(The) Rise and rise of Arabic on Facebook in Middle East

This is a cross-post of a recent article1 for the BBC College of Journalism website on some key digital developments in the Middle East during 2012. Of these, the rise of Arabic usage on Facebook is probably the most noteworthy. 

Rise and rise of Arabic on Facebook in Middle East

Tuesday 8 January 2013, 16:22

Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe is internet and society manager for ictQATAR, a Qatar regulator. He previously worked for the BBC, Ofcom and the charity CSV. Twitter: @mrdamian76

Last year was another momentous one for the internet in the Middle East. Whilst not as high profile as the previous year, 2012 saw take up of ICT reaching record levels. It also showed that social networks still had room for growth, with both Twitter and Facebook expanding and evolving in the region over the last year.Both Facebook and LinkedIn opened their first offices in the region – a recognition of the growing importance of their MENA (Middle East and North Africa) membership base. Here are a few examples which show some of the key regional trends from the past year.

Take up

A report into ‘Arab ICT Use and Social Network Adoption’ by the Madar Research and Development Center in Dubai, contains a treasure trove of data on this front, including the revelation that mobile phone subscriptions in the Arab world nearly matched the region’s population ­– 346 million at the end of 2011. In countries such as the UAE and others bordering the Gulf, penetration rates exceed 125%, with Saudi Arabia enjoying a mobile penetration rate of 189.24%.

Anecdotally, I can report that in Qatar it is not uncommon to see drivers working multiple phones at the same time as negotiating rush hour traffic or a three lane roundabout. As someone who is still a relative newcomer to the region, I confess this is not a trick I have managed to master (or indeed attempt). Yet.

Over the summer it was reported that one hour of video per minute is uploaded to YouTube in the MENA, with users consuming 167 million video views a day. This is second only to the US. How many of those were PSY – Gangnam Style, is hard to say, but given the popularity of the song on the radio – and indeed with young dancers at various public events – my guess is probably quite a few.

Either way, bandwidth consumption in the region is growing at an average of 40% over the past year, leading Cisco to predict that the MENA will be the fastest growing region for Internet traffic across the globe in the coming years.

Social Networks

Social Bakers reported that Facebook had grown by 29% in the region during 2012, adding over 10M new registered users, a quarter of whom were in Egypt alone. Membership is growing fastest in Qatar, Libya and Iraq, with more than 115%, 86% and 81% new users respectively.

Growth of Arabic FacebookMuch of this growth is driven by usage of Facebook’s Arabic interface, which is growing at almost double the site’s overall growth in the region. As a result, Arabic is now the most popular language on Facebook in the Middle East, whereas two years ago English had a 50% market share. It is a remarkable transformation, to the extent that there are now more Facebook Arabic users in the MENA today than there were total Facebook users in the region two years ago.

Twitter is also growing fast with 17 million tweets every day in Arabic. That is 1 billion tweets every two months. Much of this, about 40%, comes from Saudi Arabia but the volume of Arabic tweets is increasing across the region. The Dubai School of Government is reporting that the percentage of Arabic tweets in the region had increased from 42% of activity in September 2011 to 62% in March 2012.

In the same month, the main Twitter site was made available in right-to-left languages for the first time, a service recently introduced to its mobile site too.

Looking ahead

I would expect that we will see these trends continue in 2013, but one area to potentially watch is e-commerce. Ofcom may have recently reported that UK consumers are a nation of online shoppers, but the picture in the Middle East is much more mixed. Even amongst ‘Digital Natives’ many still prefer to buy in person, even if they’re increasingly researching products and services online.

But in a region where many nationals love to shop, that may start to change. Arabian Business recentlyreferred to E-commerce in the Middle East as a ‘Virtual gold rush’ with sites like Namshi – an online shoes and clothing retailer recently securing $20m financing from JP Morgan Chase and Blakeney Management.  For them, and others, 2013 promises to be a busy year.

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