Last year was another momentous one for the internet in the Middle East. While 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 past year.

Both Facebook and LinkedIn opened their first offices in the region - 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 & 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 has grown by 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 10 million 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.

Much 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 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 among ‘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 recently referred to e-commerce in the Middle East as a "virtual gold rush", with sites like Namshi - an online shoes and clothing retailer which recently secured $20 million financing from JP Morgan Chase and Blakeney Management. For them, and others, 2013 promises to be a busy year. 

Elements of this story were reported a round-up of social media developments in the Middle East during 2012. (English version, Arabic version)

 

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Amr Aboelinin

    on 18 Oct 2013 21:13

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    on 18 Oct 2013 21:10

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by Bil Johnson

    on 12 Feb 2013 05:47

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Damian Radcliffe

    on 10 Feb 2013 09:55

    Many thanks Justin. I think this is a very good point about citizen journalism, and I'm actually pulling together some research on this at present. Watch this space! eCommerce is, as you rightly say, another matter. Certainly my experience in Qatar suggests that whilst this is increasing, it is doing so very slowly. Part of this is logistical - the postal service is very different - but it is also cultural. Yes, there are fears of credit card details being stolen etc. but above all people continue to want to buy from people they know and with whom they have often had a business relationship for many years. Whilst this can be frustrating for me as a user, I do like the sentiment. Thanks for the link to the other article BTW, much appreciated.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Justin Staples

    on 3 Feb 2013 21:18

    Damian, having seen some of the social media growth stats in your article and on others like http://newsgame.co.uk/82/media-evolution-middle-east/ I think the potential for citizen journalism in the Middle East is immense. It's hard to believe that the more traditional newspapers are not trying to leverage the social media angle more over there. I reckon it's an opportunity for BBC to take a lead in the region.

    In terms of consumer behaviour, I think the Middle East will exhibit the same challenges encountered by the likes of India. Getting people to interact online through Facebook and Twitter is a different matter altogether from getting them to make online purchases! I'm definitely not as optimistic about e-commerce being as big as quickly as the analysts predict anyway.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Arabic Transcription

    on 30 Jan 2013 07:25

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