharing sites3.49
Completing online transactions2.77
Rating and/or reviewing products or services online2.82
Setting up a website2.94
Reading or writing blogs4
Watching TV programmes/videos5.23
Downloading applications, software and updates3.84
Visiting or accessing social networking sites6.52
Playing games online5.1
Sending and receiving emails7.06
Researching an item prior to purchase2.72
Visiting internet portals7.31
Using instant messaging/chatting6.05
Using a search engine6.83
Accessing and uploading digital photos on photo sharing sites3.8
Clicking on online advertising2.68
Source: Insight Mena

There is a push among regional governments to boost their presence online, which is also generating more Arabic content. Services such as e-government and banking applications facilitate daily life and help to develop the digital ecosystem and in places, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Algeria, Arabic is a necessity.

“We have made big improvements, but we still have a long way to go. The user needs to be comfortable with technology and organisations need to change their processes,” says El-Tohamy.

Despite the progress, there are still barriers holding back the sector’s development. Skill shortages and budgets are not always up to standard and for many governments in the region information and communications technology (ICT) is not always top of the agenda. For others, however, an ICT strategy is seen as paramount to economic growth.

Information and communications technology industry

The Jordanian government and the previous Egyptian administration in particular have invested heavily in their education systems and have established bodies to encourage the development of the ICT sector. This has enabled them to become leading outsourcing destinations in the region, along with Morocco.

In 2004, Egypt invested $2.5m to digitise the country’s artifacts and archives and is now looking to become the first country to implement e-voting. The government has collated all 50 million eligible voters online.

“We are planning to have e-voting in universities first and in certain areas to help build knowledge about the process and build up trust,” says Yasser ElKady, chief executive officer of the Information Technology Industry Development Agency in Egypt. 

In Jordan, the ICT sector contributes 14 per cent of gross domestic product and sustains more than 80,000 jobs. The country has an information technology association called Intaj. It was set up initially by 50 companies in the private sector in 2000 as a support body for the ICT sector. It aimed to establish Jordan as a regional ICT hub. It has evolved to represent the entire sector and has become a driver of the Jordan’s ICT strategy. It now represents 90 per cent of the ICT industry with 220 firms.

Intaj covers five key areas: advocacy; research and trade missions; promotion and marketing; training and capacity building; and certification.

“Government spending has been one of the key drivers over the years, in terms of advancing the industry into new areas, especially in education and most recently in health and government online services,” says Abdelmajeed Shamlawi, chief executive officer of Intaj.

This internal spending has declined over the past few years because of Jordan’s budget deficit, which has pushed the ICT industry to focus more on external exports. The country exports information technology (IT), including content, software, professional services and intellectual property to 49 countries. About 70 per cent of these exports go to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the US. For example, Jordanian companies handle the ticketing systems for regional carriers Fly Dubai and Saudi Airlines.

Jordan has emerged as an leader in online content generation. About 70 per cent of all Arabic content comes from Jordan, most of which is managed by internet services companies Maktoob, Diwan and Jeeran, all based in Jordan.

“The future is the internet and innovation. We will focus on furthering more niches and games development. More than 50 per cent of games [made] in the region are Jordanian,” says Shamlawi. 

Jordan is home to many of the entrepreneurs in the region, according to Shamlawi and investment has been flowing into the country, particularly from Saudi Arabia. Foreign direct investment has been increasing in Jordan since the acquisition of Maktoob by US internet corporation Yahoo in 2009.

Today, there are about 15 angel investors (informal investors who provide start up capital for entrepreneurs) and venture capital firms in Jordan. Other initiatives across the region also encourage entrepreneurs to develop ideas and content, but there appears to be a disparity between where there is money and where there is talent.

Oasis500 a Jordanian-based venture capital fund, which was launched in 2010, plans to invest $30m in 500 companies across the Mena region by 2014. As well as funding, the company provides mentoring and training for entrepreneurs in corporate finance, accounting and marketing.

Abu Dhabi’s Twofour54 hopes to become the content development capital of the region. It has production facilities to house talent and generate content. The body has a venture fund and angel fund called Ibtikar to help startups. In August, it invested $2.5m in two local online games companies, Tahadi Games and Jawaker. 

Mobiles integral to Middle East

As mobile penetration far exceeds PC penetration the Middle East, entrepreneurs and content developers are best-placed to develop content directly for the mobile platform.

“Organisations and developers should start thinking about providing their services on the mobile platform. It would be the right thing to do rather than wait until PC penetration reaches maturity,” says El-Tohamy.

According to US internet search provider Google, there are more than 100 million daily search queries across the Mena region, 54-per cent of which are conducted in Arabic. About 13 per cent of Google’s searches in the region come through on mobile devices, representing a 200 per cent growth since the previous year.

Whether the region’s ICT sector develops through use of mobile or traditional PCs, it requires more content and data for consumption to better serve the needs of 5 per cent of the world’s internet population.

“We need to work more in education and awareness, to enable people to be comfortable to carry out their bank transactions from home, to shop and buy their tickets online. This has to happen,” says El-Tohamy.

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