The Arab world has been facing a digital conundrum for the past few years – not enough users online creating content in Arabic; not enough content in Arabic to push internet penetration.
There is a lack of high-quality, well-structured websites managed by firms … [for Arabic-speaking users]
Wael Ghonim, Google Mena
Although there are more than 344 million Arabic speakers worldwide and Arabic is the seventh-most popular language on the web, less than one per cent of all online content is in Arabic and there is just a 17.5 per cent internet penetration across the region’s population.
Yet Arabic is the fastest-growing language on the internet, with Arabic-speaking internet users increasing 2,298 per cent from 2000-2009, according to the Internet World Statistics Report.
The number of internet users in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region has leapt from 3.2 million users in 2000 to 60.25 million in 2009 and it is estimated that at least another 55 million new users will come online in the next five years. If mobile internet users are included, that figure soars even further to 150 million.
As the internet goes to the masses, people want it in their native language. People want Arabic content
Ahmed Nassef, Yahoo Maktoob
According to the Arab Knowledge Report, a joint initiative of the UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum Foundation and the UN Development Programme for Arab States, a lack of content in Arabic has meant users have not felt the need for a high-speed broadband connection in their daily lives. There has been too much emphasis, it says, on hardware and not enough on creativity.
While internet and broadband growth has been strong in some Gulf countries – 74 per cent of the UAE, 55 per cent of Bahrain and 52 per cent of Qatar is online – the largest country in the region, Saudi Arabia, has an internet penetration of just 27 per cent of its 28.7 million population. Egypt, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, has the highest internet population with 16.6 million users, but even there the penetration rate is just 21 per cent.
|Arabic-speaking internet users|
|Population||Internet users||Penetration (% population)|
|Gaza/ West Bank||2,461,267||355,500||14.40%|
|(1) Figures from 31 December 2009|
|(2) Population numbers based on data from US Census Bureau, 2009 estimate|
|(3) Most recent user data comes mainly from figures published by Nielsen Online , ITU and trustworthy local agencies|
Dubai-based online business information provider AMEinfo.com has been offering Arabic content since 2003. It started out hosting company press releases in Arabic and has since expanded to offer daily news updates and analysis articles in Arabic. A quarter of its nearly 2 million monthly unique users look for Arabic content, but it is one of few online-only news sites in the region that cater for both an Arab and English audience.
The content problem is of both quantity and quality.
“There is a lack of high-quality, well-structured websites managed by companies creating digital content [for Arabic-speaking users],” says Wael Ghonim, Google’s marketing manager for the Mena region.
“We want users to have a good experience searching and we need lots of sites and pages to enable users to find what they are looking for. If you search in English for a specific mobile phone model, you will land on a specialised portal with specifications, reviews and photos. In Arabic, you will probably end up in a forum where a question is being asked about that phone. It is unlikely in Arabic searches that the first page of results would not have a forum.”
Creating Arabic content online
Google has been working on several initiatives to help increase Arabic-language content. It tied up with Wikipedia after observing the Arabic portal of the online encyclopaedia carried 120,000 pages compared with the 2 million pages of its Catalan equivalent. This is despite the disproportionate number of potential Arabic-speaking users, 344 million, compared with 6 million Catalan speakers.
About 10 million words have now been translated into Arabic from English on the site and 6 million from Arabic to English.
The search giant has also been educating small businesses to build their own websites using Google Sites – or to at least put their business directory information on Google Maps. It has built Ejabat, a user-generated question and answer system, which now has 600,000 questions and 2 million answers from 300,000 registered users.
With 20-25 per cent of Mena users in the past year being completely new to the web and a third of them under the age of 18, Google launched educational video site Ahlan to introduce users to the world of online learning. Within three months there were 1.2 million views of the Ahlan training videos.
Google is also encouraging businesses in the region to use Google Translate to reach a broader user base. One company making use of the toolkit is Dubizzle, the UAE’s largest classified website with 2.5 million visitors a month. It is building an Arabic-language site to add to its original English-language sites in Dubai and now Abu Dhabi.
