Arab Online Content on the up Despite Low Penetration Levels

September 19th, 2012

CA3_BlogAnalyst Insight by An Hodgson, Technology,
Communications and Media Analyst at Euromonitor International

As the number of Internet users expanded by 167%
over 2006-2011 in the Middle East and North Africa region, the demand for
Arabic-language online content has risen in parallel. Click to Tweet! Although the
capability of writing right-to-left and setting up
technologies that adhere to Arabic is a challenge for the region, online businesses can stand to benefit by
targeting a large non-English speaking market, while consumers can gain access
to services they were excluded from previously by language barriers.

Internet Users and Internet
User Penetration in Selected Arab Countries: 2011


Euromonitor International from International Telecommunications
Union/OECD/national statistics/UN

  • With a population of around
    421 million people in 2011 and the vast majority speaking Arabic, the Middle
    East and North Africa region remains a market of untapped potential for online businesses. Online marketing companies, “sellsumers”, social networks and
    retailers are increasingly looking to provide Arabic content;
  • However, although major
    companies such as Google and Twitter have committed to Arabic, the Arabic-content segment remains underdeveloped, held
    back by low regional Internet penetration levels,
    few Arabic online creative start-ups
    and a lack of IT talent. The largest Arabic Internet user nation, Egypt, had
    23.2 million Internet users in 2011, yet an Internet user penetration rate of only 22.4% of the


Arabic content
has not been able to keep up with
technological progress, although emerging markets and interest among a
tech-savvy Arabic youth are driving businesses to invest in the segment:

  • A large Arabic youth populace,
    especially in North Africa, presents strong opportunities for the online sector, which is typically driven by
    younger users. The increasing proliferation of smartphones means low-income persons, such as students or the
    unemployed youth, need no longer have a PC to access the web. The development
    of Arabic content apps is an
    underserved market with strong growth potential;
  • However, the development of
    Arabic content remains expensive and
    time-consuming, as the language is much harder to programme and input than
    English. Consequently, only major companies are able to finance the switchover,
    led by the likes of Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Twitter, which have all launched
    Arabic versions over 2010-2012;
  • Despite major technological leaps and
    huge capital investment in telecoms, especially in the Middle East, there is
    not enough Arabic content available to
    take advantage of new broadband networks, with consumers not feeling the need
    for a high-speed broadband connection. This restricts consumer take-up and the return on infrastructure
    investment. The Middle East and North Africa region saw capital investment of
    US$36.7 billion in telecoms in 2011;

Internet Users and Capital
Investment in Telecoms in the Middle East and North Africa Region: 2006-2011


Euromonitor International from International Telecommunications
Union/OECD/national statistics

  • The Arab Spring movement, which took place over 2010-2012, has been
    pivotal in driving more Arabic users to social media, news networks and digital
    platforms. However, the dominance of English on the web has meant that it is
    mainly the educated, urban, middle and upper classes that have come online, limiting users from the large rural
    and lower-income markets. Increasing Arabic content
    online can thus help penetrate the
    Middle East and North Africa`s 116 million rural population, as of 2011;
  • A lack of entrepreneurial
    talent, low levels of IT literacy and technological expertise in Arab countries, and the vicious cycle of not
    enough users online developing Arabic content and not enough content in Arabic to push Internet penetration rates are major factors impeding
    expansion in the Arabic online segment.
    Nonetheless, economic growth, increasing incomes and educational levels in the Middle East and North Africa
    region will likely see Arabic a growing competitor to English in the online domain.


  • The Middle East and North
    Africa region is forecast to see a 54.7% increase in Internet users over
    2012-2020, in part as a consequence of the increasing availability in Arabic content. Click to Tweet! Growing demand for mobile
    Arabic-language platforms, especially for banking and retail services, will
    drive the regional m-commerce sector, providing opportunities for businesses in
    the online domain;
  • Arabic-based content will be driven by Middle Eastern
    telcos going forward, as companies such as UAE-based Etisalat and du, and
    Kuwait-based Zain increasingly rollout more Arabic mobile apps and value-added
    services aimed at retaining subscribers in competitive markets. The UAE saw the
    largest total telecom revenues in the Arab
    world in 2011, at US$16.4 billion;
  • While Arabic content will continue to face barriers such
    as the popularisation of English-language sites, low
    IT literacy and increasing but low
    Internet user levels, local governments
    will likely be key in making Arabic available on the web. eGovernment portals
    have been launched by most Arab
    countries as of mid-2012, attracting citizens through Arabic content and convenience. 
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Lydia Gordon