Arabic Content a Key Growth Segment in the Middle East

There is a consensus among experts working in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry that the strong latent demand for Arabic content in the Middle East will create new business opportunities for digital entrepreneurs in the coming years. Overall, Arabic content (e.g., text, audio, video, images) is estimated to account for less than one percent of total content on the internet; yet, Arabic speaking people currently represent more than five percent of the world’s total population.

According to figures from Oxford Business Group, in 2010 about 75 percent of all Arabic content was hosted by three major portals: Maktoob, d1g and Jeeran. Although these major players still dominate the market, a number of Arabic-content startups have been sprouting up in countries like Jordan, where the ICT sector has grown by around 25 percent per year over the past decade. In addition, the country’s capital, Amman, was recently named one of the world’s top ten cities for internet startups, as determined by the availability of skilled human resources, the strength of ICT infrastructure, the incidence of entrepreneurship and the efficiency of the regulatory environment for businesses. Indeed, Maktoob itself was born in Jordan’s hospitable ICT business climate, though the company was acquired by Yahoo! In 2009 at a cost of 164 million dollars.

Despite positive indicators, the overall outlook for Arabic content in the Middle East is mixed because, at the regional level, the ICT sector suffers from a number of weaknesses. As noted by Ari Kesisoglu, the Managing Director of Google Middle East and North Africa in an interview with regional press, “There are three main challenges we face in the region. First, in some countries the cost of getting access to the internet is high. Second, we need more content in Arabic. And the third challenge is that e-commerce in the region has not realised its potential. SMEs need to create websites and we need more businesses in the Arab world to realise the economic impact of the internet.”

As reflected in such statements, the issues affecting Arabic content also affect the region’s entire digital ecosystem. This means that development planners must take a multi-pronged approach to promoting Arabic content growth, one that not only focuses on reducing costs and increasing the use of e-commerce, but also on areas like education, where more should be done to create new workers with strong ICT skills.

What is more, both governments and private investors in the region must ensure that creators of Arabic content have the venture capital funding they need to start new enterprises. In this respect, Jordan is once again a strong performer, particularly in light of the activities of Oasis 500 – an angel investment outfit based in Amman that supports new digital companies. Over the past few years, Oasis 500 has supported countless ICT firms in the country focused specifically on high quality content in the Arabic language.

Ultimately, if the Middle East can produce more Arabic-language content creators, it will see an increase in the use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. In turn, this will further empower the public, and present local businesses with more opportunities to target customers in the digital space. Growth in Arabic content would also have profound implications for the region’s media and advertising sector.

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While Arabic content quality is improving, says Najeeb Jarrar, the MENA Product Marketing Manager at Google, the difficulty now is that several content silos are occurring in the Arab World, by country. Watch this video about the Mobile vs. Internet vs. TV: Who Wins in the Arab World?