The company plans to roll the classified website out to 15 cities across the Middle East by the end of the year, starting in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Users can post advertisements in either English or Arabic, then use Google Translate to ensure they get their message across in both languages.
US giant internet portal Yahoo, meanwhile, took a big leap into the Arabic content arena in 2009 when it acquired Maktoob, the region’s largest community site. Maktoob is currently the 157th-biggest site on the internet, according to web information company Alexa’s listings. This makes it the second-most popular Arabic site behind Google Saudi Arabia at number 104 and way ahead of the third Arabic site in the world rankings, sports site Koora.
Maktoob was founded in 2000 as the world’s first free Arabic/English email service, but discussion forums quickly became its biggest traffic and content driver, with the women’s forum one of the largest. Other popular areas include games, matrimonials, blogs and sports. Traffic stood at 20.9 million unique users in May 2010, compared with 15.9 million in June 2002.
Yahoo Maktoob has already rolled out Arabic versions of the Yahoo homepage, messenger and mail as well as the original Maktoob mail, but its challenge is to create a “unified experience”, says Ahmed Nassef, the firm’s vice-president and managing director.
“There is a regional need for real local content and generally users in the region prefer Arabic today,” Nassef says. “As has happened in the East and Latin America, as the internet goes to the masses, people want it in their native language. If you get beyond the metropoles – Cairo, Casablanca – people want Arabic content.”
Tailored Arabic online content
Edward Poultney, editor of AMEinfo.com agrees: “We certainly see different viewing patterns between our Arabic and English audiences. This shows that the Arabic content cannot simply be replicated from what is available on the English-language site, but has to be specifically targeted to cater to the readership.”
Nassef says there are also “regional complexities” to consider. “You cannot just have Arabic. There are dialects and special conventions, even with the date.” To this end, Yahoo Maktoob tailors each of its 22 country homepages with a localised date, prayer time and weather report.
Social networking site Facebook has also added an Arabic-language interface and gained 3.5 million Arabic-speaking users in a year, representing 23 per cent of the total 15 million Facebook users in the Mena region. Some 70 per cent of these are based in just five countries – Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s communities have seen the strongest growth in the past year, with each adding 1.1 million Arabic-language users. North African countries Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia account for 3.7 million French-speaking Facebook users, equivalent to nearly 25 per cent of all Mena users.
However, while Arabic content may have had a growth spurt in the past year, the content that has grown is still primarily user-generated and often machine translated. There is still a lack of original, localised, high-quality content.
Much of the growth between 2010 and 2014 is expected to come from mobile phone use, with this type of data usage forecast to double in the next two years. Yet, while more than 300,000 applications are already available for smartphones running the iPhone, BlackBerry or Android systems, just a handful have been developed for Arabic-speaking users.
Arabic applications development fund AppsArabia, which sits within Abu Dhabi’s twofour54 ibtikar investment vehicle, hopes to change that. It is talking to computer science departments at universities across the region to build a talent pool of Arab designers and developers and has a theoretically limitless pot of cash to invest in Arab entrepreneurs with great ideas for mobile applications. AppsArabia publishes the application and splits profits 30:70 with the entrepreneur. It forms part of Abu Dhabi’s 2030 plan to diversify and create a sustainable media business.
“We believe digital, which is so accessible, is a sustainable part of the Arab world,” says twofour54’s chief executive officer, Tony Orsten. “We want to be part of the scene and kick-start the industry. We care about businesses being successful so that the industry grows and, in five years, thousands of people work in digital because it is working.”
Online and mobile Arabic-language content has had a huge boost from across the region, as well as from the internet’s biggest players in the past year. However, the content is still nascent, mostly user-generated and inextricably tied to the growth of broadband technology.
But with mobile phone use extending the web’s reach further and faster into the region, it is likely Arabic-speaking users will hit the 100 million mark in the near future, bringing a groundswell of Arabic content with them.
Most-viewed websites in Arabic